Fans had gathered in their thousands, the excitement was palpable in every stadium, and footballers from four continents entertained and impressed to suggest France 2019 will be the most competitive Women’s World Cup yet.
England walked away with the SheBelieves Cup, taking the crown from hosts and reigning world champions the United States, signaling that the gap between the US and the rest has closed.
During the annual invitational tournament, held in Nashville, Chester and Tampa, each player gathered intelligence on their opponents, managers paced the sidelines while experimenting with starters and substitutes in search of the perfect line-ups for June, but no team stood out above the rest.
US team co-captain Carli Lloyd said: “The game’s become more sophisticated.
“Teams have become smarter and more savvy on the ball and they’re getting better and closing the gap on us. As we continue to raise the bar, other teams are raising the bar as well.”
The US, the world’s top-ranked side which went through 2018 unbeaten, was unable to defend its title after draws against both England and Japan – both matches ended 2-2 – and a 1-0 win over Brazil.
Throughout the tournament, the US, England – ranked fourth in the world – Japan (No. 8) and Brazil (No. 10) were evenly matched. Japan and Brazil finished third and fourth respectively, but fought to the end.
“It’s not just here, it’s around the world how big it’s gotten,” US manager Jill Ellis said of women’s football. “For me, it’s the [biggest] women’s sport now in the world. I’m a firm believer in iron sharpens iron, so it’s a good thing.”
Should the US be worried?
Ellis said the tournament was especially important this year because of the World Cup. “I think all the experiences we take in now are massive in terms of having to be ready,” she said.
US forward Megan Rapinoe, who scored against England and Japan, said: “This gives us a great opportunity to play really great teams that we’re going to see at the World Cup.
“For us, and some of the players on the team who haven’t been to the World Cup, these games are a huge learning experience.”
Despite placing second in the tournament, US forward Tobin Heath said the last week had been a great step forward for the team.
“We’re never satisfied with the kind of results that we had, especially not being on the podium at the end of the day,” she said. “But I think we also know that our goal ultimately is to be on the World Cup podium so, for us, to take a hit now is okay.”
Power in numbers
The average attendance for this year’s six SheBelieves matches was nearly 13,000.
The best-attended match over the last week was the US versus England, with 22,125 fans gathering in Nashville’s Nissan Stadium – a significant number for a women’s friendly tournament in the US.
Asked if a tournament like SheBelieves would be successful in England, manager Phil Neville told CNN Sport: “We’re getting to the stage now where women’s football is taking off. Our crowds are getting bigger, we’ve got sponsors now.”
Neville said he told his squad before its second match against the US: “If you do not like playing in that kind of environment, in that kind of pressure, in that kind of crowd, then please fly home tomorrow.”
Aside from the European Championships, which takes place every four years, Neville said SheBelieves was the best competition and, if possible, would want his team to compete in it over the next two to three years.
English defender Rachel Daly has participated in this tournament for four straight years and said the crowds are a necessary experience for Neville’s squad.
“It’s so hard coming to a US home field, where having that kind of atmosphere against you is difficult, and that’s what it’s going to be like in the World Cup, so I think the best way to replicate it is in the US,” Daly told CNN Sport.
Learning at home and abroad
Even in the US, where the women’s national team has a stronger football imprint than the men’s team, it’s difficult to find resources to match the interest.
While the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) is arguably the most competitive women’s league in the world, with more top players than any other, financial barriers and lack of sponsorships threaten the longevity of the league every year.
Of the players which featured in the SheBelieves Cup, 29 play in the NWSL with six of those coming from overseas.
Jodie Taylor plays forward for England and in the NWSL for Reign FC in Washington.
When asked about the differences between the two countries, she said: “Style wise it’s very different. The one thing I love about the US league is it’s so competitive and intense and every game is tough, and I think, for me, it’s like that mindset every single day at training and even game you show up to is hard.”
The past few years have seen players on the current US squad spending short periods abroad more than ever before.
US defender Crystal Dunn played for Chelsea Women for one season in England’s Women’s Super League.
“My year playing there I realized I wasn’t the most athletic or fittest one on the team,” she said.
“It was a collective group of players who were really pushing the standards of the physical attributes that they have.”
When it comes to inspiring women and girls, the USWNT has raised the bar both on and off the field.
The legacy of the US’$2 1999 World Cup victory is present in the locker room today and SheBelieves, created by the USWNT players, maintains that message of female empowerment by trying to inspire young girls and women to fight outdated gender norms and strive to accomplish their dreams.
In honor of their heroes, the US wore the names of the women who had inspired them on the back of their jerseys against England Saturday.
As well as being a tournament which provides strong international competition, SheBelieves is active off the pitch in each host city, holding a “hero contest” for those aged between 13 and 17 who embody their definition of what SheBelieves encourages and stands for, while on Friday a summit will be held in New York.
Samantha Mewis, one of the newer and younger members of the squad, told CNN Sport: “I just remember growing up watching this team play and always loving Mia Hamm.
“She was so important for me and my sister both in just having a positive role model to look up to and to show us that playing pro soccer and following your dreams was really something attainable and something that we might be able to do someday.”
Fighting for equality
Being a member of one of the world’s most successful women’s teams comes with responsibility and the US’ footballers use their platform to push for global change.
“We’re very much fighting for gender equity and pay equality,” Becky Sauerbrunn, the US co-captain, told CNN Sport.
“You see that other federations are also asking for what they feel they deserve – Australia, Denmark, and you see these other women’s teams fighting their federations.
“I think the SheBelieves initiative is to empower women, not just women in America – it’s women all over the world.”