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The USWNT is on top of the world again, but the gap is closing

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LYON, France -- It was less than a decade ago that some members of the French women's national team posed nude for a German publication, in what was essentially a protest on the eve of a Women's World Cup. What would it take, the captions asked, to get fans back home to watch them play a sport that is otherwise a national obsession?

When France and the United States played an epic World Cup quarterfinal in front of more than 45,000 in Paris, 51 percent of the televisions in use in the host country were tuned to the game.

In England, where the sport's domestic governing body outlawed the women's game until 1971, that team's semifinal against the U.S. was the country's most-watched sporting event since the men played in a World Cup semifinal a year ago.

After the Netherlands beat Sweden in the other semifinal, De Telegraaf, the nation's largest newspaper, turned its entire front page over to the team reaching its first World Cup final -- just as the paper did two years ago when the Dutch women won their first European championship.

Welcome to the new normal.

The United States is again on top of the world. The team everyone wanted to beat -- and the team many invented reasons to hate -- extended its own record with a fourth World Cup title and won back-to-back World Cups for the first time. On European soil, five of the best European teams the continent had to offer couldn't stop it. Sunday made clear that the U.S. owned 2019.

Yet the reality for 2023 and beyond was already clear: Europe no longer follows our lead. And even as the U.S. won this title Sunday with a 2-0 victory against the Netherlands, it watched a monthlong preview of a more complicated future.

Or as U.S. coach Jill Ellis said before a game against Spain in the round of 16, it was only "a matter of time" until this sleeping giant of a continent awoke to the women's game.

With that in mind, picture where we are after Sunday's win as a location on Google Maps. Zoom in and zoom out to study it from three different perspectives.

The street view is 90 minutes of soccer. From that vantage point, the U.S. beat the Netherlands because it was too deep and relentless as the game wore on in the second half.

Pull back the focus slightly more to a neighborhood view and Sunday is the final part of a World Cup cycle that encompasses at least the three years since the last Olympics and arguably all four years since winning the World Cup in 2015. Ellis will always have her detractors, but they will have to work to turn this into something other than vindication. She won with a team she didn't have much say in shaping in 2015. She won with a team of her own making in 2019.

But zooming out to the final and widest perspective, the global view, reveals what ought to keep Ellis and everyone else associated with American soccer awake at night.

The U.S. has the deepest and most talented roster in the world. Its confidence and belief, collectively and individually, is unmatched. Its fitness is unmatched. It is the best in the world at the moment. But only at the moment because so many European teams -- France, England and the Netherlands, certainly, but also Italy and Spain -- have come such a long way in such a short time.

"You now have, let's say the right of women to play -- you know, it wasn't there 20 years ago," Ellis said of the evolving European dynamic before the U.S. played its first knockout game. "Now you have that. To me, it's a natural progression in terms of the development in these countries. Because they eat, sleep and breathe soccer."

Imagine what will happen if Europe maintains its rate of progression. The risk for the 2023 World Cup, or even next year's Olympics, is that staying on top is partially out of American hands.

"It's no secret we have to get better on the ball," Rapinoe said of the coming European wave after a win against France in which the U.S. had barely 40 percent of possession. "Playing better with it, better offensively, better in our possession and our passing. They were clearly much better than us in that tonight. So the level is just growing, it seems like every game.

"We have, absolutely, our work cut out for us."

This wasn't a monthlong phenomenon. The U.S. finished on the podium in just one of four Under-20 World Cups so far this decade. It didn't finish among the top three in any of four Under-17 World Cups. Along with Japan, European teams from France, Germany and Spain dominated those events, with England and Italy in the top three as often as the Americans.

For U.S. defender Ali Krieger, the lightbulb moment came while playing professionally in Germany more than a decade ago. Not far removed from playing college soccer at Penn State, she looked up during a Champions League knockout-round game and saw a 16-year-old teammate enter as a substitute. That's a far cry from a high school game.

"That's the different mentality," Krieger said recently. "They're thrown into their professional system so early, and that's why they develop these really good players at a young age. It's just a different model. Obviously, I encourage everyone to go to [college] and have that experience. But if you want to be a top player in our country, you have to understand the basic principles of the game. And you have to understand them at a young age and really grow with the game because the game constantly changes."

At the time she was in Europe, it was more difficult to find that kind of professional setting outside of Germany and Sweden. That's no longer the case. The winner of the Champions League in each of the past four seasons, Lyon leads the way. But viable leagues exist in England, France and Spain, countries not so long ago resistant to the women's game. Manchester United added a women's team last season. Real Madrid will field one beginning in 2020.

Even FIFA refereeing czar Pierluigi Collina noted recently that after so many years of cultural neglect, his native Italy set television records as its national team advanced to the quarterfinals. The same Italy where Juventus just won its second domestic title in its second year as a team.

France had been the flag-bearer for this new wave of European success, which only added to the pain of its quarterfinal loss. After reaching a World Cup semifinal for a second consecutive time, England is in the midst of turning domestic investment into international glory. The Dutch never made a World Cup before 2015. They came within a game of a world title.

But almost as telling of the U.S. predicament was the first knockout game, when a Spanish team that qualified for its first World Cup in 2015 went toe to toe with the Americans.

Now a member of Reign FC in the NWSL who played collegiately at the University of Alabama for two seasons, Celia Jimenez Delgado was part of that Spanish team and grew up in the same world Krieger described. She wasn't a paid professional, but she played for Sevilla in Spain's top division at 16. She lived hours from her family, her roommate a goalkeeper in her 30s, all while coming through a youth national system for which those youth titles are a byproduct of preparing players for the senior level, rather than a goal unto themselves.

"Spain has a really specific soccer philosophy, or style of play, and I think that game has been developing for the past 10 years," Jimenez Delgado said. "The investment from the federation and the institutions that support the sport, they're providing more money and more resources.

"At the end of the day, if you as an athlete take care of every variable you can control, but you're not provided with a platform or the materials or the coaching staff to keep growing as an athlete, it's harder to improve."

None of which is to say that the European game is without its own issues of sustainability and support, despite the influx of brand names behind teams. But no matter what happened Sunday in Lyon and no matter who coached the team or how that person constructed it over the past three years, that is the world the U.S. now inhabits. Social progress on this order rarely regresses. Girls who grow up in Madrid, Manchester and Milan will continue to play the game.

That happened in the blink of an eye.

Netherlands defender Merel van Dongen, 26, was the only player on the field Sunday who went to an SEC school. She was 19 years old when she left home to play on scholarship for the University of Alabama. As a teenage player at home, she recalled working multiple shifts at a restaurant during the day, then training for two hours after work.

"Then I went to Alabama, where they had a budget for women's football that was insane," van Dongen said before the final. "The only thing I had to do was train and play, and they did everything for me. OK, I had to make good grades in school. But that was the difference, it was so professional. They [taught] me how to take care of my body. I thought I knew what training hard was until I went to the University of Alabama.

"One of the reasons I'm here is what I learned in the United States."

Empires rarely vanish overnight. Rome produced emperors and influenced the world long after it was sacked by the Goths. And the U.S. still has massive advantages in women's soccer.

Even amid decreasing youth participation in the U.S., no European rival will ever be able to match the overall talent pool in a nation of more than 300 million people. And as Jimenez Delgado was quick to point out from her time at Alabama, Title IX creates a legally mandated equality of opportunity that isn't the case in much of Europe. She came to the U.S. precisely because it is possible to mix playing soccer and studying aerospace engineering in college.

But there are options now. The year after van Dongen left Alabama, the Netherlands qualified for its first World Cup. Two years after that, it won the Euros at home. Everything changed.

"If you're 18, 19, you don't have to work seven hours a day to make your money," van Dongen said. "Absolutely not. You get a contract and you work and you train and you become a professional. It even starts from younger ages -- Ajax, for example, they have a youth academy. A lot of the teams have youth academies now, something that I always wanted but couldn't do.

"That's also something I take from the United States, is that they have such a history and they have been building young players. And we're doing that now as the Netherlands."

So yes, the demise of U.S. women's soccer would be greatly exaggerated. Like Brazil in men's soccer, the U.S. will continue to produce so much talent that choosing a national team roster remains a riveting storyline second in popularity only to second-guessing coaches. The U.S. will remain among the favorites in every tournament. Also like Brazil, it won't win most of them -- which the U.S. did in winning eight of the 14 major titles available to it between 1991 and 2019.

But when it comes to identifying, developing and training the very best players among us, it also wouldn't hurt to follow someone else's lead for a change. Despite a four-month college season and a pay-to-play/win-at-all costs youth culture, the U.S. has succeeded in spite of these things in the past.

It succeeded in spite of those things in 2019. It won't forever. It won't, at least to the extent it has, for much longer.

"It was a matter of time," Jimenez Delgado said in regard to Spanish success at the youth level translating to senior success. "For the results to start showing."

This U.S. team is the best in the world. The past month showed that time was up on the American game leading the way.