Suspense builds for 2019 SheBelieves Cup in advance of Women’s World Cup

With the Women’s World Cup in France fast approaching, the US Women’s National Team is ramping up their preparations.

The slate of warm-up friendlies is as challenging as it has ever been. Since securing qualification in October, the US has played four games, all of which were on the road against European opposition: a pair of 1-0 wins against Portugal and Scotland in November followed by a 3-1 loss to France and a 1-0 win over Spain in January. The rest of the friendlies are all at home and the lineup is a solid one: April games in Denver and Los Angeles against Australia and Belgium followed by a send-off series in May against South Africa, New Zealand, and Mexico in Santa Clara, St. Louis and New York. But before the friendlies get under way, the annual SheBelieves Cup will be played. And like the three previous editions of the tournament, it figures to provide a stern test for the USWNT.

The first edition of the SheBelieves Cup was in 2016, and it featured four teams that were all among the top 10 in the FIFA rankings. The four teams to participate were US, Germany, France, and England while the venues for the tournament were Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Nissan Stadium in Nashville, and FAU Stadium in Boca Raton. The name of the tournament came from a hashtag that popped up during the Women’s World Cup in 2015 (#SheBelieves), and the tournament was played in the March window that usually saw the top teams in the world compete in the annual Algarve Cup in Portugal. It was all put together very quickly and on short notice so it felt a little forced (almost like a set of glorified friendlies).

Attendance for the US games was Jekyll & Hyde: 13,027 against England in Tampa, 25,363 against France in Nashville (the largest crowd of the year for the US), and 13,501 against Germany in Boca Raton. Figures for the three games that did not involve the US are not available, though it’s a safe bet that they all drew far fewer people than the games that featured the US. TV coverage was practically non-existent as the games that did not feature the US were not shown live in the U.S., and only one of the three US games was shown live (the game against England drew 293,000 viewers on FS1). On the field, the US was the class of the group with a 1-0 win over England, a 1-0 win over France, and a 2-1 win over Germany. France, meanwhile, was the worst of the bunch, losing two games and drawing one and failing to score a single goal. Alex Morgan led all scorers with two goals while six other players scored at least one goal (including Crystal Dunn and Samantha Mewis for the US).

In 2017, the SheBelieves Cup again featured the US, Germany, France, and England. But from an organizational standpoint, it felt better run and thought out. Ticket sales were much better. TV coverage was improved. And all three venues were very close together thus cutting down on the enormous amount of travel from 2016 (which US coach Jill Ellis said was to help prepare the team for the travel in Brazil at the Olympics that summer). In 2017, the venues were Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, PA, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, and RFK Stadium in Washington DC. Attendance for the US games was much more consistent (16,318 against Germany, 26,500 against England, and 21,638 against France) while the attendances for the games that did not feature the US were available (8,616 for England/France, 10,000 for France/Germany, and 10,000 for England/Germany). TV coverage was greatly improved, though none of the games that did not feature the US were shown live in the U.S.. But all three US games were shown live, including one game broadcast on over-the-air FOX: USA/France drew 310,000 viewers on FS1, USA/England drew 728,000 viewers on FOX, and USA/Germany drew 279,000 on FS1.

In a surprising reversal from 2016, the US was the worst team at the tournament while France was the winner. The US got off to a decent start with a 1-0 win over Germany but they followed that up with a grim 1-0 loss to England and then a 3-0 shellacking at the hands of France. Camille Abily of France led all scorers with two goals, ahead of seven players with one goal, including Lynn Williams for the US.

The year 2018 was the first edition of the tournament to be played at all soccer-specific stadiums: Mapfre Stadium in Columbus, OH, Red Bull Arena in Harrison, NJ, and Orlando City Stadium in Florida. The cast of characters was once again the US, Germany, England, and France and once again all four teams were all ranked in the top 10 in the FIFA rankings. Attendance for this edition of the tournament was not as good as 2017 but still better than 2016. The US games drew 14,591 against Germany in Columbus, 25,706 against France in Harrison, and 12,351 in Orlando against England. The non-US games did okay as well: 7,566 for England/France, 7,882 for Germany/England, and 6,525 for France/Germany. Like the attendance, TV coverage was not as good as 2017 but better than 2016. As was the case the previous two years, none of the games that did not feature the US were shown on U.S. TV but all three US games were aired on the ESPN family of networks: USA/Germany drew 354,000 viewers on ESPN2 and USA/France drew 397,000 viewers on ESPN2, but while the game against England was aired on ESPNEWS, the viewership number is unavailable as the station is not tracked by Nielsen.

On the field, the US won the tournament for the second time though not in as quite a dominant fashion as their first title. They won their first game 1-0 against Germany and then drew their second game 1-1 against France, setting up a winner-take-all showdown with England on the final day. The US prevailed 1-0 on an own-goal by Karen Bardsley (which was shockingly the second own-goal England scored that tournament, the other by Millie Bright against Germany). Two players led the way in goals scored, both with a tally of two: Ellen White of England and Eugenie Le Sommer of France. Ten other players scored one goal including Mallory Pugh and Megan Rapinoe for the US.

SEE MORE: Schedule of women’s soccer games on US TV and streaming

The 2019 edition of the tournament is doubly exciting this year. First, it’s a Women’s World Cup year and every game feels much bigger and more important with an eye on what might happen in France in June. Second, there is finally some new blood in this edition of the SheBelieves Cup. The US is still in, of course, and England is as well but Germany and France are not and in their place are Japan and Brazil (though there is still plenty of familiarity with the two newcomers as they have been participants in the annual Tournament of Nations here in the US in 2017 and 2018). As has been the case with every other edition of the tournament, all four teams are among the top 10 in the world. On a slightly disappointing note, none of the three venues are new to the tournament with games set to be played at Talen Energy Stadium, Nissan Stadium, and Raymond James Stadium, the first time in the short history of the SheBelieves Cup that all venues are repeats. TV coverage is about what it was last year, as none of the three non-US games are on U.S. TV (though they will be streamed on US Soccer’s website) but all three US games will be on the networks of FOX Sports: USA/Japan is on FS1, USA/England is on FOX, and USA/Brazil is on FS1.

Ticket sales are surprisingly low, however. Per Steven Goff of the Washington Post, only 12,000 tickets have been sold for Philly, 16,000 for Nashville, and 8,000 in Tampa. Given that this is a very big year for the USWNT, those are disappointing numbers. Obviously there is still time for those numbers to go up, and the game in Nashville being on a Saturday should help draw a decent walk-up crowd, but as of now those numbers are on track to be some of the lowest in the history of this tournament.

There has been some debate about the validity of the SheBelieves Cup, and to a lesser extent, the Tournament of Nations. The cynics claim that it’s nothing more than a cash grab by US Soccer. The reasoning is that they can charge much more if there’s a tournament than if it’s just a pair of friendlies. That theory may hold some weight as the cheapest tickets for the upcoming games are not really cheap at all: cheapest seats for the game against Japan in Philly are $44.50 with the most expensive ranging all the way up to $292.00. (This is probably a contributing factor is the slow ticket sales.) While it could certainly be true that US Soccer is looking to make a quick extra buck by calling a set of friendlies a tournament, that theory ignores the fact that it gives the US a fantastic opportunity to play multiple games against some of the best competition in the world. When it comes to friendlies, the US usually get two games against teams that aren’t particularly good (usually against CONCACAF opponents). But with the SheBelieves Cup and with the Tournament of Nations, that’s a total of six games against teams all ranked in the top 10 in the world. And in a Women’s World Cup year or an Olympic year, playing games against the best goes a long way towards helping the team prepare for a major international tournament. And it’s not just the US benefitting. The same holds true for all of the teams participating. Even in years without a major tournament, it’s a big help as the games against high quality opposition keep the players sharp at the international level.

Regardless of how the fringe of the Internet feels about these mini-tournaments or if they’re cash grabs by US Soccer, the fact remains that the games will be played against high level opposition. The fact also remains that it’s a Women’s World Cup year and there’s going to be a lot of exciting soccer this summer.

It all leads up to the big show at the Women’s World Cup in France this summer.

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