U.S. Women’s National Team Revamp
Status after CONCACAF W Tournament Win, and Olympic and World Cup Qualification
In defeating Canada 1-0 to win the CONCACAF W tournament in Monterey, Mexico, the United States Women’s National Team qualified automatically for the 2024 Olympics. Earlier in the tournament, the USWNT had qualified to defend the team’s World Cup title and seek and an unprecedented third championship in a row.
Coming out of the USWNT’s disappointing Bronze Medal Olympic performance, it was clear that to win the World Cup title again, Andonovski needed to upgrade three critical aspects of the team’s play: scoring consistency, defense against world-class opponents, and team cohesion. The seven games played (five in the tournament and two friendlies against Colombia) over three-plus weeks, a period that simulates the seven-game sequence at the World Cup, have provided a sound basis for evaluating the status of Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s efforts to address the teams’ weaknesses by rebalancing the national team through introducing a new generation of players.
Scoring Consistency and Diversity Improve
In seven games played against Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, Haiti, Jamaica, and Mexico between June 25 and July 18, the USWNT scored 18 goals, an average of 2.6 goals per game. In a significant offensive improvement over the Olympic performance of being shut out in two of the six games played, the Americans scored in all five games of the CONCACAF W tournament. The highest goal total was five against a Jamaican side that was clearly worn down from its victory over Mexico in their CONCACAF W tournament opener. The lowest were the single goals scored against peer Canada and a highly motivated and disciplined Mexican team.
Eleven Americans put the ball over the goal line – Taylor Kornieck, Rose Lavelle, Kristie Mewis (2), Alex Morgan (3), Kelley O’Hara, Mallory Pugh, Midge Purce, Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, Sophia Smith (4), and Emily Sonnet. A blistering Sofia Huerta cross ricocheted off a Colombian defender for an own goal.
Alex Morgan’s play, both on and off the ball, proved pivotal in every game in which she appeared. Her two goals against Haiti were flashes of brilliance in an otherwise desultory offensive performance, and her decisive penalty goal against Canada won the tournament. Morgan’s holdup play, assertive runs, and one-touch passing have been essential to the Americans’ success. She, and front-line starters Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith (5 goals between them), along with reserve wingers Midge Purce and Trinity Rodman generated over half the U.S. goal production. Smith’s speed and creativity, Pugh’s tireless work rate and pace, and Purce’s powerful runs have combined well with Morgan. The American attack is regaining its panache.
However, there is still work to be done. In the Canada game, Paramount+ commentator and former USWNT player Aly Wagner highlighted the one-dimensional nature of the American attack, sweeping up a sideline, stalling, then retreating back to the central defenders or goalie, and then sweeping up the opposite sideline. While only called out in the Canada game, it was a prevailing pattern across all seven matches.
Tradition may explain this pattern to a certain extent. The American attack has historically relied on speed, power, and greater athleticism to overwhelm opponents. Long balls from defenders to forwards who can either turn and speed past defenders or knock the ball back to charging midfielders have been the predominant American attacking pattern. However, deep-lying defenses tend to thwart and frustrate this single mode of offense, as can possession-based teams, like Japan in 2011, or effective pressing teams, like Sweden in 2021.
Chemistry, Impetus, and Cohesion – A Work in Progress for the Midfield
Other factors are also causing the quality of the offense to vary considerably from game to game and even within games. Some of this inconsistency may relate to the constant change in the starting lineups and maximum use of substitutions during games. While the player turnover frequency may keep them fresher and provide Andonovski with more opportunities to evaluate players, it subtracts from their ability to learn tendencies that build confidence and chemistry between themselves on the field. On top level teams, players know instinctively where their teammates are on the field and anticipate where they are most likely to go, allowing more play of the ball into space, rather than to feet.
Fortunately, we are seeing some teammates working together in ways that show these relationships are building. On the right, a Sofia to Sophia connection is emerging between winger Sophia Smith and fullback Sofia Huerta. With creative passes and delightfully controlling touches, they are bedeviling defenses, and as they pull Alex Morgan and Rose Lavelle into the relationship, the U.S. could have a dominating attack down the right. Likewise, midfielder Ashley Sanchez and Alex Morgan appear to have worked through some spacing issues that stifled the U.S attack in the Mexico game, and they combined very well for the third goal against Costa Rica.
On the other hand, some players are taking too many touches into traffic for turnovers, sitting on the ball waiting for movement before passing backwards to defenders, or crowding into the same spaces occupied by other players. When Megan Rapinoe has subbed into games, her one and two-touch ball movement has opened up the attack down the left. However, other than Sanchez and Morgan beginning to work together, there has been little offensive action between Morgan and the two attacking midfielders (the exception being her pass to Lavelle against Canada that yielded the game-winning penalty). That said, Rose Lavelle’s two incisive long passes down the middle against Colombia released Sophia Smith to score two sterling goals.
What seems missing on the American team is a true #10, a quarterback who dominates the center of the pitch, sets the game tempo, and ties the team together with precision passing. Of all the American midfielders, only Ashley Sanchez, who doesn’t start, has displayed the technical skills and the chutzpah to play this role. Occasionally, Rose Lavelle has shown flashes of talent and skill of this nature, and it may be that she, working together with Sanchez, can provide the kind of ball control and passing that could add a central dimension to the Americans’ game.
Similarly, Wagner indicated that the American midfielders had trouble across all seven matches switching the point of attack and knitting the offense together into a cohesive whole. This mission, she underscored, is one of the primary roles of the defensive midfielder in the USWNT’s 4-3-3 system. At least twice during the span of games, Wagner rued Julie Ertz’s absence on maternity leave and stressed her strengths in this capacity.
Defense – The Jury’s Still Out
Seven clean sheets over seven games is as good as it gets for a soccer defense. Yet, across the seven games, the USWNT team only faced one world-class opponent, Canada. Twice in that match, the Americans allowed clear goal-scoring opportunities when they left fullback Sofia Huerta isolated against Canadian speedster Nichelle Prince. Fortunately for the Americans, Prince, after she cut swiftly past Huerta, could only muster two weak shots on goal that Alyssa Naeher saved easily.
The only previous threats to the American goal occurred when lightning-quick Haitian forwards left American defenders in the dust. Only a terrific Casey Murphy save and the post kept the American sheet clean.
Sound technical play also gave the American defenders problems. After the U.S. scored against Mexico, they increased their tempo and passing, breaking down the U.S. defense. Only exceptional interventions by defenders Emily Sonnet and Naomi Girma kept the Mexicans from crafting decent scoring opportunities.
Team defense was the key to the American success, as they aggressively swarmed the ball when it turned over. In the Canadian game, once winger Sophia Smith started tracking back to help Huerta, Prince was neutralized. Similarly, Morgan and Pugh retreated constantly to disrupt Canadian attacks and turn them into offensive opportunities. In fact, the game-winning sequence began with Pugh’s intercepted pass, which she one-touched to Morgan, who released the ball in front of Lavelle, forcing Canadian defender Allysha Chapman to foul or allow the open shot on goal.
The Way to the World Cup
Having won the CONCACAF W tournament, Andonovski and the team can concentrate on one mission: winning a third consecutive World Cup title. However, Andonovski’s path to choosing his final World Cup squad is not completely clear. Over the next few months, he will have to give former starters Crystal Dunn and Julie Ertz, who have been out on maternity leave, along with Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Catarina Macario, and Christen Press, who have been sidelined by injury, opportunities to make the World Cup team.
Incorporating Macario, who is viewed as the only American among the world’s top ten players, into the starting eleven will be a particularly delicate challenge. She has played both attacking midfield and center forward for the team, which might mean that one of Alex Morgan, Lindsay Horan, or Rose Lavelle might have to sit, unless he moves Macario to the wing in place of Sophia Smith or Mallory Pugh. Andonovski faces similarly tough choices between Dunn and Emily Fox at left fullback, Ertz and Sullivan at defensive midfield, and Dahlkemper, Davidson, Naomi Girma, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Sonnet at left center back.
Andonovski will also need to stress test the American midfield and defense against higher-level competition over the next year. The federation has made a good start by scheduling a pair of friendlies with Nigeria, a team with athleticism and speed, but putting a couple of technically proficient, possession-dominant teams like Japan and Spain on the calendar would be highly valuable.
When all is said and done, the expectations for the USWNT as it begins final preparations for the World Cup should be high. The Americans should surely be considered as co-favorites with the top finishers in the European Cup tournament (currently underway) and Canada (the U.S. 1-0 victory should not be viewed as establishing continental dominance). Brazil, Japan, Australia, and second-tier European teams will also be dangerous opponents. This reflects the rising level of quality in the women’s game around the world, making the Americans’ road to their third World Cup Title more challenging than ever before.