USWNT looks strong coming into 2023, but will they be strong enough?
The US women’s national team just took the field for their first games of 2023, a set of two against New Zealand on the Kiwi’s ground. These games dragged the World Cup to the forefront of viewer’s minds, not only by nature of being the first matchups of the World Cup year, but also by being against the hosts of the tournament. To push that point even further, the second game was played on the grounds that will host the inaugural match of the World Cup.
All of this combined to form one question in people’s minds, viewers and participators alike: How do these games shape the USWNT’s image going into a World Cup year? Is this a team comparable to the behemoth we saw in 2019, a team that can take the gold for the third time in a row?
Looking at the scoreboard, one may think so; the US pulled two wins with margins of 4-0 and 5-0, respectively. After a closer look, it becomes more complicated, especially considering New Zealand’s heavily depleted roster (missing nine players) and the scoreless first half of the first game.
Most of these challenges can be put down to growing pains, especially coming right off of an extended winter break. However, this team does not look like they will be anywhere near as dominant as they were in 2019. A lot of that comes down to women’s soccer making huge strides worldwide, leading to a much smaller achievement gap between teams. This is exemplified by New Zealand’s Football Ferns being able to hold off the reigning world champions for over 50 minutes. Overall, that’s how these games will translate to the rest of the year: little things from the past week symbolize the overall story of this US team.
The main takeaway from these two matches was that the youth on the team shined. A third of the goals scored were by players who weren’t at the last World Cup. Two were scored by players with less than 15 national team appearances. Trinity Rodman, 20, had three assists in 67 total minutes of playing time. Across the field, young players came into themselves, with 8 of the 11 starters of the second game having not been a part of the 2019 team.
The games were dominated by players coming into their peak, with Rose Lavelle, 27, responsible for two goals and Mallory Swanson (nee Pugh), 24, responsible for three. Lavelle absolutely shone across the two games, seemingly unstoppable in the midfield, outsmarting players and creating space with the ball at her feet wherever she went. At halftime, coach Vlatko Andonovski said, “The main focus is to get the ball to Rose Lavelle. Let her be creative and let her get opportunities to attack the defensive line.” Lavelle was also given the captain’s armband for the second game, which could be something to keep an eye on in the future, especially once this current generation of veterans retire.
Defensively, we didn’t get to see much from the US line, given that New Zealand didn’t pose much of an offensive threat past the midfield. Lineup-wise, there seemed to be some rotation in the back, especially given Crystal Dunn’s minute restrictions after coming back from maternity leave. Emily Fox, Emily Sonnett, and Sofia Huerta were all utilized as outside backs during these two games. Naomi Girma, 22, started both games at centerback, perhaps to fill the hole left by Abby Dahlkemper, a reliable starter who has been out with injuries for the majority of the past calendar year. In the goalie position, there’s no reason to doubt that Alyssa Naeher is still Andonovski’s #1, despite not playing in the second game.
Regarding injuries, Andonovski also addressed the issue of missing players the day before the game, acknowledging the losses of Megan Rapinoe, Tierna Davidson, Kelley O’Hara, Julie Ertz, and Sam Mewis. Rapinoe and Davidson are anticipated to be back for the SheBelieves Cup in February, while Ertz and Mewis seem to be on a more long-term road to recovery. He said, regarding Mewis, “At this point, I don’t want to guess what the time is or if she will be returning at all.” During this same pregame press conference, Andonovski confirmed that the staff have narrowed down the field of possible World Cup players to 32, meaning that only nine more remain to be cut in the next six months.
Overall, the USWNT looked good once they got their footing, which was a relief to many fans. Their road to the final, and the trophy, seems destined to be more fraught than it was in 2019. However, these games have shown that there’s a chance, which was hard to see a few months ago. The loudest criticism of the team since the 2020 Olympics was that they had lost the winning mentality that had gotten them their fourth World Cup. However, they turned that around with their last game of 2022, against the German national team in November. They had lost to Germany three days prior, and lost the two games before that as well. One more loss would put them in the history books as the first time the USWNT had lost four games in a row. But they came back from 1-0 down at home to win, 2-1. Hopefully, facing that adversity has relit the spark, and these two wins to start 2023 will only stroke the fire further.