The USWNT won three games out of three to secure another SheBelieves Cup trophy. They kept two shutouts, and the lone goal they let in came in the 90th minute of the final match versus Brazil, while they were up 2-0. In reality the tournament wasn’t that easy, which may be foreshadowing ahead of the 2023 World Cup.
Here are three things we learned from this mini-tournament ahead of the big one in five months…
The USWNT started flat and out of sync in two of their three SheBelieves Cup matches (vs. Japan and Brazil). Japan’s formation, tactics and pressing, coupled with players who knew exactly what they wanted to do and how to do it, put the Americans on edge. Japan pulled apart and passed through the USWNT’s attempted press and midfield, but were unable to make their heavy advantage tell with a goal.
Brazil dominated the USWNT for large swaths as well. On more than one occasion, Brazil had players scythe through the center of the pitch, unbothered by the USWNT midfield. Beatriz Zaneratto set up their best chance of the match after a driving run, but Kerolin (who also tore through the middle of the pitch at times) pulled her shot just inches wide. Brazil leaned on their press and physicality to take the ball and spring forward, catching USWNT players out of position.
In a tournament, whether three games or a full World Cup, coping through bad moments and not completely crumbling and giving up goals (shoutout to Naomi Girma) is useful. If Japan or Brazil finished the chances they created, there’s a good chance the USWNT wouldn’t have lifted the trophy at the end of the tournament. While problem solving and mid-game adjustments are important attributes to bring to a tournament, a better initial plan to trouble opponents would be even better. Given the talent in the team, it’s frustrating that “suffer, then score” is becoming their norm.
Lindsey Horan started every match and played all but seven minutes across three games in three states, in just a week. USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s reasoning for playing Horan so much is that she’s the only player in the squad who’s currently in midseason form. However, it also means that Horan is flying across the Atlantic Ocean, playing nearly all 90 minutes in back-to-back-to-back games, then crossing the ocean again to play a key role for Lyon in the trophy and title-deciding portion of their season.
It’s clear Andonovski is building the midfield around Horan, but World Cups are long and grueling, and Horan won’t be able to play every available minute bar a handful without suffering extreme fatigue or injury. Instead, Andonovski has focused so much on defensive midfield that no one else is prepared to step into Horan’s role.
And there are options. While Sam Mewis is still injured and recently underwent another surgery, dynamism and/or control in midfield shouldn’t be hard to find in the talent pool available. Morgan Gautrat returned to play for the Chicago Red Stars last September and has familiarity with the national team environment. Crystal Dunn’s best position is in midfield and she would relish the opportunity to play there for the USWNT. In addition, keeping Sam Coffey as a backup defensive midfielder would allow him to spell Horan with Andi Sullivan, and Savannah DeMelo is a wild card option who could fill in against lower tier opposition.
But as it stands, the only way for this to never become a problem is for a player who absorbs a lot of contact to remain injury free through the rest of the European season, then throughout the World Cup.
Good news, at least. They’re all magicians. Mallory Swanson scored every USWNT goal in the SheBelieves Cup except one, Sophia Smith missed the tournament with a foot injury but was the unquestioned USWNT Player of the Year and NWSL MVP in 2022. Then there’s Alex Morgan, who can still summon magic and proved it after a tough half versus Brazil.
But the scariest of the bunch just might be Catarina Macario. Before Macario tore her ACL last year, she was on an absurd run for club and country. If Macario can get back to full fitness and form in the months leading up to the tournament, the USWNT will enter the tournament with a major boost. Macario shined in last year’s SheBelieves Cup and was named the tournament’s MVP, then she went on to lead Lyon in combined goals (14) and assists (5) in the league, and did the same in the Champions League (8 goals, 2 assists). She was also integral to Lyon defeating a supremely dominant Barcelona squad in the Champions League Final.
Macario has only been playing professionally for two years and has already proved she can live up to the hype. If she’s healthy, fit and firing for the World Cup, it could negate everything else I wrote and put the USWNT in position to claim a third consecutive World Cup.