Last year, the USWNT’s competition in the 2022 edition of the SheBelieves Cup was Iceland, New Zealand and Czech Republic. No disrespect to them, but they're hardly elite teams in women’s football. This year their opponents will be three of FIFA’s top-11 teams: Canada, Japan and Brazil.

Canada won the Olympics, albeit with a stronger squad (more on that later), Japan are a difficult team to wrestle for match control, and Brazil are a team full of dangerous established talent, and eager and at times equally dangerous young talent. The U.S. could be in for a tough go.

The competition

Canada has been considerate of their European-based big name players' time, keeping them home, and thus easing things up for the rest of the teams in the SheBelieves Cup. Adriana Leon (Manchester United), Kadeisha Buchanan and Jessie Fleming (Chelsea), Ashley Lawrence (PSG), and Julia Grosso (Juventus) haven’t been called up to the Canada team for this tournament. 

It’s likely head coach Bev Priestman wants to evaluate other talent from the country, and is sparing players she already knows she can rely on from the travel and minutes as they approach the most intense part of their clubs’ season.

Brazil, an emerging popular pick as dark horse of the World Cup, hasn’t gone as light. The NWSL-based attacking duo of Marta (returning from tearing her ACL last year) and Debinha (fresh off a big money move to Kansas City) are terrifying enough, but European-based counterparts will join them as well – Rafaelle (Arsenal), Tainara (Bayern Munich), Kathellen (Real Madrid), Ludmila (Atletico Madrid), and Geyse (Barcelona).

Japan is also loaded with a wide range of midfield talent, including Yui Hasegawa (Manchester City), Hina Sugita (Portland Thorns), Jun Endo (Angel City FC), and Fuka Nagano (Liverpool) who are expected to make their way over. They also included their 18-year-old star striker who won the Golden Boot in the 2022 U20 Women’s World Cup, Maika Hamano. Chelsea signed Hamano in January and loaned her to Swedish club Hammarby IF, where she promptly scored two goals in each of her first two starts.

More problems to solve

Adding to the concerns for the defending champions is that NWSL MVP and U.S. Soccer Women’s Player of the Year in 2022 Sophia Smith will not be with the squad to continue rehab for a foot injury. Smith had a terrific 2022 for both club and country, and had become the USWNT’s cheat code in multiple matches. It was Smith’s goal against Germany in the final match of the year that sparked the comeback.

However, and amazingly, the USWNT are still rich enough with talent to win, but the margins between winning with a subpar/ineffective tactical plan are shrinking, and Japan, Brazil and Canada could all take advantage. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s vision for the team has still yet to be fully realized, and it seems he’s still searching for answers that should already be known with the World Cup now just five months away.

Vlatko Andonovski is still experimenting

Andonovski appeared to have made progress at the end of 2022 when a key tactical switch in midfield allowed the USWNT to come from behind to defeat Germany. However, Andonovski’s roster selection for the February tournament has called that into question, as he – yet again – elected to not bring Sam Coffey, the only true defensive midfielder aside from Andi Sullivan.

This would suggest that he’s planning to, a) do even more experiments with the role, or b) lean on Sullivan to start and finish nearly every game. Neither option inspires confidence.

Against a depleted New Zealand, he experimented with Taylor Kornieck deeper in midfield. This same experiment was also tried during her stint with Orlando Pride, and with Casey Stoney’s San Diego Wave. Both head coaches came to the conclusion that Kornieck was better utilized further up the pitch. Andonovski, for some reason, seems unconvinced and eager to see for himself – again.

This is only half of the issue, however. The key to success in the USWNT’s 2019 World Cup run was a dynamic midfield consisting of a ball winner (Julie Ertz), ball carrier (Sam Mewis), and chance creator (Rose Lavelle). Only one of those players will be available to Andonovski (Lavelle), and he still hasn’t settled on how to divy the remainder of the roles.

The USWNT attack may have to rescue the team

As has been the case for the majority of Andonovski’s tenure, a USWNT attacker or two can pull out moments of magic to push the team toward a result. Even without Sophia Smith, Mallory Swanson, Lynn Williams, Trinity Rodman and Midge Purce are all capable of doing just that. Unless Vlatko can solve the issues that have plagued the team under his tenure, the USWNT’s attackers showing their dominance will be the team’s best chance to lift the trophy.

Watch the SheBelieves Cup

Thursday, Feb. 16

Japan v. Brazil, 4pm ET on HBO Max

USWNT v. Canada, 7pm on HBO Max

Sunday, Feb. 19

USWNT v. Japan, 3:30pm on HBO Max & TNT

Brazil v. Canada, 6:30pm on HBO Max

Wednesday, Feb. 22

Canada v. Japan, 4pm on HBO Max

USWNT v. Brazil, 7pm ET on HBO Max & TNT

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