5 questions the USWNT and coach Vlatko Andonovski must answer at the SheBelieves Cup
9am, February 14, 2023
The 2023 Women’s World Cup is fast approaching, and time is running out for the U.S. women’s national team to get ready for the summer tournament in Australia and New Zealand. This week the USWNT will compete in the SheBelieves Cup, which is the last good chance to identify problems (and solutions) before the World Cup.
The SheBelieves Cup features a trio of top-quality opponents in Brazil, Japan and Canada in what is the USWNT’s second-to-last international window before the World Cup. (The last pre-World Cup window takes place in April, but by then it’s probably too late to change much, and the USWNT’s final opponents before a World Cup are usually lower-ranked teams so the Americans can build confidence.)
So, answers need to come over the next week, or they probably won’t come at all before the World Cup in July. And it’s clear the Americans do need answers: The final stretch of 2022 included losses to England, Germany and Spain, with the USWNT hitting a three-game losing streak for the first time in 30 years.
So, with that in mind, ESPN’s Jeff Kassouf, Jeff Carlisle, Caitlin Murray and Sophie Lawson look at some questions the USWNT must get answered during the SheBelieves Cup, which starts on Thursday against Canada.
Is the USWNT defense (subplot: with which defenders?) ready for the world’s top teams?
It is an understatement to say that October and November did not go as planned for the USWNT after their three-game losing streak. Now, February brings another trio of top-11 world teams, each with individual attacking talent that will challenge the U.S. defensively in ways New Zealand — who combined for one shot on goal in two January friendlies — could not. Are the Americans ready?
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Answering that question requires some scrutiny of Andonovski’s preferred personnel. Emily Fox has long been tabbed as a starter at full-back, but will she be on the left side with Sofia Huerta on the right, or is Crystal Dunn back to 90-minute fitness for this tournament and ready to retake her starting role? A Dunn-Fox combination offers interchangeability on each side.
Centrally, there are more questions: Becky Sauerbrunn is the team captain, on-field coach, and reliable, cerebral difference-maker. She will be 38 when the World Cup kicks off. It is still unclear which pair Andonovski prefers from Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook and Naomi Girma. Cook, by way of starting 15 of 18 games in 2022, has nearly double the caps as Girma, but the latter option gives the U.S. an ability to play out of pressure that neither of her peers do in the absence of injured Abby Dahlkemper.
At the SheBelieves Cup, the entire back line will be put through the wringer against Brazil, Canada and Japan, who offer an array of attacking talent from the highly technical to the extremely athletic. They will need to show improvement from matches against England, Spain and Germany last year. — Kassouf
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Who will fill the USWNT’s all-important No. 6 defensive midfielder role?
Julie Ertz, the midfield linchpin behind the 2019 World Cup-winning side, hasn’t played a competitive match in 18 months (she gave birth to her first child last August), and the chance she will return to play in time to take part at the World Cup is rapidly reaching its vanishing point. Sam Mewis, an all-rounder who at times has played as a No. 6 in Ertz’s absence, has already been ruled out.
Now Andonovski is left still trying to find an ideal replacement. And no, playing the part of Dr. Frankenstein and fusing the best attributes of three players isn’t an option for the U.S. manager — otherwise he’d take Andi Sullivan‘s distribution, Lindsey Horan‘s mobility and Taylor Kornieck‘s defensive prowess and combine it into one player.
Though, upon reflection, moving to a double pivot might be a way to create Frankenstein’s monster for opponents. That’s what Andonovski did in the second match against New Zealand last month when Rose Lavelle dropped down beside Sullivan. Against the tougher opponents the U.S. will face at the SheBelieves Cup, it will be interesting to see which way Andonovski leans. — Carlisle
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Does the USWNT have enough cover in goal?
Backup goalkeepers are the ultimate insurance policies. You hardly think about them until the time comes when you need them.
Such was the case at the Tokyo Olympics, when longtime starter Alyssa Naeher left the semifinal against Canada with a knee injury. Adrianna Franch stepped in and, while she couldn’t be blamed for the 1-0 defeat, two years on she still lacks the international experience or the consistency of Naeher.
It’s not just that Naeher has 87 caps to Franch’s 10. Naeher has consistently shown she can step up in clutch moments, be it the penalty shootout against the Netherlands in Tokyo or the penalty save against England’s Steph Houghton in the semifinal of the 2019 World Cup.
The same concerns that linger over Franch as a backup apply to Casey Murphy, who has just 12 caps and looks like the USWNT’s current No. 2. While it’s impossible to make up 70-odd international appearances in one tournament, Andonovski would be well-served to spread out the playing time at the SheBelieves Cup. — Carlisle
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Should Andonovski rein in plans to shift over to the next generation?
With notable exceptions of Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn — two players who seem to serve in almost adviser-like roles to Andonovski — the USWNT coach has been eager to move on from the old guard.
Striker Alex Morgan, 33, found herself on the outside looking in last year, despite being arguably the most consistent player the U.S. has had. In her place, Andonovski has seemed to prefer 23-year-old Catarina Macario as the USWNT’s starting striker. Macario vacated the role due to a long injury, but she’s expected to be back soon, and when she returns, it feels like that spot is Macario’s for the taking.
He has also cast aside 34-year-old Christen Press, who was on the 2019 World Cup-winning team. She was playing well for Angel City FC last season but still couldn’t get a look from Andonovski and now is returning from injury. Ahead of her on the USWNT depth chart at the wings are Sophia Smith, 22, and Mallory Swanson (née Pugh), 24 — two players who have been in the best form of their careers over the past year or so but have also tended to run hot and cold. Behind them and ahead of Press are Rapinoe, 37, and Lynn Williams, 29, who just returned from injury, too.
It seems Andonovski’s mind is set on the players he will bring to the World Cup and his starters. But remember the shock when previous USWNT coach Jill Ellis announced her final roster before the 2019 World Cup? Center-back Ali Krieger was called up after two years out of the USWNT picture, during which Ellis had seemingly moved on. When explaining her abrupt decision to bring in Krieger, Ellis said ultimately it came down to experience: she knew Krieger, a World Cup winner in 2015, could handle the “pressure-cooker” of a World Cup and the adversity of facing top teams.
Andonovski is a very different manager from Ellis and seems far less likely to spring a surprise — but if that’s going to change, it’ll change at the SheBelieves Cup. — Murray
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Can Andonovski adjust tactics when the USWNT needs it?
To win a major tournament, most teams will need a stocked armory — one that boasts different types of players and plans to get the better of their varied opposition. Even for teams like the USWNT, who’ve won the World Cup four times, there needs to be an adaptability to get the better of their opposition.
Yet, too often we’ve seen the USWNT endeavour with a rigid 4-3-3, persisting with a shape that doesn’t suit the personnel available. It wasn’t until the second Germany game last year — 53 games into Andonovski’s tenure and three days after losing once already to Germany — that we saw more in the way of flexibility from the coach. Still, it was not a total departure from his favoured 4-3-3.
Coming up against Brazil, Canada and Japan, the U.S. will be given three very different types of tests. That will be key to ascertaining how flexible the coach is willing to be, with all three requiring different methods for success. Indeed, as we saw at the 2020 Olympics, long gone are the days of the USWNT simply steamrolling opponents with superior athleticism. Andonovski has yet to prove his tactical adaptability beyond a doubt. — Lawson
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If the USWNT doesn’t play well at the SheBelieves Cup, it’s time to worry about the World Cup
Five months remain until the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and if it was not clear before, it should be now: It’s crunch time.
February is a busy month internationally given that it’s the penultimate FIFA window prior to the World Cup. For the U.S. women’s national team, that means all that remains before head coach Vlatko Andonovski names his World Cup roster are games against Canada, Brazil and Japan this week in the SheBelieves Cup and a pair of friendlies in April.
Thus, the 2023 SheBelieves Cup packs an extra level of importance. It is the USWNT’s final opportunity to simulate three games in a week, similar to the demand of the World Cup, and it also marks the best remaining tests for the Americans to prove they are legitimate contenders after three straight losses recently against England, Spain and Germany.
“Even though it’s a friendly tournament, it’s really important for us to want to win this tournament and continue to prove to ourselves why we belong at the top and why we do have the mentality that we have,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said last week.
In the past, Morgan’s statement would feel more like a rebuttal against narratives that the rest of the world was catching up, but much has changed even since she and the U.S. won a second straight World Cup in 2019. In several ways, the world already caught up. Combine the shifting global landscape with a generational turnover within the U.S. program — one that will see the team aim for a third straight World Cup title without most of the group that won the previous two titles — and there are legitimate doubts heading into the summer.
Recent results exacerbate those concerns. The USWNT got played off the park by England in a 2-1 loss at Wembley on Oct. 7. In particular, the European champions exposed weaknesses in the USA’s preferred starting midfield of Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan, playing around them and stifling most of the Americans’ creative opportunities going forward.
Four days later came the louder alarm for the Americans, as a second-choice Spain squad pounced on defensive errors both on set pieces and from the run of play to defeat the U.S. 2-0 in Pamplona. Then came a 2-1 loss to Germany in November in Florida, marking the USWNT’s first three-game losing streak in three decades. A 2-1 comeback victory over Germany three days later prevented the first four-game skid in program history.
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Now comes another trio of top-11 world opponents, each with a distinct style that will uniquely challenge the Americans.
Canada is the USWNT’s most common opponent and one whose physicality, indelible athleticism and preferred 4-3-3 formation mostly mirror the style of the Americans. A 1-0 victory over Canada at July’s World Cup and Olympics qualifying tournament, the CONCACAF W Championship, remains one of the more convincing U.S. performances from this relatively new and inexperienced squad. That was the first meeting between the teams since Canada defeated the U.S. in the Olympic semifinal en route to a gold medal in 2021, when the U.S. settled for bronze.
Canada’s participation in the SheBelieves Cup became a doubt when the players announced they were going on strike over budget cuts and pay inequities. But the protest was canceled the next day after Canada’s federation threatened legal action if the players didn’t compete. While USWNT members expressed support for the Canadian players, facing a top-ranked gritty, disruptive team will be a test the Americans couldn’t afford to miss out on in preparation for the World Cup.
Japan will bring a customary, organized and disciplined tactical approach with a good amount of technical ability to complement it. Andonovski said earlier this month that he expects to face “a slightly more aggressive five in the back” from Japan.
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Brazil offers a blend of both styles and the most intriguing challenge for the USWNT. Led now by an in-her-prime Debinha, Brazil still possesses all the classic jogo bonito individual flair, now with a level of defensive responsibility and tactical refinement (perhaps still in the form of a classic 4-4-2 variation) under head coach Pia Sundhage. That’s former USWNT head coach Pia Sundhage, to be clear. She is a tactician and motivator who is also acutely aware of U.S. styles and tactics even to this day, as a FIFA coaching mentor to U.S. U-20 head coach Tracey Kevins.
“I love that we’re playing three very different teams,” Morgan said. “These are teams that we haven’t seen all that often, especially Japan and Brazil. It is important to get teams who play different styles.
“Canada is super structured and organized. Brazil, you know they’re going to be great in transition. Japan, they’re just so clean on the ball and they’re gonna break you down if you have one lapse in judgment defensively. They all kind of bring different things, so it’s important to do the fine-tuning now, to do the small things right in the games.”
The USWNT opened 2023 with a pair of comfortable road victories over New Zealand at Eden Park and Sky Stadium, two venues that will host USWNT group games at this summer’s World Cup. The value of those games — and that trip — was more about simulating the World Cup experience in the cities the U.S. team will play its group-stage matches off the field. On the field, given the lower level of quality of New Zealand as an opponent, it was about executing patterns of play.
The Football Ferns did not offer any real defensive test, especially without several top players because the games fell outside of FIFA windows. New Zealand put one shot on goal in the 4-0 loss and did not register a shot in the 5-0 loss three days later. Call it a soft launch to a difficult year ahead for the United States.
Now, the SheBelieves Cup offers what are likely the final challenges of significant difficulty to evaluate what will or won’t work at the World Cup. Results will be important, sure, but not as important as how well the U.S. adapts to each opponent and responds to potential adversity. These games are about mirroring potential World Cup opponents and refining play to be ready for the real thing this summer.
At minimum during this SheBelieves Cup, the Americans need to look the part of a team that can contend at the World Cup.
“All three [opponents] are different in terms of style of play, or even philosophy,” Andonovski said. “That’s why they are in this tournament, because we needed something different — there were different things that we needed to face before we got to the World Cup. We wanted to create all kinds of challenges that we can, so we have enough time to solve it before the World Cup.”