The U.S. Women’s National Team cruised to its fourth straight SheBelieves Cup title on Wednesday, beating Brazil 2-1 and going 3-0 in the tournament that serves as the team’s best warm-up for the upcoming World Cup.
But after standout performances by Mallory Swanson, who scored in all three games and was named tournament MPV, and Alex Morgan — who recorded her 14th national team goal since becoming a mom — and wins against three teams ranked in the top 11, many of Thursday’s headlines suggest the American squad still has some questions to answer.
U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski confirmed lingering queries remain but was positive about the team’s overall outlook.
RELATED: USWNT secures fourth straight SheBelieves Cup title with 2-1 win over Brazil
“I don’t think we’re going to talk a lot about the title,” he told media. “We’re actually going to talk a lot about the play and the details and we’re going use these games in preparation to prepare furthermore for the World Cup. So that’s what is good about this. Obviously, we enjoy winning the title, but it’s the outcome [that] is more important for us.
“The whole time throughout the tournament while we’re in camp, we’re talking about how it’s not just about this tournament, it’s about preparation for the World Cup, and the fact that we were able to do well against such a great opponents, all three of them — Canada, Japan, Brazil – it’s very motivating for us going forward, because we believe that we still have a few things to fix and get better from it.”
Despite the unbeaten streak during the SheBelieves Cup, Andonovski and company undoubtedly have not forgotten the disappointing stretch last fall when the U.S. lost three friendlies in a row in a six-week span. The streak began Oct. 7 with a 2-1 loss to No. 4-ranked England at Wembley, followed by a 2-0 loss to No. 6 Spain in Pamplona on Oct. 11. They dropped their third straight — a 2-1 loss to No. 3 Germany in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. — on Nov. 10 before rebounding for a 2-1 win over the Germans to end 2022 on a positive note.
On Her Turf takes a closer look at what we learned from the 2023 SheBelieves Cup, the lingering questions surrounding the U.S. World Cup roster and what’s next for the USWNT.
What we learned from the 2023 SheBelieves Cup
Mallory Swanson has arrived
Swanson scored four of the five USWNT goals during the tournament, and she’s recorded eight goals in her past six games. It’s been a breathtaking turnaround for Swanson, who was left off the 2021 U.S. Olympic team roster.
“I think this offseason, I kind of just reevaluated my game, and I think what one thing was I wasn’t finishing easy chances last calendar year,” she said following Sunday’s match vs. Japan, where she scored the lone goal in the 1-0 win. “So, I just wanted to come into this year and just be able to finish easy chances.”
Her attention to the details is paying off: Along with being named tournament MVP, Swanson earned a place in the record books. Her six-game scoring streak is the longest by a USWNT player since Christen Press scored in six straight between November 2019 and February 2020.
Tournament experience invaluable for young U.S. roster
The U.S. rostered 13 players without World Cup experience during the SheBelieves Cup and four players with fewer than 20 caps overall. Andonovski noted he approached this as an opportunity:
“We talk about what success is in this tournament and what success means for us, one of the things [is] the less experienced players get in front of opponents like this and get good, valuable minutes starting games and competing against good, good teams.
“I think it’s important for them to understand the competition, first and foremost, but also to also to get used to grinding because World Cup will be a grind. It’s not just the games, it’s the trainings, the travel, accommodations, just adjusting, acclimating. I mean, all this thing is part of the journey. And the fact that we were able to replicate some of that … It’s a brilliant experience for them.”
USWNT took pains to simulate World Cup atmosphere
Andonovski shared some behind-the-scenes details of the USWNT’s experience during the tournament, revealing painstaking efforts taken to recreate the World Cup-like environment they’ll face during the group stage. While Brazil, Canada and Japan flew commercial to the three tournament sites, the U.S. team took chartered flights from Orlando to Nashville to Frisco (Texas) and even worked out a refueling schedule. Additionally, the Americans stayed in similar accommodations as the ones they’ll have this summer, held meetings at approximately the same times and tried to mirror everything from training times to recovery rates and the environment of all things in between.
USWNT World Cup roster still unclear as injured veterans make return
Soccer analyst and retired USWNT midfielder Julie Foudy, a two-time World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist, said she doesn’t envy Andonovski’s task at hand as he homes in on his 23-player roster for the World Cup. With just two friendlies left on the calendar and a host of star names on the injured list, roster choices remain unclear. Foudy noted he’ll likely have to look to players’ performances in their respective professional leagues to gauge readiness.
“It’s a great problem to have,” she said after Wednesday night’s contest. “You’re going to have all these players coming back from injury in April. Sophia Smith (minor foot injury) we obviously know is going to be in the mix, but Cat Macario coming off an ACL [injury] — you don’t know where she’s going to be. There’s Tierna Davidson (torn ACL) and Kelly O’Hara (hip injury) coming back into the mix. I mean, that’s a lot of good games. I’m not saying them all because it would take a long time. There’s a lot of choices he’s going to have to make and he’s going to have to make them [by watching] their leagues instead of in games with the national team.”
Other notable names on the questionable list include Abby Dahlkemper (back), Casey Krueger (parental leave), Tobin Heath (knee surgery) and Christen Press (torn ACL). Andonovski recently confirmed Sam Mewis is likely unavailable after undergoing and second knee surgery and that “time is running out” for Julie Ertz, who gave birth to a son in August and has not indicated whether she plans to return to playing.
Up next: USWNT to host April friendlies vs. Republic of Ireland
The USWNT will play two friendlies in April against the Republic of Ireland, which is set to makes its World Cup debut this summer. The first meeting is set for Saturday, April 8, at Q2 Stadium in Austin, Texas, followed by the second on Tuesday, April 11, at the new CITYPARK in St. Louis, Mo.
Ireland qualified for the 2023 World Cup in dramatic fashion: After finishing second in UEFA Women’s World Cup Qualifying Group A behind Sweden, Ireland faced Scotland in a one-game playoff at the famed Hampden Park in Glasgow, which drew more than 10,000 fans. Irish forward Amber Barrett scored in the 72nd minute to give “The Girls in Green” a 1-0 win and send them to their first World Cup.
“Ireland is a highly motivated, hard-working team that has talented players with big hearts who I know are really excited to be representing their country in a World Cup,” said Andonovski. “The two games will be a great test at a crucial time in our team’s run to the World Cup. While there will be plenty of league games for us to watch after April, these will be the final matches for our players with the National Team before we have to pick the World Cup roster, so they will carry that importance.”
Additional notes ahead of USWNT-Republic of Ireland friendlies:
- The USWNT has played Ireland 13 times and won every match. The most recent meeting was Aug. 3, 2019, when the Americans notched a 3-0 victory at the Rose Bowl in the first game following their 2019 triumph at Women’s World Cup.
- One of Ireland’s top players, midfielder Denise O’Sullivan, is a long-time standout with the North Carolina Courage in the NWSL.
- The match in Austin marks the USWNT’s 32nd match in Texas, where it has never lost.
- The match in St. Louis will be the USA’s 10th in Missouri and sixth in St. Louis.
- At the upcoming World Cup, Ireland will play in Group B, which also includes Canada, Nigeria and co-host Australia. Ireland will face Australia on July 20 in the second match of the tournament and the first in Australia, where they’ll play at the 82,000-seat Stadium Australia.