Well, that was fun. What a great final game on Monday night between the US women’s national team and Canada at the frankly less-than-great CONCACAF W Championship!
A lot was on the line given that the winner automatically qualified for the 2024 Olympics; both teams had already qualified for the 2023 Women’s World Cup by just making it to the final four. The match was terrific in terms of quality and chances created, but I thought the US clearly had the better chances and deserved the 1-0 win.
It took a penalty kick for the US to finally penetrate the Canadian defense and their fantastic goalkeeper, Kailen Sheridan, in the 78th minute. In what seemed like a fitting end to this rivalry game, it was Sheridan’s San Diego Wave teammate, Alex Morgan, who stepped up for the US and calmly placed her penalty kick into the back of the net.
US national team coach Vlatko Andonovski will be pleased with his team’s performance for many reasons — the biggest, of course, being that the United States has now officially qualified for both the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics. The team can check off those two critical boxes and take a deep sigh knowing that it’s all secure.
Andonovski will also be thrilled to see how well his team did against a top-level opponent, something of a rare commodity lately due to scheduling challenges, and how bright his young stars shined. I thought Sophia Smith, Mal Pugh and Emily Fox were in fantastic form.
There are certainly some areas of growth still for the US team — finishing their chances, finishing early chances, finishing off a game when up a goal — but you saw all smiles within the US squad on Monday night, and for good reason. That was a massive win. But I would be remiss if I didn’t also take this opportunity, having now seen five competitive games for the USWNT, to point out some questions I had before the tournament and those that are still lingering.
Will Andonovski finally settle on a consistent USWNT lineup?
The short answer is “not yet.” Andonovski made five changes going into their second game vs. Jamaica, six changes going into their third game vs. Mexico, three changes going into their semifinal match vs. Costa Rica and two changes heading into Monday’s final vs. Canada.
I know some of that rotation is necessitated by injuries and COVID issues. I also know that Andonovski and his staff are given recommended minute restrictions for players based on loads, so surely some of the rotation is necessary… but at the same time, this was a qualifying tournament for both the World Cup and the Olympics. On top of that, you are now allowed up to five substitutions, offering more flexibility mid-game than ever before. And there comes a point where you need your best team out there consistently to grow together, build cohesion and gain momentum.
I fully understood and agreed with the need for rotation and experimentation over the last year as Andonovski looked at a younger group. But once you get into a high-stakes qualifying tournament, even if the level of competition is not stretching the team, you need to create some continuity and consistency, as well as breed confidence.
The back four for the USWNT were different in every single game throughout this tournament. The midfield three were different each game until the semifinal and final. The front three only became consistent once Ashley Hatch was injured.
And here is an example of where I struggle to understand the changes: Morgan scored two goals in the opening match vs. Haiti — and as we have seen with her performances in NWSL — she is spilling over with confidence. Instead of keeping her in the starting lineup for the very next game, Andonovski rotated Morgan out and put in Hatch as the starting No. 9. After that, Morgan didn’t score again until the winning penalty in the final. Why not stay with Morgan as a starter in a situation like this and let her ride that two-goal momentum? Let her continue to grow into the tournament. Sub her out of the next game if you are worried about minutes, but start her.
And because I am in the middle of covering the Women’s Euros for ESPN right now, I’ll give you an example of a team who has done nothing but be consistent in their lineups at the Euros: England. They have been rolling, looking like the most unstoppable team in the tournament. To be fair, I understand England is a team that is further along in its development of players, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but still: you could argue they had a similar situation going into Euro 2022 with their No. 9 positions. Ellen White, the veteran and all-time leading scorer for England, had been tussling for the starting spot, with a young and talented Alessia Russo ready for more minutes.
England Coach Sarina Wiegman chose to go with the veteran, White, for their opening game vs. Austria. England won 1-0 and while White didn’t score, she had a good game, but not great. You could argue that the England team in general had a good game, but not a great game. Yet Weigman continued with the same starting XI for the second game vs. Norway, and in that second game, White scored two great goals. The team knocked in eight total for a complete master class against Norway, and have been flying ever since.
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England have gone with the exact same starting lineup for all three games so far in the Euros, even though England did not need a result in the third game as they had already won their group. If White had been rotated out after the first game, along with four or five other players — as we’ve seen so often with Andonovski’s game-to-game management of the USWNT — White and the team would’ve never gotten the chance to knock in those goals, play well together and build confidence as the Euros progress.
I hope the constant rotation of starters under Andonovski is minimized going forward given how much talent you see within this group. Give them time together. Let them grow. Then, perhaps, the early misses in front of the goal eventually turn into early leads. That in itself would have made Monday’s final very different.
Who will be the USWNT’s No. 6, and will it be Andy Sullivan?
I think Andi Sullivan had a good final game vs. Canada, but I don’t think she did enough to firmly stamp her name onto that No. 6 positions throughout these qualifiers.
I know the comparison is tough when we’re talking about Julie Ertz, who was fantastic on both sides of the ball, but the reality is that Sullivan’s not yet able to link players offensively or defend as tenaciously as Ertz. And maybe the US don’t need her to do both, but right now, if Sullivan is not an outlet to release pressure offensively, then I think they need to get more from her on the defensive side.
We shall see if Sam Coffey or Jaelin Howell will impress enough in the NWSL to get more time at the No. 6 with the USWNT, but right now, that seems like a position still to be determined.
Who is Andonovski’s preferred center-back pairing?
I thought Alana Cook and Naomi Girma made a strong argument to win over that center-back pairing at this tournament, but Andonovski has shown that he prefers Cook and the steady Becky Sauerbrunn.
I thought both Cook and Sauerbrunn were impressive in the final. Most of the issues defensively for the US came out wide, not through the inner channels or behind the center-back pairing. The worry, however, is that Sauerbrunn can be vulnerable with her pace against a speedy, creative forward like Haiti’s Melchie Dumornay, as we saw in the first US game.
Whatever the center-back pairing is, I would again make the argument that it needs consistency and time together.
Has the USWNT’s lack of top opponents since the Olympics hurt the team?
I do worry that a lack of top competition will be an issue for the US going forward. These European teams are getting better quickly, and that steep trajectory is in large part due to the fact that they play top quality competition much more than the US does.
The reality is that the US is going to have to start playing a lot more games outside of the US if they want to get to the better teams. Between European qualifiers, World Cup qualifiers, lingering COVID issues and now countries wanting to host their own tournaments — finally, they’re realizing there is revenue to be made in hosting games — I think getting top teams to the US, specifically European teams, is going to be a constant struggle.
For the first time, the US needs to start going to where the best opponents are — not an easy thing to do when sponsors and budget projections are necessitating the US play at home to bring in more money and exposure. But the fact remains, the US needs to be playing against the best in the world, and right now, that is in Europe.
OK, OK — enough of Debbie Downer. Let’s get back to the celebration at hand — there truly is much to be celebrated with this fabulous win on Monday night for Andonovski and the team.
This moment should be cheered and toasted. To know you have secured both the World Cup and the Olympics is such a relief. But as this US team also knows well, celebrations are finite and tomorrow, it’s back to the glorious grind. After all, July 20 marks one year until the World Cup begins in Australia/New Zealand.