The U.S. Women’s National Team experienced a disappointing run at the Women’s World Cup, advancing as the runners-up out of their group and eventually losing in the Round of 16 to Sweden. That stands as their worst finish in a Women’s World Cup, and has led to questions about where the program goes from here.
So, let’s try and answer those, as the USWNT picks up the pieces from an underwhelming performance Down Under.
What went wrong?
Is everything an acceptable answer here?
Because it might be the right answer.
But to dive into what went wrong for the USWNT Down Under we need to take a step back. The team entered the tournament with critical injuries to key players, forcing major roster adjustments. The team lost midfielders Catarina Macario and Sam Mewis, captain Becky Sauerbrunn, and forward Mallory Swanson. Given the team’s struggles to create scoring chances, the loss of Swanson particularly stung, as she scored seven goals in six games before her knee injury.
That left the USWNT without four likely starters. In their place coach Vlatko Andonovski selected a roster with 14 players making their World Cup debut, a record for the team.
That put the onus on the squad to find some chemistry and cohesiveness in the weeks leading up to the World Cup, and in the tournament itself. It seemed like that never truly happened until the match against Sweden, when they played some of their best attacking soccer but were still lacking in the final third.
Beyond that, consider what USWNT veterans Tobin Heath and Christen Press told our own James Dator just last week. Given the new faces, the team was struggling to find their identity during the tournament, which is often not a good sign. “They’re still figuring it out,” Heath said, “we referenced 2015 a lot, that was a tournament that while we were playing the tournament we were figuring a lot of things out.”
“This is two lineups in a row that aren’t used to playing with one another,” Heath added. “[T]hey played a [Netherlands] lineup that was more cohesive and had a better understanding of what they were trying to do.”
Then there was a matter of tactics. Andonovski was criticized for a lack of substitutions, something that lingered into the match against Sweden, but there was also concern about how he structured the squad on the pitch. In all three group matches, the US relied on a 4-3-3 format, but struggled in the midfield. For the match against Sweden he made some changes, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 and having both Andi Sullivan and Emily Sonnett in as a pair of 6s, or defensive midfielders?
The result? More balance in their attack and better play through the midfield. During group play the USWNT was heavily reliant on attacking down the left side of the pitch, through Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, and Sophia Smith. According to this analysis of their match against Portugal, 18 of their final-third entries came down that flank. Only eight came down the right side, and 24 through the center channels.
Against Sweden it was much more balanced, as 11 attacks came down the left side and 10 down the right, as the USWNT found opportunities with Sonnett and Trinity Rodman down the right. They were on the front foot for the bulk of the match, holding possession for 58% of the match while putting consistent pressure on Swedish keeper Zecira Musovic. They United States had 22 total shots, 11 of which were on target. Compare that to just nine shots for Sweden, with only one on target.
However, that final flourish could not be found. The match came down to penalties, a matter of millimeters, and ultimately the Swedes were celebrating, and the USWNT was thinking about flights home.
What comes next?
As the USWNT makes their way home, the question of where they go from here lingers.
The biggest? The fate of coach Vlatko Andonovski.
The fate of Vlatko Andonovski
In the aftermath, the biggest target of criticism has been Andonovski, who was hired to take over the USWNT in the fall of 2019, after Jill Ellis stepped down. Andonovski was largely viewed as a “player’s coach,” and his relationship with players in the NWSL was a big factor in his hiring. At the time of the hiring the legendary Grant Wahl reported that Andonovski was the hire that the players themselves preferred:
“Multiple sources said Andonovski was by far the preferred choice of the current USWNT players, some of whom have said they were consulted by WNT GM Kate Markgraf as she went through her search process.”
Now, however, much of the speculation centers on who will replace Andonovski, whose contract runs out following the Women’s World Cup. Since taking over Andonovski guided the USWNT to a third-place finish at the Olympics, and a 51-9-5 record overall.
But guiding the squad to their worst-ever finish at the Women’s World Cup is expected to cost him his job. Following their loss to Sweden U.S. Soccer released a curt statement, declaring that “[a]s we always do after a major tournament, we will conduct a review to identify areas of improvement and determine our next steps.”
It is hard to think that Andonovski’s tenure survives that review.
A changing of the guard
Something else to consider is the changing of the guard taking place on the roster. This was a young squad that Andonovski brought Down Under, due in large part to injuries, but some very familiar faces might have suited up in their final World Cup for the USWNT. Megan Rapinoe announced her retirement ahead of the tournament, and Julie Ertz seemed to indicate she would be stepping away following the loss. Other veterans such as Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher could make similar decisions ahead of the 2027 Women’s World Cup.
However, there is a good amount of young talent on this roster, which does bode well for the future of this team, despite the disappointing finish to this run. Andonovski brought a young squad Down Under, and as noted by charting data from OptaJack, players 23 and younger accounted for nearly a quarter of the minutes played by the USWNT in this World Cup.
That could pay off in a big way down the road.
“We have a long future ahead,” forward Lynn Williams said following the loss to Sweden. “There’s a lot of young talent. “I think it’s hard to see right now, but we’ll be back.”
“Look at some of these players, how they’re playing, these young players coming up and, and doing such big things for this team already at their age,” said Horan. “So I think the potential of this team moving forward and going into the Olympics next summer, it’s going to be outstanding.”
After all, consider this:
Sophia Smith - 22— ESPN (@espn) August 6, 2023
Trinity Rodman - 21
Naomi Girma - 23
Emily Fox - 25
Alyssa Thompson - 18
The future is bright for the USWNT ❤️ pic.twitter.com/8frb2k3KTb
This World Cup might have just aligned with the moment a changing of the guard was getting underway. In a way the USWNT might have been caught between two generations: The group that won two-straight World Cups, and the group that will be tasked with picking up the torch from them.
Couple that with the injuries the squad endured ahead of the WWC, and you have a recipe for struggled in the present, but a potential huge payoff in the future.
Their next shot at redemption
So when can that future begin?
The first shot at redemption for the USWNT comes at the 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris, and the Opening Ceremony for those Olympic Games is less than a year away.
The USWNT has already qualified for the 12-team tournament slated for Paris, and improving on their recent Olympic form would be a massive first step at a redemption story. The USWNT won the Gold medal back in 2012, their fourth title at an Olympics, but since then their performances have been rather underwhelming.
They were bounced out of the quarter-finals in 2016 in a loss to Sweden that also came down to penalties, and settled for Bronze at the following games after losing to Canada in the Semi-finals. Improving on that recent form would go a long way towards easing fears about the USWNT’s future.
More immediately? The USWNT is slated for an International Friendly against South Africa, who also advanced to the Round of 16 before losing to the Netherlands, on September 21.
Now we will wonder who will be at the helm when that match begins.