Updated: Aug 5
For the ninth time in the history since the beginning of the CONCACAF W-Championship, the USWNT was the last team standing. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski starts the charge as the younger generation has taken its first step toward taking the torch from the old guard. Five wins, 13 goals scored, and a win against the team that eliminated them in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics confirmed the USWNT's fate not only in the World Cup but the 2024 Paris Olympics. Alex Morgan's penalty in the second half was enough to propel a team that failed to execute on numerous opportunities due to the phenomenal goal-keeping of San Diego Wave goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan.
The USWNT may have possessed a sensational goal-scoring record during the competition but in reality, it was quite deceiving. Some could credit the lack of ability to finish in front of the net due to the small amount of experience that the majority of players had at the international level. Watching England, and Germany in the European Championships, fans began to marvel at their ability to score and defend at will against poorer opposition. There is no question that the talent is there in the USWNT, and when the team gets healthy once again, the problem could be solved, but for now, the lights of a massive international tournament almost proved to be too bright.
After passing through the group stage relatively easily, Andonovski spoke about where his team is in relation to World Cup preparedness, stating, "I have to say if you asked me if we are ready to play in the World Cup tomorrow, we’re probably not ready for it...But we are going to be ready in a year, absolutely."
Top European sides this summer that the United States is going to take on in 2023 possess far more experience than this team has. Without regulars like Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, Lynn Williams, and Christian Press, there were not as many players to lean on for that much-needed wisdom down the stretch of a qualifying tournament. From the leading candidate in the NWSL MVP discussion firing an uncontested shot over the bar to the veteran Alex Morgan smashing a shot off target, the build-up play is there, but the quality to finish it off at a consistent rate needs work. In all, the USWNT still managed to put 41.6 percent of its shots on target, over six percent better than their CONCACAF rival to the north. Canada is a tough side that has pedigree up and down its roster, but given the efficiency that the USWNT was breaking it down, the scoreboard should have looked a whole lot different at the end of 90'.
Five of the 11 players in the starting lineup for the United States in the W-Championship final had fewer than 20 caps under their belt. Three of them were defenders, while Sophia Smith only collected 19 caps up until the last game of the qualifying tournament. Watching Morgan rise to the top of the USWNT roster ranks after being pushed aside for quite some time is a breath of fresh air this squad needed. With players like Mewis, and Catarina Macario out, others got the chance to shine, and that should help take the depth of this team to the next level.
It wasn't a perfect performance in the tournament by all means for the Americans, despite not giving up a goal, that final touch in the box was lacking more often than not. On the flip side of it, Andonovski got the chance to see Emily Fox, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma, and plenty of his younger talent carry the load en route to leading the country to a World Cup and Olympic berth. While Alex Morgan and the old guard are still very much alive, Sophia Smith still had the chance to start every match and play the second most minutes of any U.S player during the tournament. The demonstration of the ability to rotate each match, and the depth of the squad was on full display with the entire world watching.
Heading into the World Cup next summer, Andonovski is going to have a seemingly insurmountable job of selecting a team of just 23 players. The questions will begin to be asked as Megan Rapinoe's career slowly comes to a close at the international level, and whether or not Press should get a chance to prove her worth following a sensational start to the season with Angel City before the injury. This tournament just moved the USWNT a step ahead of the pack. Without a squad at full strength, the youth movement has begun to take over, and with it comes valuable time in a competition against teams it may see in just a year's time.
The United States does not play again until September 3, and 6 at Children's Mercy Park in Kansas City for two friendlies against Nigeria. With the future sealed in the next two biggest competitions in the world, it will give Andonovski time to try different players out, and decide which 23 he is going to take the World Cup in Australia & New Zealand. Execution in the final third was the most glaring issue, and if that is all that this young United States team struggled with, this group is on a pretty good trajectory. Friendlies, training, and matches at the club level will continue to foster the promising youth of this team. Five games is a small sample size at the club level, but at the international level, one game can decide if you will be moving on or going home for the next four years. The pressure is massive, and in their first major tournament, the new generation showed they are ready to take the baton.
More bodies should come in and challenge the ones that made the squad for the W-Championship in the coming months. From Williams to Macario, the reinforcements in the frontline should be coming in the foreseeable future. The amount of pressure playing for the United States has on each player mental is more than an average fan can imagine, and to see a player like Casey Murphy who had four caps heading into the tournament thrive under the lights was a positive sign moving forward. 13 players that were on the USWNT roster at some point during the tournament came in with 15 or fewer appearances for the stars, and stripes and they left more confident than they were when it began. That is the story of international football, cherish the old while ringing in the new, and the USWNT is a prime example of how to execute it to perfection.