The U.S. National Women’s Team, or USWNT, is heading down under for the Women’s World Cup, which is set to kick off Thursday. It’ll have a target on its back — with America being the dominant power in women’s soccer, a third straight World Cup win is the expectation, not an aspiration.
The rest of the world has meaningfully invested in the women’s game, and it’s paid dividends. The Stars and Stripes fell to their northern neighbors, slumping to bronze at the Tokyo Olympics. 2022 saw Team USA record a rare three-game losing streak, with consecutive defeats to England, Spain and Germany. Even continental qualifying wasn’t spotless: the USWNT only scraped past Canada via penalty, and nearly folded against a dogged Mexico.
But Team USA won’t rest on its laurels. Retired legend Carli Lloyd told New Zealand newspaper Stuff that she expects “the most competitive World Cup to date,” and thinks as many as 10 teams could win it all.
Speaking to Fox Sports, star striker and Cal alumna Alex Morgan singled out England as the team’s biggest rival. Sarina Wiegman’s Lionesses sauntered to the European Championship on home soil, and arguably match the US for talent.
It’d be easy to bill this tournament as a last dance for America’s golden generation. The likes of Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O’Hara are all in their mid-to-late thirties, playing in their fourth World Cup. They’ve built legends on the pitch as players and off the pitch as activists, and they’ll want to go out on a high.
If the United States wins it all, the trophy will certainly be owed them.
But the nation’s young talent cannot be ignored. 22-year-old Sophia Smith has supplanted Rapinoe on the wing, with youngsters Alyssa Thompson and Trinity Rodman — yes, that Rodman — not far behind. To his credit, U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski has prioritized bedding in the next class: Andonovski has debuted 15 players since taking the reins in 2019.
He’s got a fine rope to walk. The veterans have spades of experience on top of their talent, but age catches up to the best. While the old guard will have to come through in the clutch, Andonovski still has to bank on new blood.
Andonovski’s biggest weakness is not knowing his best XI. He constantly fiddles with his lineups, even as rival teams such as England have theirs set in stone. Andonovski’s high-pressing, possession-hungry system is highly intricate. His players need to grow into it as a unit, and the manager’s tinkerman approach could prevent that cohesion.
Injury troubles make this chemistry issue even worse. Team captain and ace defender Becky Sauerbrunn will miss the tournament with a foot injury, as will prolific goalscorer Mallory Swanson with a torn patella. Versatile forward Catarina Macario hasn’t recovered from an ACL tear in time. Even if Andonovski did know his best lineup, he probably wouldn’t be able to use it.
Amidst all this uncertainty, it’d be tempting to back a new winner. Perhaps England or Germany, better-gelled teams more fortunate in the injury department. For the first time in a long time, the USWNT looks distinctly mortal.
But it’s the USWNT. For all his potentially questionable choices, Andonovski led an older, less talented squad to victory in France four years ago. Morgan, Rapinoe and company have pulled lightning out of a bottle before, and the next generation is ready to make a name for itself.
The USWNT will meet an early litmus test in the group stage. 2019 runner-up Netherlands will be out for blood, and Portugal and Vietnam are no slouches. England, Sweden, France and Germany could await in the knockouts, all eager to slay the giant.
This tournament will be a trial by fire. And as the returning champions, the spotlight will hang heavy over Team USA.