From our latest issue, Sean Maslin looks at the return of the USWNT as they prepare for the year to come, particularly the summer Olympics in Tokyo.
After eight long months, the United States Women’s National Team was back. When the USWNT took the pitch in Breda it marked the first time since their 3-1 win against Japan on March 17th that the side had actually played a game together. For a team that through the years had grown together primarily because international football was the only game in town that is certainly a marked change from the norm.
The good news is that business will certainly be picking up for the USWNT come 2021. With the Olympics still slated to go on in Tokyo and the potential for a changing of a guard there are more than a few interesting storylines to follow in 2021. Here are just a few to keep an eye on:
Much like all other facets of life, COVID-19 will undoubtedly have an impact on how the USWNT plays and trains in 2021. 2020 already showed how things may look in the interim with head coach Vlatko Andonovski setting up a training camp in October for players based in the United States and the November friendly largely consisting of players based in Europe. With travel being restricted between Europe and the United States right now, asking players to quarantine for friendlies and training at the expense of their club’s might not be equitable. While the National Women’s Soccer League in the United States may be willing to release its players for international duty clubs such as Manchester City and Manchester United may be more reluctant, especially if international matches fall outside of the international window dates.
So Andonovski will at least in the interim need to continue with a ‘two team’ model which has been employed in men’s soccer through the years but has never really been used in the international game. There is a little more flexibility within women’s soccer than the men’s game which should create some overlap between the two sides. But it isn’t going to be perfect and for a side that has through the years been pretty consistent it will be a challenge that they need to overcome.
When the initial roster was released for the Netherlands friendly what was interesting to see was how many new faces on the roster. The team featured eight players with less than ten caps and nine players that were 25 and under. Players such as Sophia Smith, the 20 year old forward from the Portland Thorns, Jaelin Howell of the Florida State Seminoles and Alan Cook of Paris Saint Germain each played critical roles in the 2-0 win over the Dutch. They aren’t the only players turning heads. Catarino Macario (Stanford), Brianna Pinto (University of North Carolina), Margaret Purce (Sky Blue FC), and Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit) have also impressed this fall and will be looking for bigger spots within the USWNT going forward.
There are two reasons for why 2021 may see more new faces than previous years for the USWNT. First, as mentioned before, travel restrictions will play a huge role in Andnovski’s ability to call in certain players. Players such as Howell, who is still in college, or Cook, who plays in Europe, may get additional call-ups if they have the flexibility to do so. The same can be said for players who play in the NWSL for USWNT friendlies based in the United States.
Second, Andonovski seems to understand that post-Olympics there may be a changing of the guard with his veteran players. Players like Carli Lloyd (age: 38), Megan Rapinoe (35), Ali Krieger (36), Alex Morgan (31) and Becky Sauerbrunn (35) are all edging closer to retirement and may want to leave the USWNT on top with a Gold Medal. They have certainly earned it and through the years Andonovski has proven himself to be a player’s coach.
Through the years the USWNT have hit rough patches when veteran players were exiting and the new generation were taking over. This group does seem different though and Andonovski has done an excellent job at blending the two groups together rather than forcing change. That should help in the months to come and hopefully make for a strong side come Tokyo.
Rapinoe and Lloyd
While this may be a younger team, make no mistake about it: this is still Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd’s team. The duo have formed the backbone of the USWNT for the past 15 years and lead the club not just on the pitch but also off of it as well. While Morgan, Sauerbrunn, and Krieger have also been integral to the success of the National Team over that time frame (along with many others as well) Rapinoe and Lloyd are the two main driving factors.
The question is now: Where do they go from here with the side? The main motivating factor for both seems to be winning Olympic Gold in Tokyo. Their still seems to be a bad taste in how things finished in Brazil 2016 and that seems to motivate to continue to move forward and do what they can to push the next generation to continue their dominance.
2021 may be the last year we see Rapinoe and Lloyd in the US colors but it should be an exciting ride.
The Summer Olympics
When it comes to women’s soccer there are two major tournaments: the World Cup and the Summer Olympics. With the USWNT having won four in the past they are undoubtedly the favorites to get top honors.
The competition though will be stiff. Australia, Brazil, Canada, Netherlands, and Sweden have all already qualified along with the hosts Japan. So has Great Britain, which will be represented by England having secured the spot by being the highest ranked side of the four Home Nations. Given that the Olympics are a smaller competition than the World Cup and there are less minnows in the Group Stages that will make for a much bigger challenge for the USWNT to overcome. All of these sides are looking to overtake the United States in the global pecking order and may sense a chance in Tokyo.
The key for Andonovski’s side is to avoid a slow start. At the 2016 games, the USWNT struggled through the group stages, barely defeating New Zealand and France while tying Colombia. That put them against their old rivals in Sweden who beat a disorganized USWNT in penalties. In a tougher tournament they cannot start slow out of the gate. Otherwise, they may find themselves leaving early.