In September, the USWNT crushed Paraguay in back-to-back friendlies by a 17-0 aggregate score. This past week, the USWNT crushed Uzbekistan in back-to-back friendlies by an 18-1 aggregate score. While the September matches felt mostly a waste of time, the April matches felt instructive and useful, for both Vlatko Andonovski’s plans moving forward and U.S. fans trying to figure out those plans.
While the U.S. would have been far better served playing an opponent of higher quality, there was still much to be gleaned from the April friendlies, far more so than the unfortunate September friendlies in which Andonovski’s hands were tied on player selection, especially with the Carli Lloyd farewell tour in full swing.
The U.S. beat Uzbekistan 9-1 in Ohio on Saturday and 9-0 in Pennsylvania on Tuesday, thoroughly destroying the 48th-ranked team in the world. Just like the September friendlies, the USWNT would have had better competition with an intra-squad scrimmage than Uzbekistan, but U.S. Soccer has TV contracts to fulfill, and no other nation was available for reasons ranging from World Cup qualifying to Covid.
The difference this time around was Andonovski had free reign in roster selection. No longer required to choose players from the Olympic team that flubbed its way to a bronze medal, Andonovski chose a young group of players who are likely to be the core of the USWNT for the next five years, through the 2027 Women’s World Cup cycle. The question became: How many of these players are ready to contribute now, and how many will be replaced by veterans once the matches start to count for something?
While it’s impossible to get definitive answers from two big blowouts, we learned a few things ahead of the Concacaf W Championship this summer, which will serve as qualifying for both the 2023 Women’s World Cup and 2024 Olympics (because god forbid Concacaf have more than one qualifying tournament for women).
Why USWNT Played Uzbekistan — What We Learned
1. Andonovski Really Likes That Front 3
I think a lot of NWSL fans are wondering right now what 19-year-old Trinity Rodman has to do to get into the USWNT starting lineup against the 48th-ranked team in the world. I think the other way to look at it is Andonovski really wants the front three of Catarina Macario flanked by Sophia Smith and Mal Pugh to gel ahead of the Concacaf W Championship.
The front line is one of the biggest questions going into this World Cup cycle. Carli Lloyd has retired, Megan Rapinoe is nearing retirement and Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Christen Press will be north of 34 by the time the next WWC kicks off. Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald seem to have been forgotten.
Based on the fact Andonovski started Macario-Smith-Pugh for both Uzbekistan friendlies — plus two of the three 2022 SheBelieves Cup matches — it’s clear Andonovski likes this trident and is preparing them for what will be a challenging Concacaf W Championship in Mexico in a few months. Aside from the frustrating 0-0 draw with the Czech Republic, the front three has responded. The USWNT has scored 28 goals in its last four games (Midge Purce started in place of Pugh against New Zealand, but it was a similar forward line).
At 22, Macario is already proving herself to be well worth the hype. She’s kicking ass with European powerhouse Lyon and brings a level of soccer IQ not always seen from a USWNT that can often win on strength and speed alone. Smith and Pugh are dazzling on the wings, able to create with their dribbling, link-up play or pace while also getting into the box to finish. The trio combined for 13 of those 28 goals in the last four games.
Based on how he treated the Uzbekistan friendlies, it appears Andonovski might stick with that trio when the games get real this summer. Rodman, the 2021 NWSL Rookie of the Year, could be one of the first names off the bench as she continues to learn the international game, meaning playing time could be limited for Morgan, Press and Heath.
That said, the attacking options might be restricted when the World Cup rolls around next summer. Australia requires anyone coming into the country to be vaccinated against Covid-19, and the USWNT isn’t fully vaccinated, with reports suggesting that’s why Pugh and Rodman turned down an invite to play in Australia in November.
I’d be shocked if Morgan, Heath and Press aren’t still contributors for at least one more World Cup cycle. Their skill, experience and finishing abilities aren’t yet being matched by the younger generation. But they might not be surefire starters in Australia and New Zealand. As for Rapinoe, she’ll be 38 when the 2023 Women’s World Cup kicks off, so her starting days are likely over. But she’s still the best striker of a dead ball in the player pool, be it corners, penalties or free kicks, so it will be interesting if she’s picked for the Concacaf W Championship, if healthy.
2. Midfield Might Need Help
While it’s hard to complain too much about a midfield that racked up possession numbers of 74 and 67 percent, the midfield three isn’t settled right now. Well, except for Rose Lavelle. She’s starting every game she’s healthy.
With Julie Ertz out for the foreseeable future while pregnant plus Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis struggling with little injuries here and there, there are question marks in the middle of the pitch for the U.S.
If Horan and Mewis aren’t healthy to play in Mexico, it’s anyone’s guess who Andonovski will go with.
Andi Sullivan is a stellar metronome in the NWSL but hasn’t always set the pace as well with the national team. It’s clear Jaelin Howell is a future starter, but she’s not quite there yet. Ashley Sanchez is exciting to watch, but she fills a role similar to Lavelle and therefore is likely a substitute at best for the time being. Kristie Mewis brings a lot of mobility to the midfield, but at 31 she may be left behind by the younger players as we approach the 2023 World Cup.
So long as Horan and Sam Mewis are healthy, the midfield will be fine moving forward. The younger players will be well equipped for most matches in the Concacaf W Championship, but things could be dicey against Canada and moving into the Women’s World Cup.
3. Defense Actually Has Depth
Again, it’s hard to discern too much from matches where the opposition hardly had the ball, but the defense was solid, aside from that somewhat embarrassing goal allowed on a corner kick, the first goal against the USWNT in the U.S. since Japan scored on the Americans in the 2020 SheBelieves Cup.
Assuming she’s healthy, Becky Sauerbrunn is still one of the first names on the team sheet moving forward, even if she’ll be 38 at the next Women’s World Cup. The indefatigable leader of that defense with more than 200 caps is irreplaceable for the time being, plus she needs to finally bag that first USWNT goal. Her usual center back partner, Abby Dahlkemper, is 28 and entering her prime.
After those two, the center back options are looking good to provide needed depth. Alana Cook is coming into her own, Tierna Davidson is a rock and Naomi Girma has shown why she was the first overall pick in the 2022 NWSL draft, even ahead of Howell. While there wasn’t much defensive work to do against Uzbekistan, the distribution of Cook and Girma was superb. Imani Dorsey could also be a strong option to fill in when Sauerbrunn eventually retires.
At fullback, Crystal Dunn’s absence while pregnant leaves an opening at left back that Emily Fox has firmly grasped. In fact, Dunn may find she’s more desired in midfield or attack, where she plays for club, than defense when she returns. Kelley O’Hara is still going strong at 33 and can play either fullback position. I’m not sold on Sofia Huerta at right back (I’ve always thought she’s a better wide midfielder), but with Emily Sonnett and Casey Krueger also in the player pool, Andonovski has options. Just please, no more Jaelene Daniels.
At goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher is still the undisputed No. 1, even if she allowed a goal to Uzbekistan. Aubrey Kingsbury received her first cap in Tuesday’s match, but I think Andonovski touched the ball as often as Kingsbury, who wasn’t tested and didn’t make a single save.
The U.S. — both men and women — will never lack for goalkeepers, and with Adrianna Franch, Jane Campbell, Casey Murphy and Bella Bixby all in the mix, there’s no need for Andonovski to spend a minute worrying about his backstop.
The USWNT will play two more friendlies in June before the Concacaf W Championship in July. After that, assuming the U.S. avoids catastrophe and qualifies, attention will fully turn toward who Andonovski will take to Australia/New Zealand. We got a sneak peek this past week in the Uzbekistan friendlies, even if the matches were blowouts without too many redeeming qualities.