The United States Women’s National Team will be playing in the Olympics after winning the qualifying tournament with relative ease, scoring 25 goals and conceding none over five games. Canada provided a stiff test in the first half of Sunday’s final, but struggled for fitness late, and the Americans posted a 3-0 victory to cap a successful tournament.
New manager Vlatko Andonovski kept his predecessor Jill Ellis’ preferred team mostly intact, making safe lineup decisions to ensure qualification. He’ll now look forward to the SheBelieves Cup in March, when he’ll get to experiment a bit more against England, Spain and Japan.
Here’s what we learned from the USWNT’s Olympic qualifying campaign.
Andonovski isn’t taking chances yet
Andonovski was the most qualified candidate to succeed Ellis for reasons outside of his tactical philosophy, but the fact that he favored a style of play familiar to members of the USWNT was certainly a bonus. While players have spoken up about the positive changes Andonovski has made in training, the team’s core principles remain the same.
The USWNT still likes to play a 4-3-3 with a holding midfielder and two midfielders running forward. One of the wingers still mostly makes cuts inside, while the other still more often stays wide and sends in crosses. The striker still has to drop deep to link up the midfield and attack, and the fullbacks still have license to get forward, though usually not both at the same time.
That’s not to say Andonovski hasn’t made some noticeable changes. The team looks a lot more coordinated when it loses the ball now, with a better understanding of when to press aggressively and when to drop into shape. Build-up out of the back looks a bit cleaner. If anything’s gotten worse, it’s that the team doesn’t look quite as fluid in the final third as it did when the front line of Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe could be written in permanent marker on the lineup card.
But Andonovski is, for the most part, sticking with the same USWNT that won the World Cup. If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.
Still no answers at center forward
The one big problem Andonovski needs to solve is who his starting center forward is going to be. Morgan is going to attempt to make the Olympic team, but a return to top form just three months after having a baby would be unprecedented, and Andonovski has to plan as if Morgan will be unavailable.
Andonovski didn’t get any clear answers about who should take over during qualifying. The trio of Carli Lloyd, Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald all had their positive moments, but none cemented themselves as the undeniable first choice.
Williams was arguably the best of the three, scoring three goals during qualifying and providing this assist for Rapinoe in the final against Canada.
Rapinoe makes it 3-0. We're swooning over that Williams pass. pic.twitter.com/hToJWwQtfr— Our Game Magazine (@OurGameMagazine) February 10, 2020
But there’s a chance Andonovski saw the situation differently. He started Lloyd in the semifinal against Mexico, the match that mattered for qualification, so it appears that the job is still hers to lose. Lloyd is a boom-or-bust player, and figuring out what to do with her would be difficult.
Left wing and central midfield aren’t settled, either
Notably, Christen Press didn’t see much time at center forward. Many fans assumed that she’d be in contention to take over from Morgan, but Andonovski appears to see her as a winger, in competition with Rapinoe and Heath for playing time. A front line of Heath, Press and Rapinoe seems like an obvious way for Andonovski to get his best talent on the pitch, but it appears that he wants a more physical presence than Press through the center.
There’s also an ongoing competition in the center of midfield, where it’s not clear if Sam Mewis or Lindsey Horan is going to be favored going forward. Making either of those two players sit on the bench seems outrageously harsh. Both have consistently been top performers for the USWNT and their clubs, and they are two of the five best midfielders in the world. But stylistically, neither can replace the tricky Rose Lavelle or defensive-minded Julie Ertz, so they have to compete with each other.
Of course, these difficult lineup decisions might not matter in the long run. Olympic competition consists of just 16 teams of 18 players each, and condenses six games into two weeks. Every single player on the Olympics roster will be needed to play big roles throughout the competition. At the end of the day, all of Rapinoe, Press, Heath, Horan and Mewis will likely play a similar number of minutes if the United States makes its way to the gold medal match.
The back line looks just like it did during the World Cup
While Andonovski might make some alterations to Ellis’ preferred front line, he doesn’t seem to have any interest in messing up the back line’s chemistry. Many people speculated that Crystal Dunn would move higher up the pitch after the coaching change, but she was the only player who played in every game of Olympics qualifying, and she played left back.
The quartet of Dunn, Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper and Kelley O’Hara appear set to stay together through the Olympics.
Expect the USWNT to really experiment at SheBelieves
A qualifying tournament is not the place to mess around, even if you know you have the best team. But the SheBelieves Cup, which takes place in March, will be perfect for trying out new players and tactics.
Youngsters Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh, Alana Cook and Tierna Davidson could all see playing time in that tournament if they’re healthy. While none of them are favorites to make the Olympics given the small size of the squad, they are the team’s best young talents, and they deserve a chance to make cases for themselves.
Andonovski could also take a look at one or more of his project defenders. Cook and Davidson are established pros on the back line, but Margaret Purce, Hailie Mace and Imani Dorsey are fighting to prove that they’re national team level defenders, too. All three of them are converted forwards who will need some seasoning to master their new roles.
Playing the safest possible team to ensure Olympics qualification made sense. Now Andonovski has to find out what other great players he has waiting in the wings.