هات بت : US Women’s World Cup exit review: Andonovski, injuries, more

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MELBOURNE, Australia — The reign of the U.S. women’s national team as Women’s World Cup champions is officially over, as a millimeter was all that separated a Lina Hurtig penalty shootout tally for Sweden from an Alyssa Naeher save. You have to go back 12 years, when Japan defeated the U.S. in the 2011 Women’s World Cup final, to find the last time the U.S. was eliminated from a World Cup. This time, it marked the earliest exit from a World Cup in the program’s history.

In some ways, the end of the U.S. team’s two-tournament run as World Cup winners was a shock, coming as it did on the night when the Americans delivered by far their best performance of the tournament. But in other ways, the defeat was a long time coming, with cracks in the U.S. team’s dominance evident even before the Women’s World Cup.

Here are the factors that contributed to the USWNT’s demise.

The USWNT had too many injuries

The U.S. wasn’t the only country to encounter injuries — England was without four key players, and France had several out — so the U.S. can’t cite injuries alone for its exit. But the USWNT would have had a stronger team if its players had been healthier.

Mal Swanson, Catarina Macario, Becky Sauerbrunn and Samantha Mewis all were missed as probable starters. Before Swanson’s injury, she had accounted for most of the USWNT’s goals on her own. Had she been at the World Cup, she could’ve made a difference for this team, which collectively struggled to put balls in the back of the net. — Carlisle

Andonovski picked the wrong roster and lineups

The injuries and roster issues are intertwined to a degree. While the defense performed well despite Sauerbrunn’s absence, the ripple effect meant that Julie Ertz wasn’t available in midfield. From there, Vlatko Andonovski had limited options, though some of his decisions were perplexing, even without the injury impact.

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The front line seemed filled with redundant parts, as Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman and Lynn Williams possessed a lot of the same traits, namely a desire to run at defenses. Megan Rapinoe’s presence as a pure crosser of the ball made sense, but there were no other options when it became clear she was out of form.

Probably the biggest lineup-decision problem was the construction of the midfield. Once Ertz moved to the back line, Andonovski decided to play Andi Sullivan as a lone holding midfielder despite having doubts about Sullivan’s suitability for the role, and having experimented with a double pivot earlier in the year. The U.S. midfield struggled mightily against the Netherlands and Portugal, and the performance against Sweden was the best of the tournament in large part because of the double pivot.

It more or less confirmed that this setup should have been used earlier in the tournament, and that Andonovski should have called in the personnel to do it reliably. — Carlisle

Poor in-game management from Andonovski

The USWNT could’ve given itself an easier path than Sweden in the round of 16. All the Americans needed to do was beat the Netherlands, but Andonovski’s subs (or lack thereof) seemed to help ensure the draw.

After Lindsey Horan’s second-half equalizer, the USWNT had momentum and the Netherlands players were losing steam. A sub could’ve sealed it. But Andonovski opted to bring in none, a decision that was widely criticized.

Against Sweden in the round of 16, a tight game that went into extra time, the only sub he brought on to make an impact was Rapinoe, whose touch was off all night. As the Swedes struggled to keep chasing the very direct Americans, Andonovski opted not to go to his bench, which could have taken advantage of all the running Sweden had to do and the physical toll that took. — Murray

The youth pipeline isn’t producing the right players

Anyone who has followed the youth national teams knew this day would come. The USWNT’s under-20 team did not get out of the group stage at both the 2022 and 2018 U-20 Women’s World Cups. The U-17 USWNT did get out of the group in 2022, only to be eliminated in its first knockout game, and previously crashed out of its groups in 2018 and 2014.

If the U.S. isn’t producing the best young players, it won’t produce the best senior players. The young players who made this World Cup roster — the likes of Smith and Rodman — are potent, but one-dimensional, forwards. Injured forward Macario, who brings flair and creativity, developed her game in Brazil before moving to the United States.

You also have to question the role of scouting when it comes to which players break through. Injured forward Swanson, a player known for her pace and athleticism, first caught the attention of the youth national team at 13. Rose Lavelle — arguably the most creative player the USWNT has other than the injured Macario — didn’t earn her first youth call-up until she was almost 18.

For U.S. Soccer to have the best, most technically gifted and creative players available at the senior level, it needs to find these players at the youth level and bring them all the way through to the senior side. — Murray



Alex Morgan ‘not planning’ retirement after World Cup exit

Alex Morgan says she has no immediate plans to retire after the USWNT was eliminated from the World Cup by Sweden.

USWNT lacked chemistry and couldn’t finish

Before the 2019 Women’s World Cup began, some of the players took to calling their teammates their “22 best friends.” During the tournament, the players said they spent tons of time together, and still chose to hang out even when they didn’t have to. They went to cat cafés and made the most of their downtime.

This USWNT in 2023 was all business — perhaps to a fault. Lindsey Horan and Lynn Williams said before their round-of-16 match that the players agreed they wanted to play with more joy, but it’s hard to force that. In New Zealand, the American players didn’t seem to do much fun or bonding. When asked how they spent their downtime, they said recovery and meals were their main activities when not training.

On the field, they looked tight and as though they were trying to force something to happen. Despite an expected goals (xG) through four games of around nine goals, they managed four. They created chances, but the individual chances were mostly not good enough, and when they were good enough, the players couldn’t finish.

It’s hard to say how or why a team gets the yips in front of goal, but this version of the USWNT certainly lacked the sauciness and the fun-loving flair of past teams. The players desperately wanted to score and to put in good performances, but that approach might have been their undoing. — Murray

The USWNT was too overconfident

There’s no reason to believe the USWNT players showed up expecting to cruise through the beginning stages of the World Cup — but if they had, could you blame them?

Fresh off winning back-to-back World Cups against a backdrop of global dominance since the USWNT launched in 1985, the thought of the team struggling through the group stage seemed almost inconceivable. The optics of players doing podcasts and sponsored content during the tournament, or wearing designer suits to their matches, probably didn’t help the perception that they expected a leisurely start to the tournament.

While this could have been a factor — did players prepare the way they needed to? Did they have the right mentality in games? — we’ll never know. The players worked and ran relentlessly during games, trying their hardest to score and either getting unlucky or lacking quality.

The goals never came, nor did the possession play, passing or the other elements needed to win a World Cup, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort. — Murray

The team was caught between two generations

The influx of youth into the national team was a factor, but it had to be done. The team’s poor performances at the Tokyo Olympics demanded change, with injuries accelerating this trend. But this is also something that happens within every cycle and shouldn’t cause a team to implode — certainly not a team with such potential and history as the U.S. women.

After the 2015 Women’s World Cup triumph, we witnessed the retirements of Lauren Holiday, Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach, while Carli Lloyd took on a reduced role. Granted, Rampone and Wambach were no longer full-time starters, but it points to the fact that ushering players out is a constant for a national team program.

An argument can be made that Andonovski should have done this sooner, but the impulse to give the 2019 World Cup winners the chance to repeat their feat at the Olympics was powerful. — Carlisle

The global gap has closed

This is a factor that has been impacting U.S. performances for a while. The rest of the world is catching up in terms of the caliber of player, as well as their fitness. The question posed by Netherlands manager Andries Jonker about “What is left of [the USWNT’s] superiority” beyond fitness proved prophetic — the answer was “not much.”

Up and down the competition, we saw established sides struggle against up-and-coming opponents. One need look no further than Portugal for an example of a country whose clubs have invested more in their women’s teams and then seen a corresponding increase in performance at international level. In a 0-0 draw to close the group stage, Portugal was the better team on the ball.

Then consider the group-stage exits of women’s soccer powerhouses Germany, Brazil and Canada because these teams all failed to beat lower-ranked teams. Whatever you’re feeling about the U.S., it’s indisputable that the gap has well and truly closed. — Carlisle

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