For most of Thursday night in Columbus, the United States looked like world champions.
In their first game under new head coach Vlatko Andonovsky, the USWNT looked indomitable. They seemed in control and poised to make a statement of intent. The last 15 minutes weren’t... great. But there are still lots of positives to get from this game— as well as some clear opportunities or improvement.
Here are our takeaways from USA 3-2 Sweden.
Preferred Positions? In THIS Economy??
Vlatko Andonovsky’s bona fides are such that he was hailed as one of the safer choices for the USWNT’s new head coach. That view was validated an hour before kickoff, when the teamsheet was released.
That’s a 4-3-3 with everybody playing in more-or-less preferred positions, although it actually played out as a 4-1-4-1. It sounds like such a simple thing, but given Jill Ellis’ penchant for, just to throw out an example, playing forwards as fullbacks, Vlatko’s teamsheet felt almost revolutionary in its straight-forward approach. Carli Lloyd sent out as a battering-ram #9 was a smart move that solved several problems at once. (That decision paid off quickly, too, as Lloyd put the US on the board in the 6th minute.)
There will no doubt be time and opportunity to Vlatko to experiment with lineups and positioning. But for this maiden voyage, the new head coach made the decision to put his players in positions where they could do what they do best. That’s a very good early sign for the team going forward.
The New Coach Bounce
Even when a head coach departs under amicable circumstances, the arrival of the replacement is usually greeted by players as an opportunity for a fresh start. That, combined with some players feeling like they have to fight to keep their jobs, leads to some stronger performances to kick off a coach’s tenure with the team.
What I’m trying to get at is, this is not the same team that drew 1-1 with South Korea last month. The defense held firm and the forwards were feeling themselves all night. This team looked confident and in control through the first half and well into the second. Even with Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett not looking like they were quite at 100%, the team never looked particularly vulnerable until Anna Anvergård went into Beast Mode. It was one of the better performances we’ve seen from the USWNT since last summer.
The trick for Vlatko, obviously, will be figuring out a way to bottle this energy and keep it going once the honeymoon is over. (Getting better at closing out games won’t hurt, either.)
One frustrating thing about the Jill Ellis era was seeing talented players in the pool get routinely passed over for minutes. With a new head coach in place, some fans (and media) held out hope that some of these players would get a long-overdue opportunity to show what they’ve got. Even with a no-nonsense starting lineup, it looks like Vlatko is indeed willing to give some of these fringe players a look.
Chicago Red Stars defender Casey Short played a full 90 minutes against Sweden, putting on a strong performance that showed why she belongs in the national team conversation. She took her World Cup snub over the summer in stride, using it as an opportunity to become a leader for her club team while waiting for her next WNT opportunity. Don’t be too surprised if Short ends up locking down her spot at right back ahead of Olympic qualifiers.
Similarly, North Carolina’s Lynn Williams came on for Christen Press in the second half, giving her her first cap since the 2018 SheBelieves Cup. While she didn’t get the goal, she helped the US’ forward line maintain pressure and keep Sweden pinned back in their own half for long stretches of time on both sides of the pitch. Not to play the What If game, but the fact that she hasn’t been in the national team mix for a minute seemed like a shocking oversight after last night’s performance.
It’s a strong sign of encouragement that Vlatko is willing to give players who struggled to get minutes under Ellis a fair consideration. The team will be stronger for the competition, and some players— like Short and Williams— will get a chance to take their game to the next level.
What were your takeaways from the game? Let us know in the comments below!