Alex Morgan is fifth on the USWNT’s all-time scorer list (120), and the only active player in the top eight. She’s scored important goals, iconically mimicked sipping tea after scoring against England in a 2019 World Cup semifinal, and is the central figure in the federation’s marketing of the team – evidenced by a somewhat cringy 20-ft touring statue of Morgan as the Statue of Liberty.
All of this has made Morgan synonymous with the USWNT, and as far as blasphemies go ahead of a World Cup: You don’t spit in church, streak in The Louvre, or bench Alex Morgan. But USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski should give that last one some serious thought.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way anyway
It’s important to remember that the original plan was for the USWNT’s 2023 attack to look drastically different from 2019, with perhaps the most significant difference being Catarina Macario replacing Morgan. Unfortunately Macario tore her ACL and will miss 2023, and, since tearing her patella tendon in an April friendly, so now will the speedy and dynamic Mallory Swanson, who was locked in at left forward.
Prior to their injuries, the prospect of the new frontline being constructed (Swanson-Macario-Smith) was well worth getting giddy about.
Macario is a generational talent capable of transforming the way the USWNT played. Macario’s inherent knowledge of what an attack needs and placing herself in the most dangerous spaces is a consistently useful attribute made exponentially more dangerous when added to her outrageous technical skill (Exhibit A). This combination, and what could be done with it, made her starting over Morgan an obvious decision.
The trio finally got their chance to shine during the 2022 SheBelieves Cup, and revved their highest in the third match against Iceland. Macario and Swanson bagged braces as they tortured an Iceland squad who sit 15th on FIFA’s rankings (higher than Vietnam and Portugal, two of the USWNT’s three 2023 World Cup group stage opponents).
The dominance was cemented by the 5-0 scoreline, but the real thrill was their movement, which never allowed Iceland defenders the benefit of recognizable patterns.
Swanson’s second goal of the night was a perfect synopsis. Macario dropped to control a throw-in, flicked the ball ahead to the attacking midfielder (Ashley Sanchez), Swanson swapped wings while Sophia Smith was making a #9 run between two CBs. Two decisions from Macario and suddenly Iceland had a brand new set of rapidly moving problems to deal with.
The case for Macario over Morgan wasn’t about a newer, younger player, it was a chance to utilize an expanded skillset to generate more problems for defenses than a target forward. Now, with Sophia Smith becoming a central goal creating colossus, a similar reasoning can be applied, and it’d be a waste to not take advantage of her reign of terror.
Sophia Smith is in her demon era
Sophia Smith is the most in form forward on the planet, and has been for roughly a year and a half. Currently she leads the NWSL in goals (10) and is second in assists (5), giving her 15 direct goal contributions across just twelve starts.
Smith has been unbelievable, and unstoppable, as the Portland Thorns’ center forward. Last season Smith racked up 14 goals and 3 assists as part of a strike partnership with the greatest international goal scorer of all-time, Christine Sinclair. This season Sinclair has dropped into midfield, leaving central striking duties all to Smith.
Though her production is important, the case for Smith extends beyond goal and assists numbers. What really sets Smith apart and causes headaches for defenders, is her ability to manufacture chances at goal from anywhere in the attacking half, and primarily (and crucially) directly through the heart of defenses.
Like Macario’s skillset, Smith’s ability is rare and ultra useful as the focal point of an attack.
She has tremendous balance, control, strength and quickness, allowing her to turn or dribble by defenders from anywhere – then head directly toward goal. Smith has also become a lethal finisher with either foot, and is currently outscoring her expected goals (xG) by a healthy margin, netting ten goals from 7.65xG.
This overperformance from a player like Smith doesn’t signify a hot streak, but rather high quality strike placement and shooting ability, and her post shot xG backs that up.
Her goals against the Washington Spirit are perfect examples; they were all scored among a crowd of defenders, with both feet, and by finding the angles, corners or using pure power to beat one of the best keepers in the league in Aubrey Kingsbury. Each shot increased in expected goal value after Smith struck the ball (post-shot expected goal; PSxG): from .11xG to .66PSxG, .03 to .39, and .23 to .29. (Stats courtesy of StatsBomb)
ANOTHER SOLO GOAL FROM SOPHIA SMITH!!!— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) June 24, 2023
Smith is now tied with Kerolin as the league's goal-scoring lead pic.twitter.com/bR9S8IkJ0h
Smith is also a threat to put her foot through the ball and find the back of the net from outside of the box. Currently, half of Smith’s ten league goals have been scored from outside of the box.
The stunning thing about most, is that they haven’t been screamers that find the top corner, instead Smith is drilling shots low and hard after picking her spots and shooting early. This is giving keepers very little chance at getting low enough in time to keep shots out of their net.
Smith’s combination of direct play, cheat code 1v1 attributes (strength, balance, close control, acceleration), and shooting ability with either foot have made her an inescapable nightmare for defenses, and one of the best central attackers on the planet.
The USWNT case
A knee injury forced Alex Morgan to miss the trip to Wembley in late 2022, so Andonovski gave Smith her first start as the USWNT #9 against England, in front of over 76,000, just over two months after they won the EUROs. Smith scored and setup a stunning equalizer for Rodman that was ruled out due to a questionable offside call.
However, once Morgan returned to fitness, she reclaimed her starting role and position.
The argument for Smith starting centrally for the USWNT is about allowing her to be the full version of herself that we’ve been witnessing in Portland. It also makes sense for the USWNT players available for this World Cup, and as a solution to the struggles the team has had throughout the bulk of Andonovski’s tenure.
Unfortunately, and annoyingly, the USWNT has seemed unsettled and imbalanced by Andonovski preferring control while the bulk of the team’s newer personnel are at their best when running free. As he’s lost key pieces to maintain dynamism within his style, gameplans have become predictable, and matches against all levels of competition – from Germany to Wales – have felt like trudges through mud.
Starting Smith centrally is recognition that the team needs to re-manufacture dynamism from central areas more than it needs a target forward.
Additionally, the wingers Andonovski will likely rely on the most during the World Cup are Lynn Williams and Trinity Rodman. Both forwards who are exceptionally fast, have a keen eye for assists, and are relentless out-of-possession whether pressing or tracking back. Both also enjoy the freedom to work in tandem with teammates across the forward line to drift, dart, or pull into or out of spaces to create or fill openings.
If the USWNT are to rediscover dynamism from central areas, Smith working between Williams and Rodman poses a major problem to defenses. Smith, Rodman and Williams have blazing bursts of acceleration to keep up with one another when one springs free with the ball. Smith, however, is the stronger of the two, giving her the option of going on trademark runs after possession is won deep or holding the ball while Williams and/or Rodman dusts poor fullbacks suddenly finding themselves in a foot race they’re likely to lose.
Against Wales, the trio combined to break open what had been another predictable and repressed performance. Lynn Williams drifted into the center circle to fight for possession. Once won, she slid a through ball to Smith who was darting into the box. Smith’s run drew the keeper out and a parallel run by Rodman gave her an easy cross box pass for the assist.
LYNN -> SMITH -> RODMAN pic.twitter.com/UI0ZnCrEnO— Diaspora United Pod (Crystal Dunn’s Lucky Charms) (@DiasporaUtdPod) July 9, 2023
While it’s not the supernova that was promised from Swanson, Macario and Smith, if allowed, Rodman, Smith and Williams can be devastating in their own way.
Create depth where there isn’t any
There’s also a case for the move that benefits Alex Morgan. While Morgan would surely like to start, it wasn’t that long ago that the team and its supporters started getting comfortable with the idea that Morgan would have to play a different role by 2023. Then she had a great first season with San Diego Wave and won the 2022 NWSL Golden Boot, Catarina Macario tore her ACL, and everything reverted back to the way it was.
However, Morgan is 33-years-old, and while still capable of leading a line, the current construction of the USWNT’s attack means she shouldn’t have to – and, more importantly, wasn’t meant to.
Instead, a lower volume of minutes would help Morgan stay close to peak fitness, and pose a new set of problems to tiring defenses. Players with pinpoint deliveries like Megan Rapinoe, Sofia Huerta and Savannah DeMelo are likely to come on as subs, and giving them a fresh Alex Morgan to aim for would put them all in a better position to impact games.
Morgan is still more than capable of scoring important goals late in matches, whether adding insurance to secure a win, or getting a strike over the line to break a deadlock. While the suggestion of having Smith replace Morgan may seem like a hot take and/or recency bias, there are reasons well beyond form to make the switch.
Without Macario and Swanson, the USWNT attack – while still absurdly loaded – should seek to benefit from the complete Sophia Smith Experience, rather than running back 2019’s gameplan against sharper, more confident, and better prepared competition.