The USWNT went undefeated in the SheBelieves Cup after beating Canada and Japan in earlier games. But now, the next tournament on the calendar is the Women’s World Cup, which kicks off for the Americans on July 22 in New Zealand.
1. USWNT wins SheBelieves Cup, but now the World Cup awaits
The U.S. women’s national team didn’t even need to win against Brazil to secure its sixth SheBelieves Cup trophy — a loss by one goal still would’ve been enough for the Americans to finish atop the standings, and the USWNT cleared that low bar and then some with a win over Brazil on Wednesday.
Winning the SheBelieves Cup is nice, and the American players have earned a nice little bonus payment for it, but ultimately this tournament largely exists to prepare the USWNT for the World Cup. To that end, it might warrant a bit of worry that the Americans never quite put together a full 90-minute performance during the SheBelieves Cup, including against Brazil.
As Crystal Dunn said before heading into the locker room for halftime: “It’s not our best half. We gave away some cheap balls, but it’s about resetting now.” The match result and the tournament are marked down as wins for the USWNT, but — as Dunn suggested — the performances were not as confidence-inspiring, and the USWNT’s slow start was palpable on Wednesday.
That might be fine — winning ugly counts all the same as winning in style, and lifting a trophy at the end of the 2023 Women’s World Cup is all that matters. The USWNT would surely take its wins at the SheBelieves Cup over the worrying losses last fall to England, Spain and Germany. But the performances in this tournament do leave seeds of doubt, and the fact remains that the World Cup is a different beast than the SheBelieves Cup.
2. Brazil’s counterattack gives the USWNT a key test
Brazil certainly had its chances to score on the USWNT — almost all of them came from quick counterattacks, and usually with Kerolin slicing her way through the midfield.
That led to some nervy moments when American center-backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Naomi Girma were caught alone trying to keep yellow shirts at bay as fellow defenders Dunn and Emily Fox were far flung upfield.
This isn’t a new concern for the USWNT, and before the Americans won the World Cup 2019, it looked like the USWNT’s tendency to get caught overcommitting in the attack was its chief (and arguably only) vulnerability. No one made the Americans pay in France at that World Cup, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a risk that the Americans took. And that Brazil left the U.S. defense scrambling in transition the way they did gave the U.S. yet another good stress test after Canada and Japan presented different challenges in the first two games of the SheBelieves Cup.
To be clear, Dunn and Fox, the two American full-backs, are doing exactly what U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski wants from them. The Americans get forward and they have a very attack-focused approach, even against top-ranked teams, but if Brazil and in particular Adriana had just finished their chances, this could be a different postgame conversation.
3. What’s the Plan B for the USWNT?
Andonovski has spoken openly about his desire to use this tournament to refine and ratchet up the intensity of the USWNT’s press and counter-press. Alex Morgan‘s goal in the third minute of first-half stoppage time gave a glimpse of why the USWNT’s press is so important: Off a Brazil turnover, the U.S. transitioned quickly, Mallory Swanson had a shot blocked, and Morgan picked up the rebound with a well-taken finish that took advantage of Brazilian goalkeeper Lorena being caught off her line. Swanson’s goal in the second half also came from a turnover.
But in the moments the press hasn’t worked against teams like Brazil or, in the previous match again, Japan — when opponents have been able to settle into their shape and be patient — the Americans have run out of ideas quickly. When those spaces haven’t been pried open by catching a team in transition, the USWNT often resorts to playing direct over the top in a brute force attempt, which sometimes can create something out of nothing but more often is a good way to lose the ball.
The return of Rose Lavelle from a muscle strain injury could help. She found seams to move the ball into with varying success against Brazil, but often crumbled under pressure as Brazilian players converged on her. If she can be on her A-game in Australia/New Zealand this summer and the American midfield can click well enough to move the ball more quickly, that can help open things up for the USWNT. If not, the USWNT could find it will need more at the World Cup as teams shut down those spaces, particularly in the final third.
Best and worst performers
Best: Alex Morgan, USWNT
No one on the USWNT can take a beating during a match like Alex Morgan can, and the USWNT relied on her to absorb much of the pressure from a physical Brazil side. Even before her well-taken goal from outside the box, she had a would-be goal waved off that might’ve stood if a VAR review were possible. She does a lot of work that isn’t lauded, but deservingly got a goal to her name.
Best: Mallory Swanson, USWNT
What more is there to say at this point? No one on the USWNT is finishing like she is these days and there’s a reason she was named the best player of the SheBelieves Cup. She has eight goals in her past six games now.
Best: Kerolin, Brazil
She gave the USWNT back line fits with her incisive dribbling and passing, and she was at the heart of all of Brazil’s promising attacks.
Worst: Debinha, Brazil
The bar is high for the Kansas City Current forward who has been one of the best players in the NWSL and for Brazil, but she couldn’t get into the game and was subbed off at halftime after touching the ball only 16 times.
Worst: Trinity Rodman, USWNT
A bubble player trying to secure a spot at the World Cup, Rodman wasn’t consistent enough to wrestle away the spot that opened up with fellow winger Sophia Smith missing this tournament’s roster for injury. Although Rodman’s defensive work rate was good, and she is still an up-and-coming player with a bright future ahead of her, on this night she often wasn’t able to link up with her teammates and ended promising attacks by losing possession.
Worst: Adriana, Brazil
She had the chances, but she just couldn’t finish them. Ultimately, that may have been the difference in this match. Swanson and Morgan are reliable finishers, and Brazil just didn’t have that when it needed it. That, of course, does not all fall on Adriana, but she have the best chances on the night.
Highlights and notable moments
Alex Morgan scored the USWNT’s opener at the end of first-half stoppage time.
The USWNT won the ball in the midfield and sprung into transition, with Mallory Swanson taking a shot that was blocked. Morgan collected the rebound just outside the box, swiveled around and struck for a splendid finish.
— U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (@USWNT) February 23, 2023
Mallory Swanson doubled the USWNT’s lead in the 63rd minute.
Again, the USWNT pressed and won the ball in the midfield and then transitioned toward Brazil’s goal. Rose Lavelle laid it off to Swanson, who placed it well.
Mallory Swanson does it again!
— NBC Sports Soccer (@NBCSportsSoccer) February 23, 2023
In the 90th minute, Brazil pulled a goal back.
Bruninha lofted a long ball to the far post and Ludmila headed it past USWNT goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher.
After the match: What the players and manager said
U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski on winning the SheBelieves Cup: “I don’t think we’re going to talk a lot about the title. We’re actually going to talk a lot about the play and the details and we’re going to use these games in preparation for the World Cup. That’s what’s good about this, not necessarily the title. We enjoy winning the title, but it’s the outcome of this game is what is more important for us. The whole time throughout the tournament while we’re in camp, we’re talking about how it’s not just about this tournament, it’s about preparation for the World Cup.”
Mallory Swanson on Brazil playing very physically and pressing: “Yeah, I just remember before the game, Vlatko said ‘Expect that it’s going to happen, expect that they’re going to come out hard.’ We did that and we weren’t on our heels. There were definitely times that they had transition and they were running at our goal, but I think that helped me going into the game expecting that and expecting it’ll be a dogfight, you could say.”
Swanson on winning the SheBelieves Cup and the experience for players: “The first game [against Canada], we started off really fast. Against Japan, we didn’t start off as fast but we still found a way, and today we just kind of controlled the game. Brazil is a great team and they have really crafty players. Overall, it’s just a really good experience for everyone, especially some of the younger girls who don’t have as much experience — they played a lot of minutes. Especially Foxy [Emily Fox], she played outstanding this tournament. Lindsey [Horan] played outstanding — she played almost three 90-minute games back-to-back-to-back. So, there are definitely some people who stepped up big-time and it’s going to take that.”
Swanson on knowing opponents raise their level to play the USWNT: “If you shift your mindset, that’s exciting. We’re going to get everyone’s best game, and if we go out and put our best performance out there — sometimes we’re not going to be able to, sometimes it’s going to like against Japan a grind — but it’s exciting that we’re going to get everyone’s best game and we can ultimately play our game and continue to work on us and the details and continue to grow.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
Alex Morgan scored her first goal from outside the box for the U.S. since June 19, 2014, vs. France.
Morgan has scored or assisted in each of her four appearances for the U.S. in 2023.
Mallory Swanson’s six-game scoring streak is the longest by a USWNT player since Christen Press scored in six straight from November 2019 to February 2020.
Swanson has scored half (7/14) of the goals by the USWNT in 2023. Rose Lavelle and Alex Morgan are the only other players with multiple goals (two each).
Ludmila scored the first goal that the U.S. has conceded in five games in 2023 — the U.S. had won its first four games by a combined 12-0 before Wednesday’s match.
United States: The USWNT has one more international window left until the Women’s World Cup. The games in that window in April have not yet been announced by U.S. Soccer, but reports suggest it’ll be a pair of games against Ireland on April 8 in Austin, Texas, and April 11 in St. Louis, Missouri. The USWNT’s World Cup starts on July 22, when the Americans face Vietnam in their tournament opener in New Zealand.
Brazil: The Brazil WNT will face England in the Women’s Finalissima, which pits the Copa América Femenina winner (Brazil) against the winners of the Women’s Euro (England). That match will take place at Wembley on April 6. Then Brazil’s World Cup begins on July 24.