As the U.S. women’s national team bid farewell to two legends of the game in Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz, they also slowly began to usher in a new era.
There were few expectations that this month’s friendlies — a 3-0 win over South Africa on Thursday and a 2-0 victory over the same opponent on Sunday — would bring wholesale changes with Twila Kilgore at the helm. The interim head coach plans to save the major decision-making for Vlatko Andonovski’s eventual successor but still offered hints at what the team could look like when it arrives in Paris for next summer’s Olympics thanks to the introduction of some young players.
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The two matches also served as a reminder of where the team’s strengths still are — and where room for improvement exists after a disappointing round of 16 exit at this year’s Women’s World Cup.
Here are some takeaways from this month’s friendlies.
Refreshing the front line
The USWNT’s World Cup campaign was plagued by arguably the most untimely scoreless streak in the program’s history, but that appeared to be behind them when they played South Africa on both occasions. They scored five times in two games and put on an attacking display that felt like a more familiar version of the squad than the one we saw at the World Cup.
The star in both matches was Trinity Rodman, who scored on Thursday and Sunday and was a constant presence throughout. She led the youth movement up top without Sophia Smith, who is recovering from a mild MCL sprain, and she seems poised to continue doing so en route to Paris. She also earned a ringing endorsement from Rapinoe before her swan song, who said she has “such peace about moving on” because of the talent on the team and name dropped Rodman, Smith and Naomi Girma.
Rodman bolstered her argument as the future of the front line, but a pair of veterans also made a case for themselves. Lynn Williams scored a brace on Thursday and she showed her strength on set pieces, a tried-and-true goalscoring method for the USWNT, while Alex Morgan combined well with Rodman in both games and assisted both of her goals. The performances did not end Morgan’s scoring drought — she has not scored for club or country since May — but showed she’s still useful going forward.
The USWNT’s World Cup goalscoring struggles mean the competition for a spot at the Olympics will be a fierce one, and many will still be curious about other young talent that could make a difference up top. Chelsea’s Mia Fishel finally made her debut on Sunday, when she played 25 minutes and got involved in a few attacking plays, while the San Diego Wave’s Jaedyn Shaw trained with the team but did not get on the field this month.
While the USWNT attack appears to be in good hands without Rapinoe, there are still some question marks around who will slot in behind them in place of Ertz. The newly retired player made a name for herself as a defensive midfielder and during her two-year absence in between the Tokyo Olympics and the World Cup, it felt like the team was able to truly overcome her absence.
Andonovski rotated through a handful of players in midfield with Andi Sullivan eventually starting at the World Cup while Ertz slotted in at center back. The team was defensively sturdy throughout the tournament but Ertz’s ability to seamlessly connect the defense and the attack is a hard act to follow up and raises big questions about what the USWNT’s midfield balance looks like moving forward.
The USWNT’s best performance at the World Cup arguably came during their round of 16 encounter with Sweden, which saw them switch to a 4-5-1 and slot Emily Sonnett into midfield. She returned to the midfield in both games against South Africa, which could be a signal for her future on the squad. The four-time world champions will eventually get a boost when Sam Mewis recovers from knee surgery, which could make the midfield battle just as competitive as the battle for spots on the front line in Paris.
Remembering the good things
The World Cup performance may be far from the USWNT’s expectations, but there were positives to take away from the experience. Chief among them was the team’s defensive performance, in which they conceded just two shots on target in four games and only one goal.
That version of the USWNT’s defense returned against South Africa when they conceded just one shot on target in two games. The opposition outshot the hosts through the first half-hour on Thursday but virtually neutralized them for the rest of the series — in the second game, South Africa failed to take a single shot.
This defensive sturdiness could serve as the team’s backbone in their post-World Cup rebuild and center back Girma is perfectly suited to lead that project. Again, there are questions about who will partner with her in the back — Ertz did that at the World Cup, but Alana Cook played alongside her before the tournament and also started on Thursday, while 2019 World Cup winner Tierna Davidson got a shot on Sunday.