Sunday, July 21, 2024

A new-look USWNT finally turns up, but patient strategy conflicts with rapidly approaching Olympics

Three and a half games into the post-Women’s World Cup era for the U.S. women’s national team, signs of a rebuild finally emerged. Forwards Mia Fishel and Jaedyn Shaw came on for Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith to earn their first meaningful minutes for the national team, showed glimpses of promise, and then delivered as each scored their first international goals in the team’s 3-0 win over Colombia on Sunday.

For some, their introductions were overdue and the performances only confirmed that belief, especially as it pertains to the USWNT’s offense. The team that was once well known for their scoring exploits experienced their earliest ever World Cup exit after a nearly 300 minute goal drought and then brought back memories of that streak in Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Colombia. That series of events ushered in a call to bring in fresh faces across the board, with Fishel and Shaw being just two of the names on the list.

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Though the wait for the 22-year-old Fishel and 18-year-old Shaw to earn meaningful minutes felt lengthy, the idea of earning two caps over a four-game stretch is not an indication that either player is off to a slow start in their international careers. Yet, the four-time world champions are on a rushed timeline — a chance to redeem themselves at the Olympics is just nine months away.

The team seems to be operating with that in mind. Interim head coach Twila Kilgore, who likely wrapped up her spell in charge with Sunday’s win, praised Fishel and Shaw not just for their outings but for the patience they and the other young players on the squad have exhibited during the last two months.

“They’ve had an onboard process,” Kilgore said after Sunday’s win. “We’ve introduced them to the environment with a little pressure. They’ve been dressed, had an opportunity to learn specific things and then got their first caps and then got extended playing time and made the most of it so we’re really, really pleased with how they’ve seized those opportunities but also their patience and the path that we’re helping them to create.”

Kilgore’s four game stint in charge of the USWNT has literally been a push-and-pull of paying tribute to legends like Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz, ushering in a new generation, and leaving a blank canvas for Vlatko Aondovski’s eventual successor. Patience, according to Kilgore, was the only way to juggle all of those balls.

“We had some players that didn’t play enough minutes in the World Cup to get the type of look that the next coach is going to need towards the Olympics,” she added. “They needed to play more. We needed to send off two really special legends in the game for us and we needed to onboard these players and get minutes, and it may not happen as fast as the public wants but it happens with a strategy. There’s a reason behind it and now this team, I truly believe, is in a good place to move forward with lots of different types of selections for the next head coach.”

Kilgore slowly but surely signaled towards the future during her brief spell in charge, particularly on Sunday, when only two members of her starting lineup were over the age of 30. The pace at which she worked reflects that of U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, who prioritizes the process when selecting head coaches. The federation is reportedly close to making a decision, but even if everything is going according to plan, the policy of patience seems inherently at odds with its aspirations.

A patient and thoughtful approach is the ideal scenario when making important decisions, including the leader of the sport’s most successful team. That said, regardless of who — and when — U.S. Soccer selects a new head coach, another adjustment period is in the cards and only five international breaks are on the calendar between now and the Olympics. It means that the USWNT likely does not have enough time to infuse new ideas before heading to Paris, which forces a series of questions as the quick turnaround from the World Cup continues.

Primarily, it is worth asking how far small fixes to the squad will go. Sunday’s win showcased not just talented young forwards that can address the scoring woes but a rejuvenated midfield formation and personnel that might also address the problem starring three World Cup players — Emily Sonnett, Lindsey Horan, and Savannah DeMelo. It’s also worth remembering that the USWNT may have traveled to Australia and New Zealand with many veterans, but they also brought with them several young stars that are already poised to usher in a new era. The core for the future might be set, and those players already boast promise.

The biggest question of all, though, might just be if a turnaround in Paris amidst a rebuild is too tall a task for any team. If that is the case, the USWNT’s onlookers may need to adjust their expectations next summer and focus more on the progress rather than the podium. That is not a sign to count out the U.S. in Paris and most certainly not after the fact when they have time to settle in. It’s merely a reminder that, quick timeline or not, Kilgore might have a point about patience being key.

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