Friday, April 12, 2024

USWNT panic meter: Assessing the damage after shock defeat to Mexico in Concacaf W Gold Cup

The U.S. women’s national team’s rapid rebuild ahead of the Olympics took a big hit on Monday night, when the hosts lost 2-0 to Mexico to finish second in Group A and fall down the Concacaf W Gold Cup pecking order ahead of the quarterfinals. You can catch all the action and coverage of the tournament across Paramount+, CBS Sports Network and CBS Sports Golazo Network.

Mexico stymied the USWNT from start to finish thanks to their impressive press, which was the basis of their ability to maximize the squad’s technical proficiency and outshot the opposition despite being out-possessed. The match is primarily a statement win for La Tri, who arguably provided a blueprint to beat the USWNT, but the outing forces questions of the tactical vision the team has demonstrated in recent months as well about several individuals, that includes the coaching staff, currently led by interim Twila Kilgore as the team awaits Emma Hayes’ May arrival. It also demonstrates that even if the Americans are looking to the future, the issues that led to the team’s early exit at the Women’s World Cup may not fully be in the past.

USWNT losses tend to set off alarm bells, but with a few months left to go until the team travels to Paris, the match against Mexico offers plenty of learnings that could help them finally move on from their World Cup disappointment.

Here’s a look at the USWNT’s potential pain points that were on display against Mexico, ranked by levels of panic they should inspire.

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No panic needed: Center back situation

Kilgore selected veterans Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper, who were the starters on the 2019 World Cup winning team, against Mexico, but it quickly appeared to be the wrong choice. The pair were too slow for Mexico’s quick and smart attack, led by Maria Sanchez and goalscorer Lizbeth Ovalle, and were unable to respond successfully to La Tri’s press.

Their appearances in the lineup seemed more experimental than a sign of the coaching staff’s preferences considering who was on the bench — Tierna Davidson and more notably, Naomi Girma. Barely three years into her professional career, Girma has already established herself as the USWNT’s default in that position as someone who is the picture of a modern center back. She boasts incredible defensive ability, has the speed the older pair does not, and, above all, has the ability to play out of the back in a way that sets the tone for the USWNT’s entire style of play.

Considering Girma was the lone bright spot of the USWNT’s doomed World Cup campaign last year, there’s no world in which she’s healthy and does not start the team’s most important games. Anyone who suits up next to the 23-year-old is poised to benefit from it, but Davidson shares a similar tactical profile and at 25 years old, is the likeliest candidate to occupy that role. Even if one is searching for depth outside of Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn, the USWNT might have it in Alana Cook and Jenna Nighswonger, though both are still somewhat untested at the international level.

Low-to-medium panic: Player pool as a whole

The center back picture reflects the player pool at large, which ties into perhaps the biggest indictment of the team selection against Mexico. Kilgore and company leaned more on veterans than they did on the promising young talents and while there is reasonable criticism of those choices, the result can also be described as a last chance for more established players to make their case — and some of them simply did not.

Many have rightfully hyped up a handful of the USWNT’s up-and-comers, from World Cup participants like Girma and Sophia Smith to newer players like Jaedyn Shaw and Olivia Moultrie. Between Monday’s match and the World Cup, though, the team seems a little hesitant to give them a real shot to prove their worth. After the defeat to Mexico, it feels like there is no other alternative but to hand things off to a youthful version of the team, but it’s also the only way to test their promise.

Though the Emma Hayes era is still in its soft launch period, it is a focus on the long-term by design. She will have just two months to prepare for the Olympics, almost deprioritizing it in the process in order to better accomplish future goals and setting the 2027 World Cup as more of a realistic target to make a statement. The preparation for the Olympics and the tournament itself, though, will be crucial experience for the team’s future and a pivot to youth now might be the only way to build some level of cohesion before Paris.

It’s time to find out if the kids are, in fact, alright — and if there are still some gaps in the player pool.

Medium panic: Response to adversity

Though it took Mexico 38 minutes to score their opener, the game state favored them from the start thanks to their tactical plan. America’s players and the coaching staff showed an inability to adapt when things were not working, which was troubling considering the veteran experience on the field. Even for the experienced, it was an unfamiliar position — in 2023 and 2024, the team has spent just 112 minutes in a losing position.

The reason why it might be early to ring the alarm in this case is because the USWNT, sooner or later, will move on from a generation that is used to being untested. A younger lineup might be the right call based on their abilities alone, but they will be the ones tasked with navigating the new world order in women’s soccer where the USWNT is not always necessarily on top. We still have no idea how they will respond in the immediate term, but the optimistic view is that with minutes under their belt on small and big occasions, they will build the skill set to navigate such issues.

Medium panic: In-game management

The defeat to Mexico spotlighted both mistakes in team selection and tactical preferences, which meant the USWNT’s 4-2-3-1 was arguably not designed to resist Mexico’s pressing 4-3-3. Kilgore’s attempts to fix the problems, though, never panned out.

Kilgore  utilized the halftime break to make two changes — Emily Sonnett for Lynn Williams and Alex Morgan for Smith. Sonnett was assigned to accompany Sam Coffey and add extra cover against a Mexico team that overcame the USWNT’s midfield time and time again, but it was a defensive alteration in a match that demanded offensive fixes. Morgan was more of a like-for-like substitution, and so she seemed ill-positioned to make the USWNT’s nearly non-existent attack better. Shaw, meanwhile, got a 12 minute cameo when the game was out of reach from a tactical standpoint.

The team also played extremely narrow for much of the game, meaning their talented wide players like defenders Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox and attackers Trinity Rodman and Williams were sometimes nowhere to be found. Mexico’s play actually afforded the USWNT space on the wings but they weirdly never capitalized, limiting the impact of a substitute like Midge Purce. Moreover, it  demonstrated an inability to assess areas of weakness on the spot and a confident spontaneity to change things up when needed.

It’s hard to assess if this is a long-term issue, since Hayes was not on the touchline, but while she finishes out her spell at Chelsea, it remains a pretty notable question mark.

Medium-to-high: Persisting attacking woes

The big story of the USWNT’s early exit at last year’s World Cup was their sputtering attack, and Monday’s loss felt reminiscent of that woeful spell.

While Mexico had 13 shots and made the most of their four shots on target, the USWNT put just one of their nine shots on frame. The hosts also lost the expected goals battle 0.33 to 0.88, and that was with a starting group that included Smith, Rodman, Williams as well as Rose Lavelle in midfield.

The situation continues to feel like the player pool is not being maximized. Shaw and Moultrie were available players who could have made an impact, while two players who are slated to return from injury very soon — Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario — should add to the USWNT’s offensive riches in the short-term. The fact that the attacking no-shows continue to happen, though, is a worrying thing that the coaching staff must continue to prioritize in the run-up to Paris.

Five-alarm-fire panic: Discordant midfield

While answers seem to be forming on where the USWNT need to go in defense and with their forward line, the most in flux area of the pitch for the last several years has been the midfield, and the loss to Mexico did not clear things up at all. The starting trio of Coffey, Lindsey Horan and Lavelle lacked cohesion and were unable to take advantage of the 61% of possession the USWNT boasted, nor could they stop Mexico’s attacks in their tracks with any regularity.

Since Sam Mewis‘ last meaningful minutes with the team at the pandemic-delayed Olympics in 2021, the balance has felt off in the center of the park and the coaching staff might be in a bind with the player pool. Coffey did little to make her case on Monday, likely leaving Sonnett as the primary choice to anchor the midfield despite her limited experience as a defensive midfield at the international level. Horan disappeared for much of the game against Mexico with 53 touches in 90 minutes, and Lavelle hit lower marks with 41 touches in 78 minutes.

The latter two are still very much in the mix for the Olympics, but it feels as if they are improperly deployed at the moment. It really makes one wonder what Moultrie and Korbin Albert can offer despite their limited international experience, as well as Macario once she’s back in the fold. The coaching staff clearly needs to do some soul-searching in this category, though — it might solve a lot of problems if they do.

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