Five months remain until the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and if it was not clear before, it should be now: It’s crunch time.
February is a busy month internationally given that it’s the penultimate FIFA window prior to the World Cup. For the U.S. women’s national team, that means all that remains before head coach Vlatko Andonovski names his World Cup roster are games against Canada, Brazil and Japan this week in the SheBelieves Cup and a pair of friendlies in April.
Thus, the 2023 SheBelieves Cup packs an extra level of importance. It is the USWNT’s final opportunity to simulate three games in a week, similar to the demand of the World Cup, and it also marks the best remaining tests for the Americans to prove they are legitimate contenders after three straight losses recently against England, Spain and Germany.
“Even though it’s a friendly tournament, it’s really important for us to want to win this tournament and continue to prove to ourselves why we belong at the top and why we do have the mentality that we have,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan said last week.
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In the past, Morgan’s statement would feel more like a rebuttal against narratives that the rest of the world was catching up, but much has changed even since she and the U.S. won a second straight World Cup in 2019. In several ways, the world already caught up. Combine the shifting global landscape with a generational turnover within the U.S. program — one that will see the team aim for a third straight World Cup title without most of the group that won the previous two titles — and there are legitimate doubts heading into the summer.
Recent results exacerbate those concerns. The USWNT got played off the park by England in a 2-1 loss at Wembley on Oct. 7. In particular, the European champions exposed weaknesses in the USA’s preferred starting midfield of Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan, playing around them and stifling most of the Americans’ creative opportunities going forward.
Four days later came the louder alarm for the Americans, as a second-choice Spain squad pounced on defensive errors both on set pieces and from the run of play to defeat the U.S. 2-0 in Pamplona. Then came a 2-1 loss to Germany in November in Florida, marking the USWNT’s first three-game losing streak in three decades. A 2-1 comeback victory over Germany three days later prevented the first four-game skid in program history.
Now comes another trio of top-11 world opponents, each with a distinct style that will uniquely challenge the Americans.
Canada is the USWNT’s most common opponent and one whose physicality, indelible athleticism and preferred 4-3-3 formation mostly mirror the style of the Americans. A 1-0 victory over Canada at July’s World Cup and Olympics qualifying tournament, the CONCACAF W Championship, remains one of the more convincing U.S. performances from this relatively new and inexperienced squad. That was the first meeting between the teams since Canada defeated the U.S. in the Olympic semifinal en route to a gold medal in 2021, when the U.S. settled for bronze.
Canada’s participation in the SheBelieves Cup became a doubt when the players announced they were going on strike over budget cuts and pay inequities. But the protest was canceled the next day after Canada’s federation threatened legal action if the players didn’t compete. While USWNT members expressed support for the Canadian players, facing a top-ranked gritty, disruptive team will be a test the Americans couldn’t afford to miss out on in preparation for the World Cup.
Japan will bring a customary, organized and disciplined tactical approach with a good amount of technical ability to complement it. Andonovski said earlier this month that he expects to face “a slightly more aggressive five in the back” from Japan.
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Brazil offers a blend of both styles and the most intriguing challenge for the USWNT. Led now by an in-her-prime Debinha, Brazil still possesses all the classic jogo bonito individual flair, now with a level of defensive responsibility and tactical refinement (perhaps still in the form of a classic 4-4-2 variation) under head coach Pia Sundhage. That’s former USWNT head coach Pia Sundhage, to be clear. She is a tactician and motivator who is also acutely aware of U.S. styles and tactics even to this day, as a FIFA coaching mentor to U.S. U-20 head coach Tracey Kevins.
“I love that we’re playing three very different teams,” Morgan said. “These are teams that we haven’t seen all that often, especially Japan and Brazil. It is important to get teams who play different styles.
“Canada is super structured and organized. Brazil, you know they’re going to be great in transition. Japan, they’re just so clean on the ball and they’re gonna break you down if you have one lapse in judgment defensively. They all kind of bring different things, so it’s important to do the fine-tuning now, to do the small things right in the games.”
The USWNT opened 2023 with a pair of comfortable road victories over New Zealand at Eden Park and Sky Stadium, two venues that will host USWNT group games at this summer’s World Cup. The value of those games — and that trip — was more about simulating the World Cup experience in the cities the U.S. team will play its group-stage matches off the field. On the field, given the lower level of quality of New Zealand as an opponent, it was about executing patterns of play.
The Football Ferns did not offer any real defensive test, especially without several top players because the games fell outside of FIFA windows. New Zealand put one shot on goal in the 4-0 loss and did not register a shot in the 5-0 loss three days later. Call it a soft launch to a difficult year ahead for the United States.
Now, the SheBelieves Cup offers what are likely the final challenges of significant difficulty to evaluate what will or won’t work at the World Cup. Results will be important, sure, but not as important as how well the U.S. adapts to each opponent and responds to potential adversity. These games are about mirroring potential World Cup opponents and refining play to be ready for the real thing this summer.
At minimum during this SheBelieves Cup, the Americans need to look the part of a team that can contend at the World Cup.
“All three [opponents] are different in terms of style of play, or even philosophy,” Andonovski said. “That’s why they are in this tournament, because we needed something different — there were different things that we needed to face before we got to the World Cup. We wanted to create all kinds of challenges that we can, so we have enough time to solve it before the World Cup.”