The U.S. women’s national team is officially going to Tokyo this summer for the 2020 Olympics – but everyone pretty much expected that. Rather, the most important takeaways from the USWNT’s Olympic qualifying tournament revolve around the competition within the U.S. squad itself.
With 25 unanswered goals through five games, the U.S. looked utterly dominant against mostly under-resourced CONCACAF teams in this qualifying tournament – but that doesn’t mean new coach Vlatko Andonovski will have everything figured out by the Olympics.
Here is a look at some of the key takeaways from the CONCACAF qualifying tournament:
Battle brewing at USWNT striker spot for Olympics
There was only one match in the tournament that truly felt like a serious endeavor, the Olympic berth-deciding match against Mexico, and if Andonovski’s starting lineup in that game is any indication, Carli Lloyd is probably the USWNT’s go-to starting striker at the moment.
Lloyd is striker unlike any others on the roster. She’s not the type to stretch defenses and chase down balls, but she can score from all areas of the field in a variety of ways and she is good at working the ball in tight spaces to create chances.
Among her critics, her reputation is as a selfish player, but there is a flip side to that: Lloyd tends to put the team on her back and come up big in when the USWNT needs it. Look no further than her goals to win gold at the 2008 and 2012 Olympics or the 2015 World Cup.
Asked before this camp about Lloyd’s standing in the team, Andonovski highlighted that track record.
“Her performance is extremely valuable but also her experience is extremely valuable,” Andonovski said. “She’s played games under pressure, she’s scored decisive goals, and all those components make her very valuable for at least the qualifiers and hopefully we qualify and she can be important going forward as well.”
But going off of current form alone, it would be difficult to argue Christen Press shouldn’t be starting up top instead.
Press has plenty of pace to lead a counterattack, but is especially adept at taking on defenders face-up with the ball at her feet. Her ability to cross and provide service has noticeably improved over the past two years as she has vied to be a winger in previous coach Jill Ellis’s system, but Press’s most natural position is as a striker up top.
The question that we don’t quite have a concrete answer to is whether Andonovski prefers Press on the wing or up top. The same could also be said for Lynn Williams, who put in hardworking performances in this tournament to try to be one of the few non-World Cup players to break into the team ahead of the Olympics.
The problem for Williams is that, despite the pace and power that makes her a similar threat to Alex Morgan, around whom the USWNT attack has largely been built, Williams’ finishing hasn’t been clinical enough, leaving her with ground to make up in the striker race.
Of course, this whole discussion is predicated on the idea that Morgan will not be a viable option for this summer’s Olympics. She’s due to have her first child in April, although it’s not unheard of for USWNT players to come back pretty quickly after pregnancy, every player is different.
Morgan is apparently doing as much as she can to bounce back swiftly – she’s still doing drills at seven months pregnant, and looking pretty darn sharp.
Does USWNT attack need to get younger and faster?
The U.S. attack is poised to be comprised of veterans, whatever Andonovski does.
Lloyd will turn 38 by the time the Olympics start. Megan Rapinoe will be 35. Tobin Heath will be 32. Press is 31. Jessica McDonald, who may or may not fit into Andonovski’s plans and didn’t do much in this tournament to push her case in either direction, will be 32.
To varying degrees, none of the attackers leading the USWNT line are in their prime ages, and some critics who are eager for various NWSL stars and youth national team players to get chances would call the USWNT attack old. But there’s another way to look at it: The USWNT is attack is experienced, and that’s a valuable thing.
The USWNT had the oldest rosters at both the 2015 World Cup and the 2019 World Cup by average age, and they won both tournaments. During the tournament in France, the players talked about the experience of the veterans helping keep the younger players steady, even when matches, such a nail-biter against Spain, got tough.
But the concern may be that an age-induced drop-off in form can be precipitous, and older players can get injured more easily. The problem is that there aren’t any young players who have shown they are good enough to replace the veterans ahead of them, at least right now.
Mallory Pugh is only 21 and she has appeared to be the future of the USWNT since she was 17 – but Andonovski cut her from this qualification roster amid a lack of consistency from the winger. He did invite her to be part of the qualification camp, even though she wasn’t on the roster, suggesting she could right the ship before Tokyo, but her form to date hasn’t warranted a spot.
Then there’s Williams.
Andonovski hinted before the tournament he saw Williams as a No. 9 striker, but perhaps her best moments during qualification came when she was out wide, chasing down balls and providing service into the box, such as when she lost a shoe en route to assisting a Press goal.
She’ll be 27 in time for the Olympics, and using her on the wing could be the antidote to any concerns that her finishing isn’t lethal enough as a striker. But that would require Andonovski to take a chance on using Williams in a way that hasn’t really been her bread and butter to date.
The fact is, putting some younger players on the roster just for the sake it isn’t a smart approach, and until there’s tangible evidence that a younger player would be better than whoever the USWNT has now, the attacking line seems unlikely to change before Tokyo.
“In constructing this roster, I didn’t want to look at age – whether they are old or not,” Andonovski said before the qualification tournament started. “It was about whether they can do it or not, whether they are good or not.”
For the Olympics in July, don’t expect any different.
How can the USWNT evolve?
Speaking to Yahoo Sports last month, Andonovski admitted that getting the USWNT to play exactly how he wants will be a process – and it may not be one he can fully implement until after the Olympics.
“This team is in good shape – Jill (Ellis) and Tony (Gustavsson) did a good job laying down the principles they had,” Andonovski said. “The principles I want the team to play by are similar, with some tweaks and changes. To establish that, some things will take a little longer and some we’ll see in qualifiers. Until the games start, it will be hard to know where we’re at.”
Well, the qualifying games are over and it’s still difficult to tell exactly where the USWNT is at. Again, the U.S. scored 25 goals and gave up zero, and because of the sad state of the women’s programs throughout CONCACAF, the USWNT’s games resembled a professional club playing a high school team.
If we look at how Andonovski’s teams played in the NWSL, we can conclude the USWNT will be defensively aggressive as a counter-pressing team that attempts to win the ball high up the field. In the attack, the USWNT could become even more free-flowing with lots of player rotations, switches and unpredictability.
But until the U.S. actually plays some real competition, it’s almost impossible to know how they can execute that and if it’ll work. Now with an Olympic spot reserved, it’s all eyes on the SheBelieves Cup in March, where the USWNT will face England, Japan and Spain.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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