The CONCACAF W Championship is over and the lone victor, as of Monday night, is the U.S. women's national team after beating Canada 1-0 in the final. By winning this new tournament, the Americans were rewarded handsomely: they clinched a spot in the 2023 Women's World Cup in Australia and New Zealand as well as a spot in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
Canada, Jamaica and Costa Rica also all qualified for the World Cup, but Canada will have to face Jamaica, the third-place team of the CONCACAF W Championship, in a playoff for the last regional Olympic spot. Meanwhile, Mexico -- the hosts of the tournament, which was held in Monterrey -- suffered a shock early exit, not even getting out of the group stage, which means El Tri will miss their second straight Women's World Cup.
The tournament saw the resurgence of Alex Morgan, who had been on the outs with the U.S. for months, helped prompt scrutiny and firings within the Mexican federation, and set the stage for the next year of women's soccer heading into the Women's World Cup. ESPN's lead U.S. writer, Jeff Carlisle, and ESPN contributors Jeff Kassouf and Cesar Hernandez, who both covered the tournament on-site in Mexico, wrap up the CONCACAF W Championship with their closing thoughts.
So, who was the tournament MVP?
Carlisle: This isn't as easy a task as it sounds. The U.S. had nine different scorers and didn't concede once over five games. And the way manager Vlatko Andonovski rotated his lineup didn't lend itself to one standout player. But if pressed, Rose Lavelle gets the nod. The U.S. wasn't as dominant in this tournament as it was five years ago, but Lavelle led the team with nine chances created over the course of the tournament, and she drew the vital penalty that made the difference in the final.
Kassouf: Vanessa Gilles. Frankly, there weren't a lot of consistent, standout performances in this tournament. Alex Morgan and Julia Grosso scored clutch goals and have valid arguments for this award. Melchie Dumornay might have won it if Haiti had made the knockout stage. Gilles gets the nod for continued success in 1-v-1 battles and her omnipresent place on a solid Canadian back line. She came up big again in the final when the U.S. put Canada under constant pressure.
Hernandez: It's tough to pick from top-performing players such as Canada's Grosso and Jessie Fleming, Jamaica's Khadija "Bunny" Shaw, and a long list of USWNT players. That said, we have to stick with tournament MVP Alex Morgan. With two goals from the group stage already in hand, the American forward stepped up when it mattered most with a game winner off a penalty in Monday's 1-0 final against Canada.
To quote Andonovski on Morgan: "Big players are born for big moments."
Biggest disappointment of the tournament?
Carlisle: There's really no competition for Mexico in this category. The hosts entered the tournament as one of the favorites but instead exited after three group stage defeats in which they failed to find the back of the net. But if looked at through purely USWNT-colored glasses, the finishing left much to be desired, especially when you consider that eight of the team's 13 goals came in the first two games.
The final in particular saw the U.S. squander some golden opportunities. Converting just one of them could have created considerable breathing space that would have eased the tension in the final few moments. Come next summer, the U.S. will need to rediscover its lethal streak in front of goal.
Kassouf: There's no getting around it: El Tri Femenil failed. Yes, Group A was more difficult. Yes, this was a young team with significant pressure upon it to get back to the World Cup and provide a proof of concept for a growing domestic league. Failing to make the semifinals is disappointing enough, but not even qualifying for the global playoff is a miss of epic proportion. It will be at least another five years until Mexico can try to return to the World Cup.
Hernandez: The tools were all there for Mexico to thrive as hosts in the CONCACAF W Championship, but instead, El Tri Femenil manager Monica Vergara seemed to tactically overthink her way to a disastrous spot at the bottom of Group A without a single goal, a single point and, most notably, no invitation to the 2023 World Cup or 2024 Olympics. Depending on coming evaluations set to be made by the Mexican Football Federation, Vergara might not last much longer.
Biggest surprise takeaway from the tournament (in a good way)?
Carlisle: I'm going with Haiti. Les Grenadières were thought to be the weakest team in Group A. The U.S. and Mexico were the favorites to advance, and Jamaica qualified for the most recent World Cup. But Haiti's 3-0 win over Mexico was enough to secure third place and advance to the 10-team intercontinental playoff, to be held in February. Granted, winning one game seems like a low bar, but the fact that Haiti is still alive speaks well to the progress the team has made.
Kassouf: It might not seem overly surprising for a 2019 World Cup participant to qualify again, but Jamaica -- like too many teams in this region for too long -- hardly got much organized support from its federation heading into the tournament. Head coach Lorne Donaldson signed a contract, which ended on Tuesday, a few weeks before the tournament, and Jamaica managed to qualify for the World Cup and grind out a win in the third-place game to keep Olympics hopes alive.
Hernandez: The Haitians were fun to watch in the CONCACAF W Championship, especially in their stunning 3-0 win over tournament hosts El Tri Femenil in the group stage. After qualifying for the interconfederation playoff for Australia/New Zealand 2023, the Caribbean side could soon build off of their unexpected finish at third in Group A and potentially qualify for their first World Cup.
Biggest question left to be answered coming out of this tournament?
Carlisle: Assuming maximum health, what exactly is Andonovski's preferred lineup? One could come up with a pretty fair U.S. side just made up of players who were absent, a group that includes (deep breath) Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Julie Ertz, Lynn Williams, Sam Mewis, Christen Press, Catarina Macario and Tobin Heath. Then there are the players who took steps forward during the tournament, such as Sofia Huerta, Emily Fox and Naomi Girma. Becky Sauerbrunn, Lindsey Horan, Lavelle and Morgan appear to be locks. You can't say that about anyone else. The only guarantee in the coming months is that the competition for places will be even more cut-throat than it normally is.
Kassouf: I agree with the other Jeff -- which players compose the ideal starting XI for the United States? The answer isn't so much about right now but with an eye on the 2023 World Cup. The goal of this tournament was to win (and double qualify) but also to provide a lot of new players their first pressure-filled opportunities in a meaningful tournament. The back four and goalkeeper positions rotated throughout the tournament, and there are significant players whose returns from injury will create further competition, including Macario, Davidson and Mewis.
Hernandez: For me, it's what now for El Tri Femenil and Vergara? Despite the lackadaisical result at the CONCACAF W Championship, Mexican women's soccer will continue to grow. A new generation of players and a young but promising Liga MX Femenil have made huge strides in recent years. The glaring weakness is one regarding leadership, and it would be shocking to see Vergara hold her job after a current evaluation period. The possible impact of a new sporting director role in the FMF that will deal with just women's soccer, also remains to be seen.
Was the new tournament format from CONCACAF, and Monterrey as a lone host city, the right choice?
Carlisle: The current setup seems suboptimal, although the issue isn't just about "what" or "where" but also "when" -- holding this tournament in the summer months is just asking for brutally hot weather to be a part of the equation. This is bound to affect the quality of games, plus fans' willingness to attend. If it has to be held then, CONCACAF ought to consider holding matches in a locale with more moderate weather or an indoor venue (with grass, to be clear).
As for the format itself, moving to a home-and-home format seems a better judge of teams, but whether the various federations are willing to invest the time and money to do that is a bigger question.
Kassouf: One step forward... one step back? The format is a weird mix of improvement (a final that matters) with ongoing frustrations (too short, too anticlimactic). Why is qualifying crammed into two weeks and you can get to the World Cup with two straightforward victories? A longer qualifying campaign would be better for everyone in the long run, but it requires patience. Monterrey has proved it's a city that can support two of the best women's teams in the country, so marketing issues with the tournament are on CONCACAF. And nobody can control the dire drought that affected life throughout the city and created challenges for locals.
Hernandez: Tournament format the right choice? Maybe. The victors won't make very many complaints, but there is something to be said about those left without Olympics and/or World Cup spots who will feel that qualifying for the two tournaments shouldn't be bundled into one competition.
As for Monterrey as host, the move was ambitious but didn't follow through with expectations. A severe drought, a poor run from Mexico and a lack of on-the-ground local promotion seemed to hamper plenty of excitement. Couple that with the soccer-hungry city not really buying into most of the national team games and you get a sense of hesitation to say that putting all of the marbles into just one city might not have been the best blueprint.
The USWNT has won the CONCACAF W Championship and now we're now less than a year out from the 2023 World Cup -- will the USWNT be able to defend its World Cup title?
Carlisle: In terms of talent, the U.S. definitely has what it takes. And if nothing else, the CONCACAF W Championship showcased the U.S. team's depth. But that only accentuates the aforementioned question about the team's best XI. It's a champagne problem if you're Andonovski, but one he'll need to find answers to as the World Cup approaches.
Kassouf: Andonovski said mid-tournament that they aren't ready for the World Cup now but they will be. That is the best way to answer at this stage. The sky is not falling for the U.S., nor are the European challengers suddenly head and shoulders above the Americans. The U.S. is in a rebuilding process, which we haven't seen in over a decade. Does this group collectively look like it's going to win a World Cup right now? No. Neither does Canada. Neither do a bunch of other teams globally. That's how things go a year out from the tournament.
Is there enough talent in this refreshed U.S. player pool to get the job done next year? I think so. They definitely need more time together. And they definitely need to be more consistent.
Hernandez: A very cautious yes, but also with a watchful eye on what is happening right now in the Euros across the Atlantic. It seems as though the USWNT remain in the middle of a process with incorporating new names and finding the right roster balance, but they've been able to successfully continue doing this while winning the CONCACAF W Championship. The big question going forward is whether this ongoing process will be a smooth one before the start of the World Cup.