As we inch closer to the summer Olympics -- dare I say, even in a whisper, that I feel confident the Games will indeed happen -- I will, of course, spend a lot of time dissecting the U.S. women's national team. Given that the roster size for the Olympics is only 18 players, my completely unscientific dissection will only intensify as we get closer to June.
But I digress. Let's go back and review the two most recent games the USWNT played in Europe: their 1-1 draw vs. Sweden in Stockholm on Saturday and their 2-0 win over France in Le Havre, France, on Tuesday.
Vlatko Andonovski, USWNT head coach, came into this two-game European swing knowing it would be the toughest test his side would face leading into the Olympics, and the U.S. came to Europe with a 15-0 win/loss record under Andonovski, the most wins by any U.S. coach to start their tenure. Until Sweden, of course. (Why does it always have to be Sweden?)
Sweden had different plans for this U.S. team. Only by the grace of god (aka there was no VAR being used), the U.S. women were gifted a penalty in the late stages to salvage a draw. Instead of what should have been a free kick outside the penalty area, Megan Rapinoe instead placed the ball on the penalty spot ... and we all know how that show ends.
All in all, Sweden played a tremendous game. Clean, tactically solid and defensively excellent, they matched the U.S. stride for stride for most of the 90 minutes. If Kosovare Asllani & Co. had been a little more clinical in front of goal, they could have secured the win. The U.S. did outshoot Sweden 20 to 9 but just never found their rhythm. They were not as technically clean as we've seen them in the past, especially in the final attacking third.
The good news for the U.S. (beyond equalizing, of course) is that this back-and-forth game was a wonderful (and always needed) reminder of the work that still needs to be done. Those reminders, especially when relatively bruise-free, are gifts in life.
The other good news? This was the first of two games, which gave the U.S. a chance to address some of the shortcomings against France. As Andonovski pointed out after Saturday's tie: "It is not good enough, not good enough to win the Olympics. This is a good thing for us. I don't wake up wishing we don't do well, but still you are exposed to something we hadn't seen before. We will address it going forward."
Well, address it they did. In typical U.S. fashion, the players extracted the lesson from the Sweden game and brought a renewed energy and focus to the clash with France. (One thing to remember: This was essentially France's B-team.) They were missing six of their Lyon stars due to a recent COVID-19 outbreak at the club, meaning key players such as Wendie Renard, Amandine Henry, Amel Majri, Sakina Karchaoui and Delphine Cascarino were unavailable. Yes, that hurts. They also did not start Sandy Baltimore or Kadidiatou Diani, two standouts from their win vs. England days earlier.
Baltimore came on in the second half, though Diani never saw time on the field. Also, PSG star and leading scorer in Ligue 1 Marie-Antoinette Katoto played only the first half. In fact, only two French starters remained from that classic quarterfinal clash in Paris at the 2019 Women's World Cup. Contrast that with 10 of the starting 11 for the U.S. The only starter missing for the U.S. from that game was Tobin Heath, still out with an injury. France fielded a young and talented side, yes, but not nearly the French team we are accustomed to seeing.
The U.S. got off to a great early start (exactly what they didn't do against Sweden) and were swiftly up 2-0 thanks to Alex Morgan. Morgan drew a PK in only the fifth minute, which Rapinoe of course calmly converted, and then Morgan herself finished a beautifully slipped-in ball from Christen Press in the 19th minute. From there, the U.S. never looked back.
France sat in a low block most of the game, showing so little urgency in the second half that it looked as if the U.S. were the team down two goals. In full command, the U.S. even had a chance to try something they have never done before: bring in all four midfield stars together. Yes, Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, Lindsay Horan and Rose Lavelle finally got to share the field, and full disclosure: I loved it. Lavelle played up high on the right side and was very active coming inside. I've wondered of late whether the four could play in a diamond, or whether Horan could play as a false 9. There are lots of options, and the promising point is that it gives the U.S. another layer of versatility.
For some final good news, folks, we officially have a field of 12 teams that have qualified for the Olympics. The 12 teams, in alphabetical order, are: Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, China, Great Britain, Japan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Sweden, the USA and Zambia.
Say it in a whisper... I can see the light.