The U.S. women's national team won the 2022 SheBelieves Cup after beating Iceland 5-0 in a must-win game on Wednesday, and goal scorers Catarina Macario and Mallory Pugh were among the players who successfully auditioned for the chance to lead the USWNT into the future.
While the team's fifth SheBelieves Cup trophy is a strong finish after a rocky start last week, the real purpose of this tournament for coach Vlatko Andonovski was not to win hardware but to find unpolished gems -- players with upside who can carry it into the future as the team regenerates. Macario and Pugh lead a list of players who have forced Andonovski to give them further looks.
"We're leaving this tournament feeling like we are moving in the right direction," Andonovski told ESPN when asked about whether any players had improved their standing in the team. "They proved they are capable of winning games."
Macario's breakout performance of the SheBelieves Cup revved up in the 37th minute. She chased down a ball on the left flank, cut and then fired from the corner of the penalty box, blasting a rocket to the far post that skidded off the inside frame and in. The placement was perfect: Just an inch or so further to the right and the ball would've clanked off the post and out to safety; a bit closer to the left and goalkeeper Sandra Sigurdardottir would've had a chance to tip it away.
"I have been practicing that for a while," Macario said. "Sometimes it doesn't come off, but the fact that it happened today was surreal. As soon as I hit, I was like, 'OK, that was some good contact.'"
She followed it up with another splendid goal in the 45th minute. A pass from Pugh went behind Macario and left her chasing the ball away from goal, and Macario surprised everyone by swiveling her hips around it and chipping it inside the far post netting.
"Goals like that should be on highlights reels all over the world," Andonovski said. "What makes me happy with Cat is not just the goals she scored but how she was able to get other people involved."
Fun fact: Since Macario's national team debut in January 2021, no USWNT player has scored more goals from outside the box. Also: This was the second time that Macario had scored multiple goals from 15-plus yards out in a single game -- the only other women's team player to do that in the past five years was Alex Morgan in the famous 13-0 win against Thailand at the 2019 Women's World Cup.
"You give that girl a little bit of space and she's gonna finish," Pugh quipped of Macario's goals.
Pugh picked up where Macario left off in the second half with a well-taken goal of her own in the 60th minute. Ashley Sanchez slipped a nice through ball into Pugh's path, and she ran onto it, taking on goalkeeper Cecilia Runarsdottir and tucking it into the far post.
Before Pugh scored her goal, she had the highest xG -- or expected goals, which measures the likelihood of a chance resulting in a goal -- of any player on the field at .40. The 23-year-old was doing well at getting into dangerous scoring positions and finding chances, even if she hadn't nabbed a goal to show for it.
Pugh's second goal put the budding Macario-Pugh partnership on display. Macario won the ball in the midfield as the Americans shifted for the counterattack. Sprinting up the field, Macario passed to Pugh, who passed to Macario, who passed back to Pugh, who finished coolly.
Of course, Macario and Pugh aren't new to the program -- Macario appeared in the last Olympics, and Pugh was in the last World Cup -- but both have been players without secure spots, unable to unseat the likes of Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe or Tobin Heath. And Iceland is not Sweden or Germany, the powerhouse teams chasing at the USWNT's heels in the world rankings. But the individual performances of the two forwards -- and their budding on-field partnership -- will be hard for Andonovski to ignore after Wednesday's match.
Herculez Gomez and Sebastian Salazar debate whether New Zealand should have waited to substitute Meikayla Moore.
Pugh certainly played like a player poised to reclaim a firm spot on the USWNT following a couple of years out of the fold. After being part of the squad that won the 2019 World Cup, she missed out on the Olympics, struggling with form for both club and country. Pugh made her USWNT debut at 17, so it's easy to forget that Pugh is still only 23, just a year older than Macario.
Other players with upside stepped up, as well. Kristie Mewis scored the fifth goal with a nice finish. Sanchez couldn't finish a couple of chances she had but beat Iceland's defense repeatedly with her dribbling and precise passes. Emily Fox did well getting forward from the left-back position and threatened often. Wednesday's match clearly earned more opportunities for some new players.
Yet it's more difficult to come away from the match with wider implications for the USWNT.
Heading into Wednesday, Iceland only needed a draw to win the SheBelieves Cup but played like a team going after a win, making for a more open game that benefitted the Americans. Iceland swapped goalkeepers at halftime, seemingly not because Sigurdardottir was struggling but to give 18-year-old Runarsdottir experience.
In truth, though, this SheBelieves Cup on paper was always going to be the easiest one for the U.S. squad since the Americans started hosting the tournament in 2016.
Before this year, the tournament had only seen one participant ranked outside of FIFA's top 15. This time, however, Iceland was the highest-ranked opponent at No. 16 in the world. New Zealand ranks 22, while the Czech Republic is 24. The U.S. team is ranked No. 1. Coming into the tournament, the Americans had won 29 of their 32 combined meetings against its 2022 SheBelieves Cup opponents -- their only loss was in the first meeting against New Zealand in 1987.
But there also were reasons to believe the USWNT wouldn't simply roll over the competition, either.
For starters, Andonovski has brought a relatively young and inexperienced squad to this tournament as he looks to regenerate an aging roster. Averaging 25.40 years, Wednesday's starting lineup was the team's youngest to ever play in a SheBelieves Cup and the youngest in any match since April 5, 2018.
The SheBelieves Cup, a glorified batch of offseason friendlies, has traditionally been a tournament for experimentation, but there's also some urgency for Andonovski too. The team's best goal scorers of the past few years -- Morgan, Press, Rapinoe and Heath -- will all be 34 or older during the next World Cup. Pandemic delays to the Olympics also meant that Andonovski has only had months for the rebuilding process that is normally done over a couple of years.
That's why Macario's performance, in particular, on Wednesday might force difficult decisions for Andonovski. Macario has been in the USWNT's picture since last year, making the Olympic roster as an alternate, until the rules were changed to expand the tournament's roster size. But Macario had been profiled as a midfielder, and in this SheBelieves Cup, she has been playing as a striker for the first time with the team.
Andonovski said Macario's momentum throughout the SheBelieves Cup wasn't as much about her getting comfortable playing as a striker but the team learning about how she plays the position.
"We saw from Game 1 to Game 3 how Cat grew, but we mostly saw how the team grew around Cat in understanding her movements, her positioning, the angles, the balls she was playing," he said. "That's where we grew the most."
Pugh echoed it was a learning experience that allowed her to play off Macario better.
"I've never played with Cat as the No. 9, and she did such a great job," Pugh said. "That's exactly what we needed to see and learn her tendencies -- to come back, to control, turn, play-make off her."
The Americans did find their chances early, but many of them were only half-chances. They finished the first half with a 1.07 xG, and only ended that half with two goals because Macario scored from unlikely positions and created scoring chances that otherwise didn't exist.
Macario admitted afterward that she started the tournament with some nerves but was determined to step up in the trophy-deciding match on Wednesday.
"When we started this tournament, I could feel myself being a little tight, not playing the way I know how to play," Macario said. "With this big match that we had today, playing for the trophy, I needed to put my best self forward and show my teammates and Vlatko and the nation that I belong here."
It appears she did exactly that.