The start of a new World Cup cycle is a time of optimism. There are new players to observe, and perhaps some new tactics to try out. All of a team's dreams, especially for one as talented as the United States women's national team, are possible.
Reality has a way of crystallizing the difficulty of the challenges ahead, however, and so it went for the USWNT in a disappointing 0-0 draw with Czech Republic in the SheBelieves Cup opener for both teams in Los Angeles.
There were certainly some reasons to think that the Thursday match wouldn't be a cakewalk. A U.S. roster largely composed of NWSL players is still in the process of coming out of hibernation. With an average age of 25.5 years, the group that started the match was the youngest since an April 5, 2018 match against Mexico. While veteran Kelley O'Hara started the match and Becky Sauerbrunn later entered the game for her 200th international appearance, the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Tobin Heath were left off the roster. The emphasis on youth meant that there are relationships both on and off the field to be developed.
But there is also context within the context. Compared with previous editions, this is a watered-down version of the SheBelieves Cup. A year ago, the U.S. opened the competition against two teams, Canada and Brazil, that were in the top 10 in the FIFA world ranking. This time around, the field is filled out by No. 16 Iceland, No. 22 New Zealand and the Czechs at No. 24. Even though the Czech Republic is a team on the rise -- it has twice tied reigning European champion Netherlands in the last six months -- it is still a side that has never qualified for a Euros, Olympics or World Cup.
So despite the inherent challenges, there was every expectation that a youthful U.S. side would find a way to secure a victory. That it didn't was down to an attack that didn't do enough to break down an organized and physical Czech defense, even as the home side dominated possession. For much of the game, the visitors ably dealt with the crosses that the U.S. pumped into the box. The Czechs covered for each other as well. Even when one player got beat, a teammate was there to nick the ball away. The U.S. is now winless (0-2-3) in the past five games where it failed to score in the first half since its last such victory in a friendly against Portugal last June.
For U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski, the lack of familiarity within the team and the time of year were the big culprits in why his team couldn't make a breakthrough.
"It doesn't matter how good they are, how much potential they have," he said of his team. "It's not easy to just throw them on the field and expect it to click immediately and combine and do some creative things."
Yet there were moments when the U.S. attack showed flashes. Tierna Davidson's long-range passing created some openings, as did some forays off the dribble by Sophia Smith. There was also some promising combination play between Catarina Macario -- getting some rare minutes as a central striker -- and Rose Lavelle.
Andonovski saw enough that he vowed that Macario, who is in midseason form with Lyon, would get more time up top. He said: "I thought that when we were able to find [Macario] underneath the line, she did an incredible job of unlocking them or creating opportunities for the players around her. So I was very happy with that. And I think that we're going to see a little bit more of Cat in that position going forward."
The most egregious miss of the evening came in the 30th minute when midfielder Andi Sullivan lined up a header inside the 6-yard box but sent it over the bar. But there were other opportunities as well. Andonovski brought on Trinity Rodman for her much anticipated national team debut in the 60th minute, and the reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year added a jolt to the U.S. attack. She nearly found the winner with a 73rd-minute header but it was too close to Czech goalkeeper Barbora Votíkova, who was solid throughout.
Andonovski has been trying to temper expectations for Rodman. Initially, she wasn't even on the roster, getting added only after Abby Dahlkemper withdrew due to injury. So while Rodman's debut didn't have the storybook ending that some might have hoped for, Andonovski, pronounced himself satisfied.
"I thought [Rodman] was dangerous when she came in, got into a couple of good opportunities and was threatening the backline of the Czech Republic," he said. He added, "I just think this is a first of many for her. She definitely needs more minutes, more caps, more games, and I have no doubt that she's going to perform even better."
That will require this U.S. team to become more adept at breaking down opponents that defend in a low block, and the U.S. can expect a steady diet of that approach from Iceland and New Zealand. Andonovski is preaching patience, but he can't preach too much. The qualifying tournament for the World Cup and Olympic qualifying is just five months away.