In their final game on Wednesday, which was a must-win to secure the trophy, a 5-0 thumping of Iceland was a welcome relief compared to the frustrating 0-0 draw against the Czech Republic just one week earlier.
So, what did we learn in that one-week span?
1. We learned that this young group is fun as heck to watch. Yes, at times the finishing wasn't as sharp as it needs to be, nor was the opposition as competitive as it will be over the next Olympic/World Cup cycle, but this young group wants to play.
Typically in national teams of the past, we talk gushingly of one or two uber-creative players who can turn a game on its head with individual brilliance and flair. Rose Lavelle. Tobin Heath. Megan Rapinoe. This team, though, seems chock full of dynamic, creative types: Cat Macario, Ashley Sanchez, Mal Pugh, Sophia Smith and even Emily Fox and Sofia Huerta from deeper positions.
Are all pieces of the puzzle there yet? Of course not -- but you have to be excited about the upside potential of all those players.
2. We also learned that as the week progressed, not surprisingly, so did the team.
From the initial 0-0 draw against an organized, compact Czech Republic that stirred more questions than answers, to a 5-0 win against a subpar New Zealand team that gifted the U.S. three own goals, to the emphatic five-goal rout over Iceland in the final game, the USWNT grew into the tournament. That three-game trajectory shows this tournament served its purpose: Get the younger players valuable minutes and come out of this tournament with a sense of growth and more confidence.
I'd like to say winning was only secondary, but the reality is that for this U.S. team, winning is always their goal -- it's just not always the focus, thankfully.
In hindsight, it would have been fun for the Czech Republic to be the last game of the group, just to see if one week's time would have created the cohesion and confidence to break down a very good Czech defense and get past PSG's Barbora Votíková, the best opposing goalkeeper of the tournament. But I also like the challenge and raised stakes it presented for the rest of the tournament when the U.S. were unable to convert after much dominance and possession. It's hard to replicate pressure scenarios like the final game brought, so in that sense it was a gift -- and I think the team responded to that pressure really well.
3. We learned that patience does matter.
The beauty of this final game being a must-win, with minimal veteran involvement, meant these younger players had to figure it out. Or as we used to call it, "FIND A WAY!" And even though the first 35 minutes of blocked shots and missed attempts made some wonder if they could indeed find that way, the collective patience, and then individual brilliance of Macario (twice) at the end of the first half, erased much of that doubt.
Pugh then heaped on more confidence and cushioning in that second half, and this group quickly realized they have the resolve necessary in a big moment.
Now, let's move onto things we knew already, which inform the lessons we learned:
1. We knew already that this U.S. team needs a balance of young and experienced players, as all teams do in transition. Hence, the next step for this team is layering back in some of that veteran presence and leadership. These next few months will determine what that ratio looks like. And getting that mix right is vital as I wrote before the tournament.
2. We also knew that winning World Cups and Olympics will only get tougher. The world is finally starting to see the light as it relates to women's soccer (or maybe the dollar signs, but honestly I don't care as long as they are making it a priority and investing in women). It's 20 years late in my opinion, but welcome to the party (don't get me started).
Why do you think we could only get the 16th, 22nd and 24th ranked teams in the world here at the SheBelieves Cup this year? Because multiple countries (France and England, for example) want to host their own tournaments at the same time and reap their own financial and competitive benefits.
3. We also already knew that increased investment at major clubs for their women's programs equates to better teams globally at the national team level. That is why improving the quality of opposition, as hard a slog as that is from a scheduling standpoint, must be a priority for this U.S. team.
Mind you, I respect just how difficult that must be given the ongoing pandemic and crammed global calendar. But the fastest way to get these U.S. players to their maximum potential under a tight timeline, is to have them do it against the best.
4. Finally, at the risk of throwing a cheesy metaphor out there (you know I am all-in for cheesy anything, so why not), this week reminded me of something we all go through as parents when your child learns to ride a bike: Rather than race in to grab the bike when they start to wobble, you tell them to peddle faster, remain calm, keep their eyes on the road ahead, and believe they can fly.
This young group got there this week, even with some wobbles. And by the end of the week, the smiles revealed the joy behind that feeling of flying.
But this week was on the flat road, now comes the hills and single-track switch backs. This requires wisdom, nuance, creativity and, yes, youthful energy. The goal, of course, is to arrive at your destination, scabby and bruised perhaps, but flying and smiling (cue the confetti).
So, time to put your bike helmets on, party people. This we already knew, as well: the work and the fun have just begun.