When Vlatko Andonovski came aboard as the new head coach of the U.S. women's national team in late 2019, he was basically hired to do two things: (1) win and (2) transition the team toward its next generation of stars. Pulling off (2) without affecting (1) was always going to be a tricky balancing act, but at some point it was going to be a necessity.
Megan Rapinoe is 36 and fellow wingers Christen Press and Tobin Heath are both 33. Forward Alex Morgan is 32 while Carli Lloyd, 39, just retired. Center-back Becky Sauerbrunn is 36, as right-back Kelley O'Hara and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher are both 33. Even still-in-their-prime stars like midfielder Julie Ertz and left back Crystal Dunn are now 29, and it's unclear when they'll be back with the team -- Dunn is pregnant and Ertz has not reported to her NWSL club for reasons unknown.
Keeping the next generation of American stars engaged and up to speed is an absolute must, even if the stars above continue to play at an elite level into the 2023 World Cup cycle.
At the 2022 SheBelieves Cup, Andonovski asked the next generation to show him something. O'Hara still took two-thirds of the minutes at right-back, while Naeher, Sauerbrunn and midfielder Rose Lavelle all made cameos of 90 minutes or less out of a possible 270. But goalkeeper Casey Murphy (25 years old), full-back Emily Fox (23) and center-back Alana Cook (24) all featured heavily at the back. In the midfield, Ashley Sanchez (22 years old), Andi Sullivan (26) Kristie Mewis (30) led the way, and the power trio of Catarina Macario (22), Mallory Pugh (23) and Sophia Smith (21) featured up front.
The field at the tournament wasn't the strongest it's ever been, and the biggest win might have come between matches when the team settled its equal pay lawsuit with U.S. Soccer. But the U.S. still took on three teams ranked in FIFA's top 25 with what amounted to a young, second-string squad and outscored them, 10-0.
To see who shined and where the team as a whole stood out, let's walk back through each match with some key stats in mind.
USA 0, Czech Republic 0
Shots per possession: USA 0.14, Czech Rep. 0.05
xG per shot*: USA 0.06, Czech Rep. 0.04
Possession rate: USA 63.3%
PPDA*: USA 6.7, Czech Rep. 16.9
% of possessions started in attacking third: USA 11.0%, Czech Rep. 8.7%
Goals (xG) from transition possessions*: USA 0 (0.19), Czech Rep. 0 (0.07)
% of transition possessions ending in attacking third: USA 30%, Czech Rep. 11%
*Some notes: PPDA = passes allowed per defensive action, a common measure of overall pressure. The lower the number, the higher the level of pressure. "Transition possessions" refer to possessions that start in a team's defensive or middle third and last 20 or fewer seconds. And xG, or expected goals, measures the likelihood of a chance resulting in a goal.
For this match, the stats reflect what the eyes also saw: The Czech Republic parked the bus, and the U.S. couldn't find the right combination to punish them for it. They attempted 18 shots and did manage to put eight of them on target, but only two shots came from within nine meters of the goal and only two were worth more than 0.10 xG -- a Macario chance in the fourth minute and Mewis' attempt in the 73rd.
As is customary of "bus-parking" in general, the Czech Republic's only chance of scoring was going to come from a miraculous counter-attack, but that never came close to materializing. They attempted only six shots and put one on target, while most potential counters were mooted long before they ended up in dangerous positions. Having veteran defenders like O'Hara, Tierna Davidson (72 minutes), Emily Sonnett (45 minutes) and Sauerbrunn (18 minutes) in place certainly didn't hurt things in that regard.
Still, with Pugh, Macario, Smith and 19-year old Trinity Rodman all seeing the field, it was a good opportunity for a group of incredibly bright, young attackers to prove themselves. There were plenty of intriguing moments -- Macario created six shooting chances for teammates (two each for Sullivan and Lavelle, one each for Smith and Davidson) and led the team with 10 ball recoveries, while Pugh's sharp passing produced 0.6 expected assists (xA). But they didn't quite have the familiarity or ability to unlock the Czech defense.
This wouldn't remain a problem for long.
USA 5, New Zealand 0
Shots per possession: USA 0.16, New Zealand 0.05
xG per shot: USA 0.14, New Zealand 0.07
Possession rate: USA 58% (58% while ahead)
PPDA: USA 11.9, New Zealand 14.8
% of possessions started in attacking third: USA 12.8%, New Zealand 11.2%
Goals (xG) from transition possessions: USA 2 (1.29), New Zealand 0 (0.05)
% of transition possessions ending in attacking third: USA 16%, New Zealand 11%
Early goals can completely define a match, but two own goals from the same player within the first six minutes? And three in the first half? That certainly relaxed any built-up anxiety from the scoreless first match. The U.S. led from the outset, which allowed the team to play with less urgency and verticality.
New Zealand's Meikayla Moore commits three own goals in the first half
Meikayla Moore commits three first-half own goals as the USWNT takes a 3-0 lead over New Zealand into halftime.
The early deficit also meant that New Zealand couldn't really bunker in even if they wanted to. The match was far more open than the first, and while the Americans attempted the same number of shots as they did against the Czechs, they created twice as much value. Six shot attempts were worth at least 0.13 xG, and three were worth at least 0.43. Pugh and 26-year old Ashley Hatch each converted high-value shots for second-half goals.
Because of how the early goals affected the game state, it was difficult to draw too much from this one. But through two matches at this point, Pugh's passing and shot attempts had created a combined 1.1 xG and xA in just 83 minutes, while Macario had created 0.9 in 135. The latter is a good number, the former an incredible one. Hatch, meanwhile, created 0.8 xG in just two shot attempts against New Zealand.
This young group of attackers was proving capable of creating extreme danger, and that would continue in the final match of the tournament.
USA 5, Iceland 0
Shots per possession: USA 0.19, Iceland 0.06
xG per shot: USA 0.14, Iceland 0.06
Possession rate: USA 60% (58% while ahead)
PPDA: USA 12.1, Iceland 17.8
% of possessions started in attacking third: USA 13.7%, Iceland 9.7%
Goals (xG) from transition possessions: USA 3 (2.13), Iceland 0 (0.03)
% of transition possessions ending in attacking third: USA 24%, Iceland 17%
The New Zealand match was only tied for about 6% of overall possessions, but Iceland kept things even for about 44%. That gave us another opportunity to see both what the U.S. intended to do and how capable they were (or weren't) of breaking down tight defenses. Sometimes, though, the key to unlocking a tight defense is a moment of individual brilliance. The U.S. got that from Macario in the 37th minute.
That 22-meter strike opened up the floodgates. Macario had added another goal by halftime and the U.S. tacked on two more in the second half, each of increasing quality from an xG perspective.
The U.S. ended up with eight shots worth at least 0.10 xG and four worth over 0.30. Pugh scored twice and generated a combined 1.51 xG+xA in 80 minutes, Mewis generated 0.97, and Cook (0.60), Sanchez (0.54), Macario (0.48) and Sullivan (0.36) all topped 0.30. The Americans continuously put the ball in dangerous areas, and Iceland eventually buckled.
Standouts up front
The U.S. played 24 matches in 2021 -- six in the Olympics, three in the SheBelieves Cup and 15 friendlies. From a distance, their record was sparkling: 18 wins, four draws and only two losses. But in seven matches against teams currently in FIFA's top 10, they won three with two draws and two Olympic losses (3-0 to Sweden and 1-0 to Canada) that relegated them to the bronze medal. In these seven matches, they scored only eight goals.
Against current No. 2 team Sweden in their first Olympic match, they created almost nothing useful from their press (only 2% of their possessions began in the attacking third), they created almost nothing in transition (only 15% of their transition possessions, as defined above, finished in the attacking third) and they couldn't do much with the shots they were able to put on target. Against Canada, they pressed better and got into more dangerous areas in transition, but they couldn't generate any useful shots from it.
In the SheBelieves Cup, the defense remained a steel trap, while Mewis was particularly awesome in midfield alongside Sullivan, Sanchez and company. But perhaps the most interesting questions came up front. Rapinoe can still create works of art with her right foot, Press can still generate loads of shots, Morgan can still bully her way into the box and Heath can still send in high-level crosses, but there was an opportunity for a precocious group of young attackers to prove something from both a finishing and pressing standpoint. For the most part, they succeeded.
Again, this wasn't the most high-level competition, and the U.S. averaged 3.3 goals per match in 2021 against teams ranked between 11th and 30th per FIFA -- nine goals in three matches (with three own goals) was an upgrade. But Pugh, Macario and Hatch combined to attempt 20 shots worth 3.6 xG and turned them into six goals. Smith and Rodman (11 shots, 0.73 xG, zero goals) weren't quite as proficient, but these attackers, all 23 or younger, created high-level chances and converted quite a few, even despite the scoreless opener.
Even more intriguing was the ball pressure. Before her two outstanding goals against Iceland, Macario's biggest contribution came from her pressing, which probably wasn't a surprise considering the role she's carved out for herself with her club team, European heavyweights Lyon.
This chart, from StatsBomb, shows Macario's defensive activity levels with Lyon. The areas in red are where she creates more activity than the league average. When her team loses the ball in attacking areas, she is somehow everywhere, showing up to generate pressure on either wing and in front of the goalkeeper. She was similarly disruptive in the SheBelieves Cup, especially in the opener against the Czech Republic. In three matches, she proved herself a high-level player, both shooting or passing the ball and without the ball entirely.
That helped to set a highly disruptive tone for the team as a whole. Whereas the U.S. allowed an average of 12.2 passes per defensive action in the Olympics, it was 10.2 in this tournament, and it might have been even lower had the U.S. not held big leads in two of three matches.
Pugh averaged 3.1 shots and 0.57 combined xG+xA per 90 minutes in the NWSL last year and averaged an otherworldly 4.4 and 1.46, respectively, in this tournament. That level might be unsustainable, but in 14 national-team appearances since the last World Cup, her averages are up to 2.6 and 0.78. Rapinoe's in that same span: 2.7 and 0.77. If Pugh is clearing the "Rapinoe Bar," that's an incredibly positive sign for the future of the U.S. women's national team.
We're obviously only going to learn so much about a team in three matches in which 22 players make appearances, all against good-but-not-great opposition. But the next generation of the women's national team was asked to make an impression, and especially in the areas of the lineup in which the team has been the oldest in recent years, it did exactly that.