By Doug McIntyre
FOX Sports Soccer Writer
After a disappointing first five games in Japan in which the USWNT were shut out three times — including in Monday’s 1-0 semifinal loss to Canada — the USA’s offense finally exploded thanks to two of its all-time greats. Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd each scored twice in what could have been their final match for their country at a major tournament.
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From this moment forward, though, everything is about looking ahead. The next big tourney for the U.S. isn’t until the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. And as the struggles endured by almost the same roster that rolled to a world title just 25 months ago just proved at these Summer Games, two years is an eternity in international soccer.
Lloyd, 39, the hero of the USA’s first World Cup win in 16 years in 2015, won’t be there. It seems highly unlikely that France 2019 MVP Rapinoe or captain Becky Sauerbrunn, both 36, will be either. (Though it’s worth pointing out that both will be younger in 2023 than Lloyd is now.)
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Gold medal or not, this generational USWNT roster was always due for a rebuild following the Tokyo Games, which were pushed back a full calendar year because of the global coronavirus pandemic.
Here are three things to watch for as the program enters a new era:
What happens to the U.S. veterans?
Exactly half of coach Vlatko Andonovski’s original 18-player roster is on the wrong side of 30; in addition to Lloyd and Rapinoe, so are longtime starters Alex Morgan, Alyssa Naeher, Kelley O’Hara, Tobin Heath and Christen Press.
It’s understandable if Andonovski was sentimental in selecting his roster. Was the coach hired to replace two-time World Cup winner Jill Ellis really supposed to send packing someone like Lloyd, who almost single-footedly won that 2015 title for the U.S.? It’s hard to overly criticize Andonovski for sticking with proven players who have given so much to the program, especially after Thursday’s veteran-led victory.
The bigger problem at these Olympics was that the squad wasn’t balanced out with hungry youngsters. The women’s game is changing. It’s getting younger and faster. Yet there were just two U.S. players in Tokyo, Tierna Davidson and Catarina Macario, under the age of 26. Macario, who is 21, didn’t even make the team initially. She and three other alternates traveled to Japan only after a late rule change by the International Olympic Committee that, because of possible player shortages due to COVID-19, gave teams four additional roster spots.
This U.S. team clearly needs fresh blood. But it isn’t enough to just replace players close to the end of their careers with prospects. The U.S. vets who are young enough to be core members through the Paris Olympics in 2024 — mainstays like Rose Lavelle (26), Lindsey Horan (27), Sam Mewis (28), and Crystal Dunn (29) — need to be challenged.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the Americans’ performances at these Olympics wasn’t that the olds didn’t play as well as they had in France. It was that those in their primes, who in theory should’ve been better than they’ve ever been, showed even less.
Who replaces the old guard?
Which fresh faces might Andonovski or his successor (more on that in a minute) call on once the team returns stateside and the reasons behind its failings are thoroughly dissected?
Forward Lynn Williams clearly needs more minutes; another alternate, she had been the Americans’ best field player going into Thursday’s game. Surely the Brazilian-born Macario, an all-action attacker who plays her club ball for French powerhouse Lyon, must also immediately assume a larger role.
Others must, too.
Still just 23, 2016 Olympian and 2019 World Cup winner Mallory Pugh merits another chance after falling out of favor after Andonovski replaced Ellis at the end of 2019. Forward Sofia Smith (20), midfielder Jaelin Howell (22) and defender Emily Fox (23) are among those who deserve the opportunity to build on their handful of senior appearances. Also, recent training-camp invitees Mia Fishel, Ashley Sanchez and Naomi Girma, plus blue-chip 19-year-old Trinity Rodman, can’t be given their senior international debuts soon enough.
Sticking with the bulk of the 2019 squad this summer was defensible given its dominance two summers ago in France. Champions deserve the benefit of the doubt. But all bets are off now.
Should coach Vlatko Andonovski oversee the reboot?
Maybe the most pressing question facing U.S. Soccer isn’t what to do with the roster, but what to do with the guy on the sideline. Andonovski was a popular choice among the team’s elders — he coached Rapinoe with Seattle’s OL Reign — to replace the more confrontational Ellis. In hindsight, maybe the vets had too much influence in general manager Kate Markgraf’s decision. Maybe they relaxed a little bit subconsciously once the easier-going Andonovski was installed.
Many of Andonovki’s decisions — the roster, his tactics, his lineups and substitutions — can be scrutinized and second-guessed given what transpired at the Olympics. So, too, can the fact that the U.S. forwards consistently mistimed their runs, with an astounding 10 would-be goals ruled offside. There’s no question that the coaching could have been better.
And of course, it’s always easier to fire one person than turn over an entire team. But Andonovski wasn’t on the field, and it wasn’t his fault that some of the best players on the planet — players who’d posted a 22-0-1 record under Andonovski before the Games — suddenly couldn’t make the most fundamental plays on the biggest stage.
Thursday’s result at least allows the team to leave Tokyo with a good feeling, although it also makes one wonder what could’ve been.
We’ll soon find out if winning the first Olympic bronze medal in program history triggers fundamental change in the program.
One of the most prominent soccer journalists in North America, Doug McIntyre has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams in more than a dozen countries, including multiple FIFA World Cups. Before joining FOX Sports, the New York City native was a staff writer for Yahoo Sports and ESPN. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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