The case for the most essential USWNT player: Catarina Macario
The young star is working her way back from an ACL tear.
The U.S. women’s national soccer team is one win closer to the 2023 FIFA World Cup.
After defeating Haiti 3-0 on Monday in their opening match of the Concacaf W Championship, the USWNT prepares to face Jamaica on Thursday.
The U.S. is first in Group A, followed by Jamaica, Mexico and Haiti. The top two teams after the three-game group stage qualify for next year’s World Cup.
“I think we’re really excited for the next game,” said defender Emily Fox. “We have a lot of respect for Jamaica. We know they have a lot of good threats, so for us it’s about learning from the last game and trying to improve each game and taking it step by step.”
Jamaica head coach Lorne Donaldson is familiar with two of the USWNT’s starting forwards, Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith, whom he coached during their youth club careers at Real Colorado. The Jamaican team trained in the high altitudes of Colorado in preparation for this tournament instead of playing any friendlies during the international window in June. The lack of matches didn’t deem to be an issue in Jamaica’s 1-0 upset win over host nation Mexico on Monday.
The USWNT will have to pick up their pace of play to get past a tough Jamaican side. Defense and injuries are a couple of the other big concerns that head coach Vlatko Andonovski addressed in a press conference on Wednesday.
At Olympique Lyonnais, Lindsey Horan’s club team this past season, the midfielder was nicknamed Potato because of her swollen knee.
In the USWNT’s opener on Monday, she started and continued to play with a taped knee. She raised concerns further after a video from training earlier this week showed her favoring the same knee.
Andonovski tried to dispel those fears on Wednesday.
“Lindsey is medically at 100 percent,” he said. “But just because she had a little bit of a break between her last game in Lyon and in the first game here, we’re trying to manage her properly and not overload her, but build her up to her minutes.”
Currently, the plan is for Horan to start Thursday’s match against Jamaica.
“We’re going to continue building her so she is properly ready for the upcoming games,” the coach added.
Coming into the tournament, there were also health concerns surrounding defensive midfielder Andi Sullivan, who has been recovering from a quad injury. In the June friendlies, Horan prepared herself to step in as a backup at the No. 6 position should Sullivan need rest.
Andonovski said the starting lineup against Haiti will likely be the same group that sees most of the minutes against Jamaica and throughout the rest of the tournament. Horan and Sullivan were both in Monday’s starting XI.
“Obviously, there are some bumps and bruises with some of the players, but the good thing is everybody is ready and prepared to play,” Andonovski said.
With 80 caps, Alyssa Naeher leads a goalkeeping trio that also includes Casey Murphy (five caps) and Aubrey Kingsbury (one). Two of them are guaranteed to appear in this tournament.
After Murphy got the start against Haiti, Andonovski said it’s “not a secret” that they will also play Naeher, who was the starting keeper at the Tokyo Olympics before she injured her knee in the semifinal.
“She’s an incredible goalkeeper,” he said. “We know what she can do.”
While it makes sense for Naeher to hold onto the starting role deep into the tournament given her experience, Andonovski said they will decide how to move forward after Thursday’s match. Regardless, it was important for Murphy to get a game in right away. Backup keeper AD Franch hadn’t played a game at the Olympics up until the 22nd minute of the semifinal, when Naeher had to leave the pitch, and she then started the USWNT’s bronze-medal match against Australia.
“This way, we know we’re going to have two goalkeepers ready after these two games,” Andonovski said.
A huge save from Casey Murphy. 🧤 pic.twitter.com/3C9pjGe7zc— Attacking Third (@AttackingThird) July 4, 2022
The USWNT’s backline weathered a couple of scares against Haiti on Monday, including a penalty in the box and missed one-v-ones.
After controlling most of the possession in their games over the last year, the USWNT defense hasn’t had much experience withstanding top opponents in high-stakes situations. Andonovski believes the mishaps are important preparation for next summer’s World Cup, and they don’t have as much to do with the defense making mistakes as they do with world-class opponents getting creative in the attack.
“I think our backline is stellar,” the coach said. “I truly believe that we have the capability to stop any attack, any player in the world and I have no problem saying that we’re ready to do that regardless of who is in the backline.”
Andonovski likes to push numbers forward, which puts the backline under greater pressure against a quick counterattack. And the Concacaf teams will continue to test the USWNT’s defensive tactics.
“It will be tough,” Andonovski said. “It will create different problems for the backline, but that’s what we want. We do want to play teams like that, and we do want to play teams that will create different challenges for us.”
Before Catarina Macario tore her ACL, she was supposed to be the starting center forward for the USWNT. For months, the plan was to build the team around the 22-year-old.
Without her, there was uncertainty right up until the Haiti match about who would start in the No. 9 — Ashley Hatch or Alex Morgan.
Morgan earned the nod and took full advantage, scoring a first-half brace off a backheel flick and a header.
“I’m so happy to see her performing as well as she does,” Andonovski said. “I know it sounds crazy, but I do believe that she’s actually playing better every time you see her on the field. The goals she scored the other day, I think that they’re world-class goals. The first goal, but even the one that was offside. Unbelievable run, great run, great angle, good finish.
“So that’s Alex Morgan in a nutshell. When you need her the most, you can count on her. As a as a coaching staff, we decided for her to be a starter on this team for a reason, and I think it was a good explanation — or the goals scored were explanation — of what the reason was.”
Andonovski said he doesn’t know what the forward line will look like when Macario returns. For now, he’s riding the play of his veteran.
“Cat will have to come back and earn her spot back and then we’ll see where she falls the best, but if Alex plays the way she is, I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know how someone takes that spot.”
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.
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