The U.S. women’s national team made the wrong kind of World Cup history Sunday. But the team did so without some of its biggest stars.
The USWNT’s Round of 16 exit has prompted many questions about the future: Should head coach Vlatko Andonovski keep his job? Who will be on the roster for the 2024 Olympics? But the elimination also leaves room for what ifs, namely: What could this team have done with a healthy roster?
Injuries kept top players, including Sam Mewis, Christen Press, Catarina Macario and all-important defender and captain Becky Sauerbrunn, out of competition. Another name on that list: Mallory Swanson. What would the USWNT have looked like with a healthy Swanson on the forward line?
Before her injury, Swanson started the year on a tear. She had seven goals in five games for the USWNT to kick off 2023. Whenever the 25-year-old forward was on the pitch, it felt like a goal was inevitable.
Then came April. In an international friendly against Ireland, Swanson tore the patellar tendon in her left knee. That injury kept her off the World Cup roster, though Swanson tried to keep her hope alive for the tournament early in her recovery. Up until June, Swanson believed that she could make the World Cup roster, even if not fully fit.
“I was like, I’m gonna be there,” she told Sports Illustrated. “Like, I might not be 90 minutes fit, but I’m gonna be there.”
But she wasn’t. And while other players missed out as well, Swanson’s injury sent a shock through the system that made you feel an immediate sense of dread. After all, Andonovski had built his team’s attack around Swanson. Whether you believe that was a good or decidedly bad idea, that is what he did in the lead-up to the tournament. And it’s what left the team scrambling in her absence.
The USWNT had two matches without Swanson before the World Cup to try and piece together what it would look like without her. Andonovski used the second friendly against Ireland to evaluate players individually. And then against Wales, he showed a starting lineup that hadn’t had a chance to gel – and even then, it was not the final starting lineup that featured against Vietnam in the World Cup opener.
Instead of preparing for the tournament, Andonovski spent his time trying to put together a 23-piece jigsaw puzzle that he never locked into place. And when the fundamental piece went missing, the entire thing fell apart.
Swanson could have changed how far the USWNT went in the World Cup. She could have changed the record-breaking goal scoring drought the team faced. Her presence, however, probably wouldn’t have changed the final outcome. Maybe the USWNT would have gone out in the quarterfinals or the semifinals. The end result? Likely still the same.
What we saw from the USWNT at the World Cup, as Tobin Heath put it best, was a group of 11 individuals trying to make something work. Having Swanson on the pitch Down Under would have been electric. She inevitably would have scored some goals. But realistically, even with the star forward, the team still had issues.
One player does not change the makeup of a starting lineup that never really played together for an extended period of time. One player does not change the tactical decisions that were made in the midfield or on defense. And one player does not change the fact that Andonovski spent the past two years shuffling players in and out of camp instead of allowing a group of players to grow together into a World Cup contender.