Mallory Pugh: Defensive pressure remains key to USWNT’s identity

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team clinched a spot in the Concacaf W Championship final with a 3-0 win Thursday over Costa Rica, but the team still is looking to cement its identity under coach Vlatko Andonvski.

Since taking the helm after the 2019 World Cup, Andonvski has prioritized roster rotation and tactical development, so the USWNT looks very different from the squad that won that title.

Forwards Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith have emerged as standouts in Andonovski’s system, dominating the wings and putting work on both sides of the ball. Pugh’s labor off the ball finally paid off Thursday, with the star striker notching her first goal of the Concacaf tournament.

“I think pressing is a great opportunity to transition and attack,” Pugh said after the match. “So, I think if you look at it that way, like defense is offense, I think that’s just part of our identity.”

Pugh’s goal came from precisely the type of play she is describing, with Smith working to win back the ball high up the pitch, before Rose Lavelle provided a cheeky back heel assist to the Chicago Red Stars forward.

Smith and Pugh have stood out throughout the Concacaf tournament for their defensive work from the forward line, not only pressing but also tracking back and breaking up plays in the midfield.

“We want to create these attacking transition moments to be able to create and just keep going. We want teams just to feel that pressure, so I think it’s just part of our identity.” Pugh said.

A high press has been a staple of Andonvski’s scheme, with the United States looking to trap teams in their own half, forcing opponents to play out of relentless pressure. The USWNT, however, has yet to show what it’s fully capable of in transition, with the game’s tempo still slower than the squad might like.

There is good reason, however, for a slower game, with the temperature on the field reaching the triple digits Thursday in Mexico. Not only did the high temperature wear on the players, it also dried out the field, slowing down the ball.

“It comes down to reading the moments and when we want to press and when we want to drop off a little bit and allow them to connect a few passes,” Andonovski said following the win.

The USWNT will face its toughest test of the Concacaf W Championship when the squad takes on reigning Olympic champion Canada in the tournament’s final at 10 p.m. ET Monday.