The U.S. women’s national soccer team traveled to Australia on a mission to give their less experienced players an opportunity against a world-class opponent.
On Saturday, the team accomplished that mission. Nine players with fewer than 10 caps saw the field, leading the USWNT to a 3-0 win over the Matildas in a friendly rematch of the Olympic bronze-medal game this past summer (a 4-3 win for U.S.).
As the USWNT prepares to face Australia again on Tuesday, head coach Vlatko Andonovski has plenty of talent to work with as he begins to build his 2023 World Cup roster. Despite stellar performances from the younger players in the Australia opener, it’s safe to assume only a few of those new faces will stick around since the USWNT still has a solid core of veterans — most of whom helped bring home the program’s fourth World Cup title in 2019.
If there’s one new player we should be confident about coming out of Saturday’s game, it’s goalkeeper Casey Murphy. The 25-year-old made eight saves in the win, including a few key stops in the final 10 minutes of the first half, earning her Player of the Match. Her ability to make those saves in front of a record-breaking Australian crowd of 36,109, and against strikers like NWSL all-time leading goal scorer Sam Kerr, shows she can rise to the occasion. Murphy stepped up in another high-pressure situation three weeks ago with her NWSL team, holding the Washington Spirit scoreless through regulation of their quarterfinal game until the eventual league champions scored in extra time.
Ashley Hatch, the player who buried the game-winner against Murphy in that quarterfinal, also rocketed onto the scene Saturday. In her third cap and first start with the USWNT, Hatch scored in the first 24 seconds to record the third-fastest goal in USWNT history. The 26-year-old has natural goal-scoring instincts, doesn’t take scoring opportunities for granted and has shown no signs of having a “weaker foot.” Of the 11 goals she scored in the NWSL this season, five were with her right foot, four were with her left and two came off her head.
If Andonovski is looking for goal scorers, Hatch is arguably the best option right now. But if he’s searching for goal scorers with versatility, that’s where Hatch will have to step up her game. Her ball distribution needs some work compared to other strikers in the mix for the USWNT.
A minute's worth of highlights, and you already know what the first 24 seconds are... pic.twitter.com/WWZLg1j1f8— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) November 27, 2021
A minute's worth of highlights, and you already know what the first 24 seconds are... pic.twitter.com/WWZLg1j1f8
While USWNT veterans Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan started in the midfield on Saturday, the frontline had less experience, and it showed in their inability to connect with the midfielders at times.
One of those players was Midge Purce, who has a bright future on this team even if her ascent has been gradual. She missed a couple of key shots against Australia, but she made an impact on the game in other ways, most notably beating her defender down the right flank and finding Lavelle with a perfectly placed cross for the USWNT’s second goal. What makes Purce’s case even stronger is her versatility. With the experience of playing fullback, the 26-year-old often pressures opponents to make back passes out of the USWNT’s defensive third, a skill not all forwards can execute as well.
#USWNT goal No. 18 for @roselavelle#USWNT assist No. 1 for @100Purcent.2-0, USA 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/alXmiYHpfD— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) November 27, 2021
#USWNT goal No. 18 for @roselavelle#USWNT assist No. 1 for @100Purcent.2-0, USA 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/alXmiYHpfD
Forward Bethany Balcer subbed in for her first cap in the 78th minute as the first former NAIA player to appear for the USWNT. She was excellent off the ball, forcing Australia into pressure with her ball-hawking. On the ball, the 24-year-old should look to take her space more instead of trying to pass too early, which will likely come once she gets more comfortable with the team.
The other forward Andonovski subbed in Saturday was Morgan Weaver, a speedy and smart player who has a knack for setting up scoring opportunities with clever passes. Entering the game in the 74th minute, she brought energy to the frontline and became the lone forward as the team moved to a 5-4-1 formation in the last 10 minutes. Given Weaver’s high work rate, it would make sense for her to get more playing time on Tuesday.
On the backline, Sofia Huerta is another tireless player who earned her eighth cap against Australia. Subbing in as a fullback at the start of the second half, she quickly made an impact with her playmaking abilities, setting up Purce with a header that led to Lavelle’s goal just three minutes into the half. The next step for Huerta is making runs up the field herself to get involved in the attack.
Emily Fox looked more comfortable carrying the ball out of the back Saturday. That energy didn’t necessarily translate to the other end, where she was slow in defensive transition. Of the eight shots Australia had in the first half, Fox could have done a better job preventing at least three. For the sake of her development, Andonovski said he’s already told her she’ll be invited to January camp.
Alana Cook earned her third cap at center back next to Tierna Davidson, but played like anything but one of the USWNT’s newcomers. While the experienced U.S. midfield struggled to shut down the middle of the park in their own half, Cook was an expert at reading Australia’s runs. And once the ball was at her feet, she stayed composed, consistently threading good balls through the middle while opposing players clawed at her back. The OL Reign defender lets the ball do the work, which is the kind of calmness the team needs to build up the attack.
This match didn’t offer much of an opportunity to evaluate midfielder Ashley Sanchez, who subbed on for her first cap in the 84th minute, when the USWNT’s main focus was keeping the ball out of their third and the play had turned sloppy. She brought good energy as the U.S. held on for the shutout, but if she gets more time Tuesday, she’ll need to deliver better first touches and quicker, simpler passes. She likes to carry the ball and find space for herself, which works when teammates aren’t providing options, but an easy pass is usually there instead.
Goalkeeper Bella Bixby and defender Imani Dorsey were the only other uncapped players on the roster who didn’t make an appearance Saturday. Expect them to get time Tuesday.
Andonovski has some tough roster decisions to make in the coming months as the U.S. gears up for the 2023 World Cup. The opening match with Australia allowed him to assess players’ technical abilities on the high-stakes international stage. Tuesday should give him a better opportunity to evaluate tactics now that the new players are more familiar with each other.
Kickoff of the second match between the U.S. and Australia is Tuesday at 4:05 a.m. ET on ESPN.
Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.