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USWNT 2022 takeaways: Road to the World Cup won’t be easy

Sophia Smith, Rose Lavelle, Trinity Rodman, Lindsey Horan and Megan Rapinoe celebrate a goal against England in October. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team closed out its 18-match 2022 campaign with two friendlies against Germany this past week.

That final friendly series — a 2-1 loss followed by a 2-1 win against the third-ranked team in the world — was symbolic of the USWNT’s year that consisted of both highs and lows. After winning the Concacaf W Championship in the summer and qualifying for the 2023 World Cup, they traveled to play friendlies against some of the world’s best and lost three straight games for the first time since 1993.

It was a year of many takeaways as the USWNT prepares for the World Cup that starts in July. Here’s what was learned about the team in 2022.

Starting forwards seem decided

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has yet to solidify his lineups in the midfield, defense and goal as he waits for the opportunity to evaluate veterans returning from injury. The three starting forwards, however, are more clear.

The wingers have remained consistent all year, with the Colorado duo of Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh starting the majority of the games. Andonovski said earlier this year that other players would have to do “something incredible” to take their starting roles. Smith, the 2022 NWSL MVP, was the USWNT’s leading scorer with 11 of the team’s 56 goals this year. Coming into 2022 with 10 caps, she went on to start all 17 games that she appeared in. Pugh was the second-leading scorer with seven goals and a team-high seven assists.

Center forward Catarina Macario was a centerpiece of the USWNT attack before she tore her ACL in June and is unlikely to lose her starting position when she returns to the field. Scoring five goals in the five games she played, she also helped connect the team’s midfield and the frontline, something the U.S. has been lacking since she went down.

Macario, Smith and Pugh were Andonovski's preferred starting attacking trio before Macario's injury. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Andonovski needs to adapt

Through the successes and disappointments of 2022, Andonovski has been loyal to the same starting lineup in a 4-3-3 formation. While it’s worked in some instances, no opponent is the same and players are susceptible to bad games.

In one example, the USWNT’s starting backline in the October friendly against England and in the first November game against Germany consisted lower-capped players, when Becky Sauerbrunn’s veteran leadership could have benefited the squad against two of the top five teams in the world. In the midfield, the trio of Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan need to prove they can be more consistent, which could come from some variation of a 4-4-2 when going up against a strong midfield like Germany’s.

Andonovski will lead the USWNT into his first World Cup as coach next year. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Rookies or veterans, the USWNT is dominant

The USWNT’s player pool runs so deep that even with over 10 key veterans injured, the team has kept its No. 1 FIFA ranking all year. Most of the players Andonovski brought in at the beginning of the year to evaluate became long-term contributors out of necessity. Whether the roster evolves back into what it looked like at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, or stays the same as it’s been in 2022, the USWNT is in good shape to be a top-four team in the 2023 World Cup. The three straight losses stand out, but the USWNT went 14-3-1 this year compared to 17-2-5 last year.

But… a third straight World Cup title is no guarantee

Sure, the USWNT remains one of the best teams in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re a safe bet to win the World Cup title. This year, the U.S. not only lost to powerhouses England, Spain and Germany, but they showed much room for improvement in the process. In the Concacaf W final, the USWNT beat Canada only on a penalty kick. The rest of the world is catching up to the dominance of the five-time World Cup champions, and although the U.S. has the talent to be a semifinal team, the World Cup title — as things stand now — is up for grabs.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.