When the U.S. women’s national team took down China PR 3-0 on Saturday, the team looked like a new confident and loose version of itself. With several veterans taking the final international break of the calendar year off, interim manager Twila Kilgore made a few changes to the team’s approach that seemed to both clarify roles and empower players to be themselves.
While the conversation around the national team is often dominated by player personnel, one of the tactics former coach Vlatko Andonovski struggled with late in his tenure was how exactly to use players. On Saturday, with Emma Hayes’ outside perspective likely an asset, the U.S. packed the midfield without being overly conservative and allowed the defense to cover defensive transition and aid in the attack.
So rather than focusing on individual performances during the club offseason for many players, let’s focus on three standout players as dictated by their roles, and why their ability to shine is good news for the USWNT long term.
Sophia Smith didn’t have a perfect match on Saturday, still shaking off a bit of rust after the second half of her 2023 season was interrupted by injury. After scoring the game’s opening goal, Smith missed a number of clear chances as she continues to regain her finishing touch.
Soph + Trin, that's good soccer. pic.twitter.com/6Y9XrkJS5V— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) December 2, 2023
Soph + Trin, that's good soccer. pic.twitter.com/6Y9XrkJS5V
But the fact that Smith could have had a hat trick with a few more clinical strikes is a happy sight for USWNT fans, who watched the forward have trouble imposing herself on games in the World Cup from the winger position. The idea of Smith being more effective in a more central position is not a new one, but her ability to combine with Trinity Rodman and Rose Lavelle against China showed that, even if the final shot isn’t there, chance creation can go a long way for the U.S.
With the team favoring a 4-4-2 out of possession and a 3-5-2 in possession, Smith had support both behind and to either side of her, wherein the team could prioritize passing sequences over excessive dribbling down the wings that can silo possession and lead to searching crosses in the air. Her movements broke down the defensive lines of China’s low block and opened up opportunities for teammates. Smith worked especially well with Rodman, who had a breakout game with two assists and a goal.
Smith has the ability to run in behind a defense at top speed and to react to teammates’ movements, sitting in a classic poaching position in games where her team has the majority of possession. That her tendencies as a player complement a formation that allows the U.S. to have a sturdier spine up the middle of the pitch only deepens her case for a central role going forward.
When Jaedyn Shaw received her first extended minutes for the USWNT in the team’s final friendly in October, she slotted into a well-worn role for up-and-coming U.S. talent. She came on for Smith, who had been playing out wide and provided attacking options from a winger position, ultimately notching her first goal for the USWNT in her second appearance.
Shaw has experience as a winger (known in position numbers as a No. 7 or No. 11), getting her start there when she joined the San Diego Wave in 2022. But in 2023, Wave manager Casey Stoney tapped into her skills as a playmaker, using her both out wide and as a deep-seated forward tucked in behind No. 9 Alex Morgan.
On Saturday, Morgan watched the USWNT game from home, but Kilgore had a new set of plans for Shaw. She subbed on in place of attacking midfielder Savannah DeMelo, getting a chance to help dictate the flow of attack alongside Lavelle. Her on-field chemistry with substitute center forward Mia Fishel was obvious, as Fishel’s back-to-goal, possessive abilities coincided with Shaw’s field vision to keep the U.S. creative in the attack.
Her greatest moment of the match was a simple flick. Shaw collected Midge Purce’s low cross and sent the ball across the face of goal for Rodman to smash it into the back of the net. Shaw is a special player who should feature for the U.S. for years to come, and Kilgore giving her the freedom to make plays is a great sign for how the team plans to use her.
a tap tap taparoo pic.twitter.com/HpxfuhwffH— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) December 2, 2023
a tap tap taparoo pic.twitter.com/HpxfuhwffH
Casey Krueger could possibly go down in history as the best USWNT player to never feature on a World Cup roster, and she showcased both old and new skills on Saturday. Setting up at right back, Krueger was asked at times to provide 1v1 defensive coverage out of possession, but with the U.S. seeing a lion’s share of the possession, she showed exactly how the position can be used in the team’s attack.
The outside-back position has been fraught for the U.S. for years, with an inconsistent talent pipeline leading numerous coaches to compensate by converting forwards and midfielders (first-time USWNT player Jenna Nighswonger is the most recent example). That process has long been criticized, including when Andonovski struggled to empower his fullbacks to play to the best of their ball-progressing abilities.
Andonovski moved Emily Fox to right back to make room for Crystal Dunn at left back at the 2023 World Cup, but neither player had the room to run the flanks and create enough width for the team’s attack. Defensive off-the-ball structure was clearly at the forefront of their instruction, and at times both Dunn and Fox got caught in between their instincts to aid the attack and a lack of confidence in their ability to regain ground in defensive transition.
Not every opponent will take the low-block approach that China sat in on Saturday, but early involvement of Fox (back on the left) and Krueger was very promising. Both players were clearly given the green light to operate more like wingbacks in possession, with a comfortable three-back behind them when the U.S. had control of the ball. This allowed Krueger to move into dangerous spaces on the right wing and overlap with Lavelle, who herself never felt she had to give up her own drifting tendencies in space to push to the endline.
Later in the match, Purce took up the same space Krueger had inhabited and created the team’s third goal by operating in her preferred area as a wingback. Purce is another forward finding her way onto the field by any means necessary. But if the USWNT is still in the position of using their immense winger depth to create points of attack, the 3-5-2 formation in possession gives them more cover behind to be their best selves.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.