The U.S. women’s national team will move on from October with their heads held high. A 3-0 victory over Colombia on Sunday gave them more breathing room after a scoreless draw earlier in the week. The match was a tale of two halves, as the U.S. made slight adjustments at halftime to pepper Colombia’s penalty area in a chippy, physical match.
The shots on goal didn’t start landing until the second half, as key substitutes took advantage of a worn-down defense. Mia Fishel and Jaedyn Shaw tallied their first USWNT goals, and Lindsey Horan also scored a breakthrough goal in her attacking midfield role.
What was likely interim manager Twila Kilgore’s final game in charge of a team in a holding pattern didn’t answer every question fans have for the former world champions. But it did serve as a reminder that solutions are necessary, and that the players in the team’s future might actually be the ones who can perform the best in the present.
Here are a few main takeaways from Sunday’s win.
The next USWNT coach could find themselves in a conundrum as they decide what to do about the established center forward role. It’s a spot that Alex Morgan has held in good stead for most of her career, but as the striker concludes another international break without a goal, questions about form continue to follow the 34-year-old.
Morgan brings more to the team than just a goal-scoring presence, as both a key leader and an increasingly effective playmaker. But in both October matches against Colombia, she struggled with her primary objective, missing a penalty kick and other high-quality chances in front of goal. It’s not Morgan’s fault that the USWNT has played slim-margin, counter-attacking soccer in 2023 — that responsibility primarily rests with former manager Vlatko Andonovski. But the last four games have followed a similar blueprint, and form being a fickle thing supports the idea of letting hotter hands get experience in the No. 9 role.
Mia Fishel made an obvious case on Sunday, scoring her first senior international goal on a header off a short corner kick. The USWNT has long been dominant on set pieces, and Fishel’s aerial ability combined with her comfort as a back-to-goal striker opened things up for the U.S. in the second half on Sunday.
... and that's how it works, that's how we got the goal 🎶🎶🎶 pic.twitter.com/9XoiZgPnpR— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) October 29, 2023
... and that's how it works, that's how we got the goal 🎶🎶🎶 pic.twitter.com/9XoiZgPnpR
Sophia Smith is also re-entering the fold after an MCL sprain and still lining up with the U.S. as a winger. She has had a two-year run of dominance in the NWSL in a more central position, something Andonovski leaned on but never committed to as USWNT coach. Other players who can do damage in front of goal include (but are not limited to) Ashley Hatch, Lynn Williams and Catarina Macario, considering she can return to her old form after recovery from an ACL injury.
It doesn’t do Morgan any favors to keep inserting her into a system that doesn’t play to her strengths, nor does it make sense for a team that has this much attacking talent to become rigid in the face of a shooting slump. The process of building cohesion and chemistry only works if the pieces in the system fit, and the U.S. appears to be a couple of personnel moves away from striking the right balance.
Some of the turnover in the USWNT player pool happened so fast this summer that it’s difficult to contextualize a team that’s constantly changing. Trinity Rodman abruptly took on much greater responsibility during the World Cup due to Mallory Swanson’s knee injury and now looks like a confident, seasoned pro on the wings. Savannah DeMelo, after a surprising World Cup debut, was similarly called upon to infuse life into the U.S. attack in both of their October matches in the absence of Rose Lavelle.
The success of players like Rodman and DeMelo, who were pushed into the deep end and swam instead of sinking, should bolster the idea that the next USWNT coach need not be precious about giving minutes to younger, less experienced talent. In fact, Kilgore’s reluctance to move away from the hyper-conservative playing style of the team’s Round of 16 formation arguably wasted precious time when the team has never had less to lose.
Shaw and Fishel played like stars on Sunday, with a fearlessness and tenacity that the USWNT has been missing from its veterans. Shaw can slot into a number of positions with ease, her superpower being an understanding of how she can exploit space wherever it presents itself. With her chip of the goalkeeper to put the U.S. up 3-0, the 19-year-old showed a poise that belied her age. The assist came from the capable 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who is still being eased into playing time with the U.S. senior team after making the World Cup roster.
.@JaedynShaw11 (18 years and 343 days) is the youngest player to score for the #USWNT since Mallory Swanson scored against Colombia at the 2016 Summer Olympics at 18 years and 102 days of age. pic.twitter.com/vgSNHMjrfX— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) October 29, 2023
.@JaedynShaw11 (18 years and 343 days) is the youngest player to score for the #USWNT since Mallory Swanson scored against Colombia at the 2016 Summer Olympics at 18 years and 102 days of age. pic.twitter.com/vgSNHMjrfX
Given the excitement on Sunday, there’s an argument that the U.S. coaching staff isn’t moving fast enough. Olivia Moultrie could be the type of player to allow Horan to rest at times, but she did not see the field in October. The team’s avoidance of defensive midfielder Sam Coffey, an NWSL MVP finalist this season with the Portland Thorns, also continued this week (though the ascendance of Emily Sonnett in the same role has possibly muddied the waters). Ashley Sanchez received late minutes on Sunday, still finding herself struggling to rise on the midfield depth chart after not playing at all during the World Cup.
One of the blessings and the curses of managing the USWNT is that you have to find ways to balance leadership, mentality, form and positional roles while overseeing an intensely competitive environment where many players have a case for consideration. Former coaches have frequently pushed for changes in increments, with a steadfast faith in the team’s cohesion across player generations.
The 2024 Olympics looming in the background could push the next U.S. manager into inactivity, trusting the process that Andonovski began. But the game tape from Sunday might support a bolder approach, and one that needs to happen quickly lest the USWNT continue to lose ground on the international stage.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.