USWNT players who aced their auditions, and more from SheBelieves Cup

Catarina Macario celebrates one of the two goals she scored in the tournament finale Wednesday. (Robin Alam/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Mallory Pugh reached 20 goals and 20 assists for her international career, Ashley Sanchez showed off her nifty ball distribution, SheBelieves Cup MVP Catarina Macario registered two goals and an assist for an almost “Cat Trick.” The only thing missing from the United States women’s national team’s 5-0 win over Iceland in the tournament finale Wednesday night was the Becky Sauerbrunn goal everyone on Twitter was trying to manifest.

In their third shutout in seven days, the U.S. claimed their fifth SheBelieves Cup title on Wednesday. For head coach Vlatko Andonovski, the goal of the campaign was to evaluate a younger roster and give experience to the 11 players who came into the competition with 10 caps or fewer.

The USWNT concluded the tournament with the ultimate test on Wednesday, as seven starters under the age of 25 stepped onto the Texas field in 23-degree temperatures to face 2-0 Iceland in a winner-take-all game.

“Everything, everything was in some ways against us, and I told them today, ‘Let’s see what we’re made of,’” Andonovski said. “A little bit of adversity, a little bit of challenge, and it was an opportunity for some of these players to dig probably a little deeper than they have ever had before.”

A draw and two 5-0 wins later, here are key takeaways from the USWNT’s performance at the SheBelieves Cup.

‘This is a process’

“Process” was the word Andonovski used the most throughout the SheBelieves Cup. He made it very clear he’s not ready to draw conclusions or form opinions about the team or players at this point in time. The tournament was just a step on the journey toward building a World Cup roster.

“I feel comfortable saying that we made strides,” the coach said of the tournament. “Obviously there’s always going to be room for improvement, especially with a young group of players like this one, but with what we had lined up, I feel pretty comfortable saying that we did a pretty good job.”

Deep player pool

Andonovski undeniably has one of the hardest jobs in sports. Naming a 23-player World Cup roster is a daunting task when the USWNT’s talent pool feels as deep as the Mariana Trench. That’s especially apparent now that the young squad stepped up to win an international tournament, albeit a friendly one against lesser competition than in past SheBelieves Cups. Andonovski will have to weigh their selections with those of the USWNT veterans, at least 11 of whom weren’t a part of the most recent camp.

On paper, every young player is talented enough to earn a spot on the team. But those players who took time to rest or stepped away for life reasons — Crystal Dunn is expecting her first child and Christen Press is taking mental health leave — will likely be looking to take their spots back.

Four players who can expect to stick around

Catarina Macario is the present and future of the USWNT. Playing in the number nine — center forward position — for the first time with this younger group, she provided creativity Andonovski plans to build the team around.

In the first match of the tournament, only midfielder Rose Lavelle was showing signs of chemistry with Macario, but by the end of the third game, the rest of the team was syncing better with her runs and ball movements. After Macario sat on the bench for most of the Olympics, she showed off her all-around talent with strong defense and two world-class goals that Andonvoski believes should be “on highlight reels all over the world.”

Ashley Sanchez got her first and second starts for the USWNT in Games 2 and 3 of the SheBelieves Cup after Rose Lavelle went down with an injury, and she seized the opportunity. The 22-year-old midfielder exhibited her confidence on the ball, using fancy footwork most players wouldn’t try in a game, threading narrow through-balls to the forwards and dribbling out of the defensive third.

The center backs didn’t get a whole lot of action in the tournament. Regardless, it was apparent Alana Cook has the composure, positioning and distribution to make an impact on the USWNT’s backline.

Emily Fox has been an asset on the attack with her ability to dribble through and out of pressure. She’s capable of contributing to the play both on the flank and in the middle of the park, and her composure earned praise from Andonovski during the tournament.

Future of the forwards

The attacking third was full of new players, and it’ll be interesting to watch how the forward line evolves over the next year. Andonovski has been keeping a close eye on Macario, Pugh and Smith, who continue to work on reading each other’s runs and crosses in front of the net, but have the technical ability and movement to put together creative attacks as a unit.

Trinity Rodman made her USWNT debut in the first game of the tournament before leaving with an ankle injury, which Andonovski said was non-serious.

Evolution of the midfield

The group that showed the most improvement over the three games was the midfield. By the third game, they were initiating better chemistry with the forwards and getting into better positioning. Andi Sullivan, especially, was creating clear angles for passes and dropping into spaces that enabled her to control the tempo at the six position.

Andonovski doesn’t appear to be rebuilding the midfield as much as he is the other position groups. Ashley Sanchez and Morgan Gautrat are the only midfielders he’s called up in the last four months who weren’t on the 2020 Olympic roster. Gautrat, a two-time FIFA World Cup champion, played in the first match before sitting out the next two with an injury. She was healthy enough to play in the third game, but the coaching staff felt it wasn’t worth risking anything in the cold weather.

Best part of the pitch

Though they didn’t face much pressure during the tournament, the USWNT’s defenders received the highest marks. Team defense gets the credit for the three shutouts, but the backline also stood out for their organization, marking, tracking back, distribution and contribution to the attack. Andonovski called their performance in the third game “spot on.”

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