What went wrong for the U.S. women’s national team at the 2023 World Cup?
The shootout loss to Sweden in the Round of 16 marked the earliest ever World Cup exit for the USWNT. And the trouble started in the group stage, as the attack floundered against the Netherlands and Portugal.
Here’s what players have said about the USWNT’s struggles in the month since the World Cup elimination.
The 29-year-old co-captain called out the lack of preparation for the tournament in Australia and New Zealand. While Horan did not mention head coach Vlatko Andonovski by name, she did share what she wants to ask his successor. (Andonovski resigned after the Round of 16 exit.)
“(How do you plan on) getting the best out of your team without overcomplicating everything? Because I could talk about the last four-year cycle, and we don’t need to get into every single thing, but that’s not what we did,” she said. “We did not get the best out of every single individual. I don’t think everyone was fully prepared.”
The starting midfielder pointed to the game against Sweden, which proved to be the best of the tournament for the USWNT despite the shootout loss. The improvements seen on the pitch in that contest came from the players themselves, according to Horan.
“The game against Sweden, I don’t think we were necessarily set up to play the way that we played,” she said. “That was just us, finally coming together and being like, this is what we’re gonna do. And then it worked. Then it’s like, ‘OK, keep doing it.’ Could that have happened earlier? Maybe. It’s a really tough one.”
Like Horan, Sullivan started every single World Cup match. And she saw a “disconnect” between the preparation and the execution, she said after the tournament.
“I like Vlatko. He’s a good coach. And I felt we were prepared for the games, but there was clearly a disconnect between our preparation and then what actually was executed in the game,” Sullivan said. “That’s not good enough for the U.S. women’s national team. So you have got to make changes, and hopefully we can get things right before the Olympics.”
Several USWNT players, including Sanchez, pointed to a disconnect not in the overall strategy but in the communication of their roles on the team.
For example, Sanchez discussed her usage with Andonovski ahead of the tournament. The 24-year-old midfielder had played in all eight USWNT matches in 2023 leading into the World Cup, averaging 50 minutes per match. But she did not receive any playing time across the USWNT’s four matches in Australia and New Zealand.
“Let’s just say the role (I was told I would fill) was not what I played,” she told the Washington Post.
Williams entered the World Cup ready to channel her “inner Christen Press” and be a “super seven” sub, based on how Andonovski had described her role. But she did not play in the first two matches against Vietnam or the Netherlands.
“On some level, it’s devastating,” she said. “Because you’re like, everybody’s getting into the game, and I’m not getting into the game.”
The 30-year-old forward adjusted her expectations, and she did end up playing in the next two matches. She played 83 minutes as a starter in the group-stage finale against Portugal, then subbed on for the final 55 minutes against Sweden.
“I just had to remind myself again, like, it’s not about you, it’s about the team,” Williams said. “So whatever the decisions were made, just support that decision and make your teammates the best teammates you can possibly be.”
Still, the World Cup elimination stings.
“I just think we were too talented to have the outcome that we did,” she said on Just Women’s Sports‘ “Snacks” podcast.
As the 38-year-old forward prepares for her final USWNT appearance on Sept. 24, she took a broader view of how the USWNT needs to adjust in an interview with The Atlantic.
“From an overall federation perspective, it is worth at least a deep-dive look at our structure. We haven’t done that well in youth tournaments,” she said. “I think a more consistent style and a more consistent philosophy from the younger teams all the way up through the senior teams is necessary.”
One of many players who posted reflections on Instagram after tournament, the 23-year-old forward called herself “heartbroken” after the World Cup loss.
“Thank you to those who believed and supported us throughout the tournament, and most importantly to those who still do and never stopped,” Smith wrote. “It wouldn’t be life without moments like this, and I know without a doubt we will be back and hungrier than ever.”
Purce missed out on the World Cup with a quad injury, but she followed her friends from afar. And while she understands their disappointment, and offered some criticism of the team’s World Cup tactics, she also expressed her optimism for the future of the USWNT.
“I think it’s so interesting the way we look at World Cups and big tournaments as if that tournament is the end of the movie, there’s nothing else to be seen,” Purce said on Just Women’s Sports‘ “The 91st” podcast. “This is a long journey. It’s a long story. These kids (are) probably gonna have three or four World Cups under their belt. And it’s the next one that I think everyone should be terrified for.
“They have a chip on their shoulder. They have broken hearts, they’re hurting. It’s hard and they’re good. They’re better than what they got. They’ve put out better performances individually than what they’ve received. … So I just think that there’s so much more to be excited for on the landscape of U.S women’s soccer. It’s going to be incredible.”