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Four big questions for the USWNT heading into the Olympic cycle

(Kamil KrzaczynskiI/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team got their mojo back during the September international break, sending Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe off in style with two dominant wins over South Africa. The games were filled with emotion, and goodbyes off the field influencing the USWNT’s sharpness on the field.

The performances also shined a light on a few of the lingering questions from the Vlatko Andonovski era that new management will have to investigate as the team looks toward the 2024 Olympics.

The Alex Morgan question

Alex Morgan had two perfectly-placed assists in each game against South Africa, bringing her assists total for the USWNT in 2023 to five, the most since her breakout year in 2012. The 34-year-old showcased an ability to slide into wide areas to pull South African defenders out of position and free up space for her teammates, most notably Trinity Rodman.

Both of Morgan’s assists offered a glimpse into the all-around player the striker has become later in her career, providing an improvisatory spark that opened up both matches and set the U.S. up for comfortable leads. The plays could also be indicative of the way Morgan has had to adapt her natural tendencies in order to work in a system that still reflects the way Andonovski asked her to play at the 2023 World Cup.

But for all the positive play Morgan brings to the USWNT frontline, she is still struggling to find the back of the net herself. With another international break behind her, the 34-year-old hasn’t scored for the USWNT since February nor for her club team since May. Her scoring drought has seemed to stem less from a significant decline in pace or touch (her ball control on Sunday’s assist was world-class), and more from positioning and poise. Whatever mental block is holding Morgan back hasn’t stopped her from impacting games, but it has limited her effectiveness in the role she is primarily brought in to play.

The Emily Sonnett question

Emily Sonnett now consistently plays defensive midfielder for her club, OL Reign, and she started in that role in both of the USNWT’s games against South Africa. She’s looked increasingly confident there, but her usage in recent months begs the question: Is the former defender in the midst of a true position change, or is the team simply tapping into the versatile talent she’s been known for her entire career?

Sonnett was the unlikely hero of the USWNT’s 4-2-3-1 formation change in their Round of 16 match against Sweden at the World Cup, and she looked just as steady when paired with Ertz and then Andi Sullivan against South Africa. But the new commitment to what seemed at the time to be a last-minute position switch could also be holding the team back from moving on from Andonovski’s style of play. Portland Thorns standout No. 6 Sam Coffey got another call-up in September but did not see the field in either game. Based on positioning, Coffey would ostensibly step into Sullivan’s role alongside the ball-winning Sonnett.

There’s no doubt that the 4-2-3-1 could be a sturdy formation for the team going forward under new management, and position switches have happened with success before — such as Ertz moving from center-back to defensive midfield in 2017. But Sonnett’s emergence as a midfield option rather than as a defender could also reshape the team’s roster approach altogether.

The Alana Cook question

Ertz’s retirement and Sonnett’s emergence as a starter in the defensive midfield prompted the return of Alana Cook to the USWNT’s central defense in both September games. Cook had a very strange 2023, with Andonovski abruptly benching her in favor of Ertz for the entirety of the World Cup after she had played the most minutes of anyone in 2022.

Now, she is again being asked to anchor the U.S. backline, a task she likely thought would have come in much bigger games. Cook partnered with Naomi Girma in the first match of the international break, and then with Tierna Davidson in the second game. Davidson is looking to return to a USWNT tournament roster after being left home during the World Cup, and with Becky Sauerbrunn’s return in question, the team’s center-back depth is just as questionable as it was earlier in the year.

Andonovski decided to push questions about the central defense into the future when he went all-in on Ertz and Girma in Australia and New Zealand. Those decisions will now be made by a new coach, and Cook missed out on major tournament experience that could have been a foundational point of the next cycle.

Ashley Sanchez didn't see the field for the USWNT at the World Cup. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The Ashley Sanchez question

The team’s renewed commitment to a defensive 4-2-3-1 in the absence of Rose Lavelle also leads to questions about the future of the playmaker role. The defensive midfield double-pivot came out of necessity, as the U.S. struggled to retain and progress the ball through the midfield with only one defensive midfielder feeding two attacking midfielders.

But the team’s realignment has left a few of the USWNT’s pure playmakers adrift. Ashley Sanchez subbed into the first game of the September series, and Savannah DeMelo did the same in the second, but the current starting lineup indicates a trend. Interim manager Twila Kilgore appears most comfortable with a conservative, possession-based approach that attacking playmakers can stretch later in matches.

Kilgore’s logic is sound, as the U.S. continues to build on the positive play of their Round of 16 match against Sweden. But after Sanchez was left on the bench during the World Cup, and DeMelo got thrown into the fire of the group stage without much midfield support, the USWNT has too much attacking firepower to line up as conservatively as it has been in recent months. Lavelle’s expected return will force the new coach’s hand one way or another on whether the defensive priorities should take precedence over the team’s attack.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

The Late Sub Podcast: Can the USWNT Medal?

The USWNT takes a silly face photo during their team Olympic photo shoot
The USWNT will begin their 2024 Olympic medal hunt on Thursday. (Brad Smith/ISI/Getty Images).

This week, JWS podcast host Claire Watkins discusses WNBA All-Star Weekend, which felt both like a celebration of the league's explosive growth over the past year and a way to set Team USA up for a particularly competitive Summer Olympics.

Later, Watkins previews the field for the upcoming Olympic soccer tournament, nominating her personal "Group of Death" and discussing whether or not the new-era USWNT could still reach medal contention despite their current rebuild under new head coach Emma Hayes.

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Team USA, Germany Play Pre-Olympic Exhibition Game in London

Team USA's 5x5 Basketball Team stands for the National Anthem before Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game
Team USA looks to rebound from Saturday's WNBA All-Star Game loss in an exhibition against Germany today. (Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images)

USA Basketball's 5x5 team will tip off in an exhibition against Germany in London this afternoon, getting in one last tune-up before the Summer Olympics begin.

The US is hunting an eighth-straight gold medal this year, with group stage play starting on July 29th.

Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to face Germany in pre-Olympic exhibition.
Team USA's Kahleah Copper, Alyssa Thomas, Kelsey Plum, and Sabrina Ionescu gear up to take on Germany in London. (Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images)

US to use All-Star loss as fuel

Coming off the weekend's All-Star Game loss, the Olympians are ready to repeat history: They earned their Tokyo gold medal immediately after losing the first Team USA vs. Team WNBA All-Star Game back in 2021.

Breanna Stewart, who led Team USA with a 31-point, 10-rebound double-double on Saturday, said that the defeat "is going to help us tremendously. We don’t get that many game opportunities, [and now] we can go back and watch the film and focus on how we can continue to be better."

Today’s tilt against Germany will see the US work to lock in their defense, particularly in the paint. They'll also lean into their positional versatility before heading to Paris.

WNBA pro Satou Sabally leads Team Germany in today's pre-Olympic exhibition game against Team USA.
WNBA pro Satou Sabally helped Germany to their first-ever Olympic berth. (Axel Heimken/picture alliance via Getty Images)

Olympic debutants Germany enter first US clash

The exhibition marks the first-ever US-Germany linkup. The German team will make their Olympic debut in Paris after decades of failing to qualify for major international competitions. Their sixth-place 2023 EuroBasket finish sent them into February’s FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament, where they punched their ticket to the 2024 Games.

Leading Germany's run was two-time WNBA All-Star Satou Sabally, who put up career-high averages in points, rebounds, assists, and steals with Dallas last season. Her 20-point, 11-rebound double-double was the difference-maker in Germany's must-win 73-71 Olympic qualifying victory over Brazil.

Other German players to watch include 2022 NY Liberty draft-pick — and Sabally's sister — Nyara Sabally, along with Liberty sharpshooter Leonie Fiebich.

Where to watch the Team USA vs. Germany game

Today’s exhibition tips off at 3 PM ET with live coverage on FS1.

1v1 With Kelley O’Hara: USWNT Star Jaedyn Shaw Is Expecting “Dubs All Around”

retired uswnt star kelley o'hara interviewing san diego wave and uswnt forward jaedyn shaw
'1v1' is back with Jaedyn Shaw joining Kelley O'Hara for a conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics. (Just Women's Sports)

In the latest episode of Just Women's Sports' 1v1 With Kelley O'Hara, San Diego Wave and USWNT star Jaedyn Shaw joins two-time World Cup champion and Olympic gold medalist Kelley O'Hara for a one-on-one conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics.

We hear from the 19-year-old Wave FC phenom about her first impressions of new USWNT coach Emma Hayes, her experience with international competition at this point in her young career, and how she's preparing to take on the 2024 Summer Games.

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The 91st: Complete USWNT & Olympic Soccer Preview Featuring Jess McDonald

Logo for JWS USWNT Olympic show The 91st
The latest season of JWS' awarding-winning Olympics show 'The 91st' premieres today. (Just Women's Sports)

We're back! Hosts Jordan Angeli, Duda Pavao, and retired USWNT forward Jess McDonald deliver a full preview of this year's Olympic soccer tournament in Paris.

Watch for full analysis of USWNT manager Emma Hayes's coaching style, this team's shifting identity in this new USWNT era, and a projected starting XI for the team's group stage opener against Zambia. The 91st hosts also break down all three Olympic groups — including top players and teams to track throughout the tournament — plus give their predictions for the medal rounds and individual awards.

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