Midge Purce, Naomi Girma make World Cup cases: USWNT notes

Midge Purce got the start in the USWNT's 1-0 win over Mexico on Monday. (Azael Rodriguez/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national soccer team closed out the group stage of the Concacaf W Championship with a 1-0 win over Mexico on Monday. Kristie Mewis scored the lone goal in the 89th minute to send the U.S. into the knockout round as the top team in Group A. On Thursday, they’ll face Costa Rica in the semifinals.

The match against Mexico wasn’t a must-win for the USWNT, which had already qualified for the 2023 FIFA World Cup and clinched a spot in the semis with a 3-0 win over Haiti and 5-0 defeat of Jamaica.

But for Mexico, the game mattered. Coming into Monday’s match in last place in Group A, they needed a win to have a chance at finishing third in their group and advancing to the 10-team intercontinental World Cup qualifying round. The odds weren’t in their favor in the last 17 minutes after Jacqueline Ovalle was issued a red card for cleating Rose Lavelle’s ankle and Mexico went a player down. Regardless, they found dangerous attacking opportunities that put the American defense to the test.

Canada and Jamaica will meet in the other semifinal, also on Thursday. Canada finished first in Group B with three wins over Costa Rica, Panama and Trinidad and Tobago.

All semifinalists have qualified for the World Cup. Now, the four teams will compete for the Concacaf trophy and a guaranteed spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Can the USWNT finish the job? Here are our main takeaways from the group stage.

Naomi Girma and Midge Purce need to go to the World Cup

The USWNT has brought in a lot of new players this year, all of whom have impressed at one point or another and proven capable of contributing to a World Cup title. While players like Emily Fox and Alana Cook have consistently been on the pitch, two others haven’t got the start every time but have stood out when they’ve had the chance.

Naomi Girma has thrived at reading plays and delivering long balls into the attack, such as her precise, over-the-top assist to Sophia Smith in the July 7 match against Jamaica. Throughout the tournament, she’s also prevented teams from penetrating into the attacking third by reading and intercepting passes. On Monday against Mexico, she was tasked with shutting down one-v-ones and clearing balls out of the box. The center back duo has been one of the USWNT’s steadiest units at Concacaf so far, with Girma joined by Cook and Becky Sauerbrunn in a two-player rotation. They haven’t conceded a goal yet.

Forward Midge Purce started her first game of the tournament on Monday, and she didn’t let it go to waste. After scoring in the opener against Haiti, Purce tried for another against Mexico, but it rang off the post. She isn’t afraid to take players on one-v-one and she makes her presence felt end to end, most notably when she dribbled from the half to Mexico’s endline and sent a perfect low cross to the foot of Lindsey Horan in the box for a shot that the goalkeeper saved.

What has to be better

The USWNT, at times, has lacked creativity. Against Mexico, they passed back more often than usual, even when they had space in front of them to draw opponents in. Mexico’s physical defense was difficult to break down, but getting through low blocks isn’t a new problem for the U.S.

It became most troubling when Mexico went down a player to the red card and the USWNT still struggled to find the back of the net. Mexico often found themselves in the USWNT’s defensive third in the final 10 minutes.

There are likely a number of factors contributing to the USWNT’s difficulties up front, but the lineup rotations have been puzzling. At the beginning of Concacaf, head coach Vlatko Andonovski indicated that the starting lineup would remain similar throughout the tournament, but it has proceeded to change every game. With a roster as deep as the USWNT’s, it can be important to give multiple players a chance to warm up to the competitive environment, but constant changes can also have an adverse effect on chemistry. Rose Lavelle, one of the team’s most creative players in the midfield, was taken out of the starting XI Monday, at a time when they could have really used her.

Can the USWNT win Concacaf?

The USWNT squad in its current form is not ready to win a World Cup, as Andonovski said himself Monday night. They have a lot of work left to do when it comes to tactics, but the individual talent on the roster runs deep, and it’s enough to find a way to win Concacaf.

Costa Rica will load their backline like they did against Canada, and the U.S. might struggle with it on Thursday. But a few quick passes in the box worked for Canada. The U.S. is definitely capable of that, too.

If the USWNT ends up facing Canada in the finals on Monday, it will be their toughest competition yet. Canada has been practicing a defensive formation with two players in the six position, and they also have two of the best center backs in the world in Kadeisha Buchanan and Vanessa Gilles. The USWNT should consider starting the midfield trio of Lavelle, Andi Sullivan and Ashley Sanchez for maximum creativity on the ball to break through Canada’s Olympic gold-winning defense.

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