The USWNT won their fourth straight SheBelieves Cup this week, taking steps forward against three stellar opponents while continuing to test depth and increase sharpness as they build toward the 2023 World Cup in July.
The U.S. didn’t make it through any of their matches with perfect performances, but they showed a tenacity that they missed at times in 2022, especially during a three-game losing streak in October. Their bend-not-break defense allowed for magical moments on the other end of the pitch.
While there’s still work to be done after the SheBelieves Cup, the reigning World Champions got key performances out of a few players who are ready to shine on the biggest stage.
Swanson was named SheBelieves Cup MVP after the USWNT’s 2-1 win over Brazil, and for good reason. She became the tournament’s all-time leading scorer in 2023, as well as the first player ever to score at least one goal in all three games in the event’s history.
Known to USWNT fans as Mallory Pugh for years, Swanson is the kind of player that has always had the ability to create her own chances in front of goal. She has a sprint speed that doesn’t slow with the ball at her feet, and with every year, the 24-year-old shows a greater ability to drag defenders out of position and maneuver into good shooting positions.
Her on-ball work has always been an asset to her game, but the switch that has flipped in recent months is her ability to remain calm and clinically finish the chances she creates. Swanson was the first player to admit that she let some golden scoring chances go to waste in 2022, but she’s firing at an incredible rate so far in 2023.
Her goal against Japan provides an example of a player who’s ready to take advantage of a singular chance against a tricky opponent. In the run of play, she picked the ball out of the air, beat her defender on the dribble and calmly slotted the ball to the far post, past the keeper and into the back of the net. Swanson has hit another gear, and it’s happening at exactly the right time for the USWNT.
VOLUME UP 🔊@MalPugh's 6th goal of 2023, as called by @AndresCantorGOL on @NBCUniverso / @peacock 🎙️ pic.twitter.com/InJtMGBTVq— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) February 20, 2023
VOLUME UP 🔊@MalPugh's 6th goal of 2023, as called by @AndresCantorGOL on @NBCUniverso / @peacock 🎙️ pic.twitter.com/InJtMGBTVq
It’s easy to laugh at it now, but there were legitimate questions when Morgan returned to the U.S. last summer about bridging the gap between the long-time veteran and new talent on the wing. Morgan was put in a tough position, rejoining the team relatively late into the year and getting used to the movements of Mallory Swanson and Sophia Smith with a very short runway before World Cup qualifying without Catarina Macario.
Morgan scored the lone goal in the Concacaf W final against Canada last summer and has only looked more comfortable since then. Her off-ball positioning proved essential during the SheBelieves Cup, adjusting her attacking vision while playing alongside the somewhat inexperienced Ashley Sanchez at attacking midfielder. Morgan’s hold-up play has always been excellent, but with speedy players on both sides of her, the 33-year-old has leaned into her ability to occupy central defenders and spring the U.S. wingers into space.
Morgan facilitated her teammates in the team’s first two SBC matches, but against Brazil she also brought the individual magic necessary to open the scoring. Morgan isn’t being asked to beat defenders with pace anymore, but that didn’t keep her off the scoresheet. Her first-half strike was classic Alex Morgan: She curled the ball from the top of the box with her left foot and set up the U.S. to win their fourth consecutive tournament title.
😱 HOLY COW, @ALEXMORGAN13 pic.twitter.com/t9KkfIAegn— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) February 23, 2023
😱 HOLY COW, @ALEXMORGAN13 pic.twitter.com/t9KkfIAegn
For most of 2022, Williams slowly worked her way back to the USWNT after months of rehabbing a severe hamstring injury that required surgery. Her return against New Zealand in January was promising, but the SheBelieves Cup cemented why a lack of minutes last year probably won’t keep the Gotham forward off the plane to the World Cup.
Williams is a defensive mastermind from the forward position who can also create chances herself, as seen in her extended minutes against Japan and Brazil. Williams had to occupy Japan wingback Hina Sugita in order to provide defensive cover for Sofia Huerta to move the ball forward in the USWNT’s second game, which ultimately created the space that allowed Huerta to send the ball forward for the U.S.’s lone goal.
Against Brazil, Williams came off the bench to force a key turnover that led to Swanson’s game-winning goal. The 29-year-old creates offense out of defense, and does it better than almost anyone else on the roster.
Mewis’ role with the U.S. became clearer this week after she started as a holding midfielder in the team’s second game against Japan. Mewis has the ability to play a number of different midfield roles off the bench, but her rare starting role gave insight into why she’s also likely to make the trip to New Zealand in July.
Mewis plays a more connecting role for Gotham FC, pushing forward as the team attacks and creating dangerous chances on goal. Against Japan, she was similarly clinical in a more defensive role, working with Lindsey Horan to handle Japan’s tricky defensive pressing scheme and progress the ball.
The 31-year-old’s assignment with the U.S. likely means she’s never going to get the glory for a performance, but her versatility and calm head in an unfamiliar role showcase why she’s been a mainstay in camp for years and appears to be a lock for the World Cup.
Carrying heavy minutes this week, Horan didn’t always stand out for the U.S. in positive ways, struggling with turnovers in poor areas of the pitch against Japan and looking like she had lost her legs against Brazil. The sight of a fatigued player trying to do a little too much isn’t foreign to U.S. fans, who have seen Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz both pulled from the player pool in recent years after arguably being overused by their club and national teams.
Keeping Horan at her best this summer will be an ongoing project for head coach Vlatko Andonovski, who appears to consider her intrinsic to his tactical plans for the midfield. Shifting slightly from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, the U.S. is at their best when their defensive midfielder isn’t left on an island, as seen in the USWNT’s smothering performance against Canada.
But the U.S. also wants to execute a strategic defensive press that requires a certain amount of mobility, and Horan hasn’t looked fully comfortable in recent months. Horan isn’t injured (though she has been dealing with a lingering knee injury) and she plays regularly for Olympique Lyon, but with a grueling schedule ahead of her, extra care behind the scenes might be necessary to make sure she’s ready to go in July.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.