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Three positive signs from the USWNT’s World Cup rebound game

Trinity Rodman celebrates her goal with Alex Morgan and Lindsey Horan in a 3-0 win over South Africa on Thursday. (Andy Lyons/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

CINCINNATI — The U.S. women’s national team played their first match after a disappointing World Cup campaign on Thursday, defeating South Africa 3-0 in Julie Ertz’s final appearance with the team. Ertz’s goodbye came with a lot of emotions, both in public and in the locker room, as the U.S. began to turn the page from the Vlatko Andonovski era.

It’s difficult to draw any definitive conclusions from friendlies, but the U.S. showed clear positive signs in Thursday’s victory, putting together a performance that any prospective new coach could get excited about. Here are a few reasons to think that the former World No. 1 team can steady the ship in 2024.

Passing of the guard

USWNT sendoff games could be considered unnecessary pomp and circumstance for individual players, but it was clear that getting a chance to say thank you to Ertz meant more to U.S. players than a nice slogan.

Longtime teammates coming back together for a curtain call after a disappointing World Cup campaign provided a sense of closure to the team’s 2023. The game also held important locker room threads together that the USWNT has long prized. It’s been easy to take for granted that young players coming into the U.S. environment would always have Ertz and Megan Rapinoe to guide and set standards, but with their departures, that particular mentorship becomes precious.

“Having [Ertz] here, and working with her a little bit at Angel City, it was just something that — I haven’t been able to see her in this environment before,” said defender M.A. Vignola, who made her USWNT debut Thursday. “I just came in with high expectations for myself, but also ready to learn and to take the notes of people like Julie and people like Megan and Alex, and having those people around me was something that I’ve dreamed of.”

Vignola was the only player to earn her first U.S. cap on Thursday, but other newcomers like Jaedyn Shaw and Mia Fishel are gaining valuable experience with those veterans still in place. As the U.S. naturally evolves over the next few years, maintaining that generational through-line will continue to be important.

M.A. Vignola made her debut with the USWNT on the same night Julie Ertz played in her last game. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The Sweden formation

A new coach will likely re-evaluate all aspects of the way the USWNT plays, including both personnel and style. But under interim manager Twila Kilgore, they simply leaned into what was already working.

The U.S. played in the same 4-2-3-1 formation on Thursday as they did against Sweden in the Round of 16, a game players have said was their best performance of the tournament. Emily Sonnett again slotted into the defensive midfield, and Lindsey Horan took the most advanced midfield position to control the flow of possession.

“The expectation within the group was to build off the Sweden match,” Kilgore said after the game. “So part of that has to do with formation, but formation, sometimes it’s just five yards here and five yards there. But really the idea was to build off of our play against Sweden.”

The system works well for this particular roster, as Sonnett provided defensive cover to allow first Ertz and then Horan to push forward and distribute the ball to the forward line. Emily Fox had a certain amount of freedom at outside-back to make runs both to expand the team’s width and to cut inside. Lynn Williams and Trinity Rodman were also effective as wingers in a way the U.S. couldn’t quite capture in Australia and New Zealand.

While the USWNT didn’t play with freedom immediately in their first game after Andonovski’s exit, they did warm into the first half with a lightness they’ll look to bring into their future games, prior to hiring a new permanent coach. The next step should be further integration of new faces into a system that everyone feels comfortable in, to avoid the team falling into too steep of a holding pattern.

Hitting the back of the net

During the World Cup, the U.S. had trouble with their attacking structure and their ability to move and possess the ball.

The team shook off a few of those cobwebs on Thursday, scoring three goals in quick succession in the final 10 minutes of the first half to put the game out of reach. While they spent some time early on trying to get Ertz a shot at one final goal — “Didn’t you see me trying?” Lindsey Horan joked after the match — the tendency to use set pieces to their advantage felt more like the USWNT of old.

Williams wreaked havoc in the box on corner kicks, scoring two goals off second-chance opportunities.

“We have been talking about in training, my positioning, my job was just to stay in front of the keeper and get her line of sight,” Williams said. “And we have amazing servers and an amazing aerial presence, so my job was just to make her job hard, and there [were] going to be second rebounds.”

But the best goal of the night came from Trinity Rodman, who powerfully redirected a perfect low cross from Alex Morgan into the box in the 34th minute. Morgan has had a mercurial 2023, logging many minutes at the center-forward position for the U.S. in dire need of her skill set. But the 34-year-old striker hasn’t scored for her club or country since May, and she hasn’t hit the back of the net for the U.S. since February.

Morgan’s ability to influence a game, however, goes far beyond scoring, and her run in behind paid major dividends as she made the right pass centrally for Rodman to finish. The goal came in quick transition after decisive midfield buildup, something the U.S. underutilized under Andonovski, and showcased how the same players from the World Cup can succeed when they aren’t second-guessing themselves.

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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