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.
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.
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.
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.”
.@lynnraenie opened up the scoring in Cincy! pic.twitter.com/W6HAI0jy4l— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) September 22, 2023
.@lynnraenie opened up the scoring in Cincy! pic.twitter.com/W6HAI0jy4l
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.
.@trinity_rodman wasn't gonna be left out of a first-half goal party 🎉 pic.twitter.com/HCcCTaeTc5— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) September 22, 2023
.@trinity_rodman wasn't gonna be left out of a first-half goal party 🎉 pic.twitter.com/HCcCTaeTc5
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.