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Concerns and hope for a new era: Biggest USWNT stories of 2022

Catarina Macario, Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh represented the USWNT’s future in 2022. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

If you do it right, the best kind of World Cup preparation years eventually render themselves irrelevant. No one will remember the growing pains of roster reconstruction or the dropped friendly results if you are the last team standing in 2023.

We don’t know if that will come to fruition for the USWNT in the new year, but let’s revisit the moments we will look back on when we remember the team’s 2022.

The year of player turnover

This year will likely be remembered forever as the one where the U.S. turned back the clock, dealing with growing pains as the team got young fast. The USWNT started 13 players with five or fewer caps this year as a result of both circumstances and a philosophical shift.

Major injuries rocked the women’s game in 2022, and the USWNT was not immune to the developments. Catarina Macario, Lynn Williams, Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson, Emily Sonnett, Kelley O’Hara, and Crystal Dunn all missed significant time due to absences or injuries, though Dunn had begun to make her return by the end of the calendar year. Players like Christen Press and Tobin Heath also dealt with injuries before they could make their cases for their own USWNT returns.

The U.S. has long been criticized for relying on certain players with too much consistency, but Vlatko Andonovski was forced to change that philosophy and give a number of new players more experience in big games. Ertz’s absence loomed over the midfield in particular, and Macario’s ACL tear disrupted momentum on the team’s new-look front line. But some of the choices were more intentional and not just byproducts of injury rotation.

Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith etched their names into the starting XI with strong performances in 2022, and more young players meshed with big personalities as the second half of the year wore on. Alex Morgan made her return to center forward in July, and Megan Rapinoe continued her role as a locker-room leader and super substitute. Getting that mix exactly right will be key for the USWNT to make 2023 a success.

Big job done

The U.S. had their struggles in 2022, but when they had an important job to do, they pulled it off. The Concacaf W Championship doesn’t have the same parity as other confederation tournaments, but the USWNT that walked into World Cup qualifying in July didn’t have the experience of its predecessors and still came out on top.

Qualifying for the 2023 World Cup is a basic expectation for the U.S., and despite starting players with very little big-game experience, the reigning champions made it through to the semifinals without conceding a single goal. They were put to the test against Costa Rica in the semifinal and managed to make the championship game against Canada, the reigning Olympic gold medalists, that most had expected when the tournament began.

With an Olympic spot on the line, the U.S. had a chance to regain the upper hand over their regional rival, and they stepped up to the challenge. While a few missed chances kept the game close into the second half, the USWNT came out in the Concacaf W final looking confident and unfazed by Canada’s ascension to the higher tier of international soccer. The breakthrough in the run of play never quite presented itself, but Alex Morgan gave the U.S. a 1-0 victory with a goal from the penalty spot.

Canada now has to play one more game against Costa Rica to qualify for Paris 2024. The fact that the U.S. avoided the same fate is a commendable feat as they prepare for a crucial 2023.

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The USWNT celebrates Alex Morgan's game-winning goal in the Concacaf W Championship final. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Margins slimming

The USWNT’s last four friendlies of the year — which resulted in three losses and a win — will be remembered either as the iron that sharpened the group going into a World Cup or as a sign of trouble to come. The trip to Europe to play England and Spain (without Morgan or Pugh) culminated in a decent performance against the Lionesses and another performance against Spain that was incredibly troubling.

In the following two games against Germany at home, the team appeared to be in a holding pattern, waiting for player returns in 2023 that will propel the group toward New Zealand. But the world of football has changed, and the U.S. can’t afford to take it slow when other national teams are completing their own preparation cycles. Any one of England, Germany, and Spain could end up World Champions next year due to a combination of player development and a sense of cohesion that the U.S. has not achieved this year despite their Concacaf success.

The final win against Germany did showcase the fight fans have been looking for, and that could be the biggest difference-maker as the international competition stiffens. Pugh and Sophia Smith carried the team on their shoulders, Naomi Girma became the steadiest presence along the backline, and suddenly the newer faces were the backbone the team needed in the moment.

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Head coach Vlatko Andonovski faced criticism for a string of poor results in 2022. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The Vlatko question

It’s possible that the greatest decision made in 2022 came at the coaching level. Even as the results began to waver, U.S. Soccer appeared committed to granting Vlatko Andonovski a full cycle to see his vision for the team through.

Andonovski’s 2022 could end up being the beginning of a new and exciting era for the USWNT, when new players finally got their chance to show what they can do as the future of the team. Roster rotation can be thankless work, and it’s difficult to know whether mistakes are being made or if it’s better to stay the course.

Still, the struggles that led to listless performances in 2021 seemed to linger even with new players on the pitch. The USWNT always looked somewhat constricted, overthinking their formation to the point of ineffectiveness. The rigidity of Andonovski’s 4-3-3 formation doesn’t always give players the room to be their best creative selves, and disjointedness in the midfield often gave opponents the opportunity to flip a match. It’s possible that 2023 yields the effortless football the team is looking for, but it’s also possible that the principles aren’t sticking with the players and they will be exposed again against top competition.

All too often, the U.S. came out looking like a team overly focused on improving vulnerabilities rather than just playing in a style that suits them. The U.S. needs a short project, not a long one, and Andonvoski is now moving into the definitive year of his tenure.

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

Liberty, Aces Surge Ahead of WNBA All-Star Weekend

NY Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu dribbles up the Chicago Sky court on Saturday.
NY Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu is scoring a career-high 19.4 points per game on the season. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty head into the last week of regular play prior to WNBA All-Star Weekend — and the subsequent Olympic break — firmly ahead of the pack with the WNBA's best regular season record, becoming the first team this season to reach 20 wins on Saturday.

With Breanna Stewart briefly sidelined, Sabrina Ionescu led the Liberty to a two-game sweep of the Chicago Sky, topping the score sheet in both games. Ionescu is currently averaging 19.4 points per game, the highest in her career (not including her three-game rookie year).

Las Vegas center A'ja Wilson shoots over Atlanta center Tina Charles on July 12th, 2024.
A'ja Wilson posted her third-straight 25-point, 15-rebound performance last weekend. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Aces excel behind WNBA MVP favorite A'ja Wilson

The Aces continued climbing the table behind A'ja Wilson's record-breaking run, finishing the weekend in third with a record of 16-7. On Sunday, Wilson became the first player in WNBA history to register three consecutive 25-point, 15-rebound performances.

With Sunday's 89-77 victory over the Mystics, Las Vegas has won 10 of their last 11 games following the return of starting point guard Chelsea Gray. The third-place Aces are now nipping at the heels of the Liberty and second-place Connecticut Sun (18-5), with the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm tied for fourth at 16-8.

The push for playoff positioning grows fierce

Amidst the looming Olympic break, further down in the WNBA standings, sixth-place Phoenix dropped to 12-12 on a two-game skid, while Indiana won eight of their last 10 games to capture seventh.

Eighth-place Chicago currently holds onto the final playoff spot, with double-double machine Angel Reese boosting the Sky's stats despite back-to-back losses.

Speaking of double-doubles, Reese's record-breaking double-double streak came to an end after Saturday's loss to the Liberty.

A frontrunner for WNBA Rookie of the Year, Reese finished with eight points and 16 rebounds against New York, falling just a couple points short of what would have been her 16th-straight double-double. The LSU grad's record stands as the longest double-double streak in WNBA history, surpassing previous record-holder Candace Parker by three games.

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Next up: WNBA All-Star Weekend

Regular season WNBA play extends through Wednesday, with all eyes turning to the 2024 WNBA All-Star Game this upcoming weekend. The highly anticipated matchup between the US Olympic squad and WNBA All-Stars tips off on Saturday, July 20th in Phoenix.

Barbora Krejcikova, Taylor Townsend Take Home 1st-Ever Wimbledon Titles

Barbora Krejcikova of Czechia celebrates winning the Wimbledon Championship against Jasmine Paolini of Italy
Saturday's Wimbledon win marks Krejcikova's second Grand Slam title. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Czech tennis player Barbora Krejcikova defeated Jasmine Paolini in three sets on Saturday to capture her first Wimbledon championship.

Krejcikova outlasted Italy's Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 to take the championship. The 28-year-old previously won the singles title at the 2021 French Open, as well as doubles titles at all four Grand Slams at least once.

Wimbledon finals players break into WTA top 10

After Saturday's results, Krejcikova moved from No. 32 in the WTA rankings to No. 10, returning to the top 10 for the first time in six months. Wimbledon runner-up Paolini jumped from No. 7 to No. 5, a new career-high ranking.

Paolini also made waves by becoming the first woman since Serena Williams to reach both the Wimbledon and French Open finals in the same year. She lost out to 2024 French Open-winner Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros this past June.

Doubles champ Taylor Townsend won her first Wimbledon honors on Saturday alongside partner Kateřina Siniaková. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

Taylor Townsend wins doubles at Wimbledon

Former ITF Junior World Champion Taylor Townsend won her first Grand Slam in doubles at Wimbledon this weekend alongside Czechia's Kateřina Siniaková.

The No. 4 seeds beat No. 2-ranked Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe 7-6(5), 7-6(1) in a heated final on Wimbledon's Centre Court. The pair came back from two down in the first set before turning the tables on the 2023 US Open champs to secure the win.

This is the 28-year-old American's first win in three Grand Slam doubles finals, having fallen just short of the title at both the 2022 US Open and 2023 French Open. For Siniaková, however, the victory marks her ninth-career Grand Slam doubles championship and her third time taking the doubles title at Wimbledon.

"This is my first one, my first Grand Slam title — I've been close two other times," Townsend told reporters after the match. "To get over the finish line the way that we did, I think we played so well. We were just locked in, in control. We played our way. It felt good the way we did it."

USWNT Tops Mexico in 1st Olympic Send-Off Game

USWNT striker Sophia Smith celebrates her match-winning goal during the Americans' pre-Olympic friendly against Mexico.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal against Mexico on Saturday. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The USWNT's Olympic send-off series began with a bang this weekend, as the team avenged February's Gold Cup loss to Mexico with Saturday's 1-0 victory in New Jersey.

Sophia Smith registered the contest's lone goal, firing off a strike in the 64th minute that made good on the team's six shots on target.

The 1999 USWNT poses with their World Cup trophy before last weekend's Mexico vs. USWNT friendly.
The match paid tribute to the World Cup champion 1999 USWNT. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

USWNT '99ers take the field before kick-off

While the friendly served a critical purpose in the USWNT's Olympic prep, it also provided the chance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1999 World Cup-winning USWNT. The entire '99ers roster was in attendance, reuniting 25 years after they changed the future of women's soccer with their penalty kick World Cup win against China at the Rose Bowl.

"I have this really cool picture I use with the team, which is the [1999] team on the podium and that ridiculous crowd, unbelievable. Across it I put, 'People don’t remember time, they remember moments,'" USWNT manager Emma Hayes said in response to the commemoration.

USWNT boss Emma Hayes looks on prior to kickoff against Mexico on Saturday
USWNT boss Emma Hayes has her work cut out for her approaching the Olympics. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes's Olympic lineup still a work in progress

The match itself was an end-to-end, occasionally sloppy affair, with an eye into Hayes's Olympic roster strategy.

Rose Lavelle started at attacking midfielder alongside defensive midfielder Sam Coffey and connecting midfielder Lindsey Horan. Defenders Tierna Davidson and Naomi Girma continued to develop their established center-back pairing, while Jenna Nighswonger earned the start at left back in just her 10th international appearance.

Headlining the USWNT's new-look offense was Mallory Swanson, Trinity Rodman, and Smith, who are continuing to find their flow as the team moves on from the Alex Morgan era.

"There's no denying when the game opens up, we thrive. My goal is to thrive in all moments. So we still have a lot of learning to do with that as a team, as a collective," Hayes said of the team's attacking opportunities in transition.

"When we attack it can be done really quickly, but it can't be just that. There's going to be moments we can't [play quickly], and we have to be a little more indirect, switch the pitch a little more, and recognize the moments when we get locked into one side."

USWNT forward Sophia Smith celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Mexico
With Olympic football starting on July 25th, USWNT prep time is at a premium. (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The Olympic group stage nears for the USWNT

With the Paris-bound USWNT facing their first group stage match against red-hot Barbra Banda's Zambia on July 25th, Hayes has just one more game to work out any offensive kinks.

The US will square off against Costa Rica in their final pre-Olympic friendly on Tuesday in Washington, DC, with live coverage on TNT starting at 7:30 PM ET.

Women’s Sports Win Big at 2024 ESPY Awards

Host Serena Williams speaks on stage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
Tennis icon Serena Williams hosted the 32nd annual ESPY Awards on Thursday night. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for W+P)

Thursday's 2024 ESPYs doubled as a celebration of the rising popularity of women's sports, as retired tennis superstar Serena Williams hosted the proceedings with ease.

"Get up, get off the TikTok, work hard, find out how capable you are. Be great. Be so great they don't want to believe in you and then be even greater," she told the next generation at the end of her opening monologue.

South Carolina Gamecocks accept the Best Team Award onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks took home the ESPY for Best Team. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Women's sports take center stage at ESPYs

Athletes in women's sports were big winners throughout last night's ceremony, reflecting a watershed year across the entire sporting landscape.

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark took home both the Best College Athlete and Best Record Breaking Performance Awards for her historic NCAA career at Iowa.

USC star JuJu Watkins won Best Breakthrough Athlete after an exceptional freshman season with the Trojans.

Gymnast Simone Biles won Best Comeback Athlete, as the two-time Olympian prepares for her third Summer Games later this month.

Las Vegas Aces' all-time leading scorer A'ja Wilson came up big in both the Best Women's Sports Athlete and Best WNBA Player categories.

The undefeated 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks won the award for Best Team.

Dawn Staley accepts the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination." (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Dawn Staley honored with individual award

SC coach Staley picked up her own honor, receiving the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance for her continued contributions in the field of cancer research advocacy.

Named after NC State men's basketball coach Jim Valvando, the Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination."

"I must confess, I feel a little undeserving of this recognition," Staley said in her acceptance speech. "Past recipients of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award have faced incredible challenges and proven themselves as true warriors. I have merely been a spectator to such immense courage and resilience."

After opening up about her family's personal connection to the cause, Staley spoke about her greater journey as an advocate, both on and off the court.

"I try my best to do things in the right way, knowing that some little girl is out there watching me... maybe, she's one of the 13 pairs of eyes that see every little thing I do everyday and make sure to comment on it, that's my team," she said, motioning to her undefeated Gamecocks squad seated in the audience.

"How do I not fight pay disparity, when I do the same job and get paid less but win more?" she continued. "I can't ask them to stand up for themselves if I'm sitting down. Nor can I ask them to use their voice for change if I'm only willing to whisper."

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