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.

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.

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.