The U.S. women’s national team is ending the year with a shift in identity after the team’s disappointing finish at the 2023 World Cup.

Much has been made about the USWNT’s history and the importance of leaning into the culture and mentality that have allowed the team to enjoy dominance on the world stage for decades. But as the team attempts to adjust to a new-look international game, they’re also having to embrace the future.

“I think there’s two things happening,” USWNT interim head coach Twila Kilgore said Monday, before the team’s last friendly of 2023 against China PR on Tuesday. “I talked about this with the group before we went out to the game. It’s showing who we are, but also who we’re becoming. And they’re not mutually exclusive.”

Heading into the Paris Olympics next year, the team is at a crossroads. USWNT legends Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz have retired, and other veterans are coming up on the ends of their careers. In the meantime, young talent has begun to emerge.

Jaedyn Shaw, 19, and Mia Fishel, 22, scored their first international goals within their first two international appearances. And on Saturday, Olivia Moultrie, 18, and Jenna Nighswonger, 23, earned their first USWNT caps. Others like M.A. Vignola, 25, and Korbin Albert, 20, have received their first call-ups.

It’s a noticeable shift, especially with Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan and other veterans left off the December roster. New head coach Emma Hayes will also officially take over when the Chelsea club season ends in May 2024.

“We have a very strong history. This is a program that means so much to so many people and has really been an example to the world in some ways about what women’s football or soccer can be,” Kilgore said. “We don’t want to lose any of that. And yet we are layering in new ideas, we are layering in new tactics, we are layering in just a little bit of a shift in mentality.

“I think what we really want is we want everybody locked in, which I think has always been the case, willing and brave to try new things. You see this rotation of new people in, which requires a faster hold on what our culture and identity is within the group — meaning we have to acclimate them quicker and do so maybe with not just a group of veterans, but do so with a group that is new, which is a little bit different.”

Kilgore rotated in many new faces during the USWNT’s 3-0 win over China on Saturday, and she’ll have one more opportunity to do so in 2023 when the U.S. takes the field in Texas on Tuesday night.

“It’s always been that we want to be on the front foot offensively, and defensively we want to be dominant when we can be. We want to get better in possession and we want to show that we believe that we can win under all circumstances.”

In the end, Angel City FC chose to stay in house for its new head coach, dropping the interim tag from Becki Tweed. But the decision came after serious deliberation.

The Los Angeles-based NWSL club was committed to finding the right fit. So committed, in fact, that Tweed was competing against roughly 52 candidates for the position, general manager Angela Hucles Mangano revealed Friday.

In the end, Tweed’s work in bringing together Angel City players in her months as interim head coach put her at the head of the pack. After stepping into the interim role in June, Tweed finished with a 6-1-4 record in the regular season, and she led the club to its first playoff berth.

“I think there was an early, very early inkling from the early success,” Mangano said Thursday. “But ultimately, and as [team president Julie Uhrman] mentioned before, one of the commitments that I had was to a thorough process.”

Angel City made sure to involve players in that process. But Mangano also didn’t want to make the search a distraction as they made their run to the playoffs.

“I did not want the process to be a distraction to Becky or the players,” Mangano said. “And so they kept winning and we wanted to be sensitive to the timing of their inclusion at the very end.”

Under Tweed’s leadership, the team went from 0.82 points per game to 2.0 while cutting goals against from 1.91 to 0.82. Angel City also had more success on tackles, goals scored and direct attacks.

Aside from that, Tweed also helped the club find its identity – something that players have been vocal about.

“She knows how we work,” M.A. Vignola said after Angel City beat Portland Thorns 5-1 on the final day of the NWSL regular season. “She knows how to say things to us and how each different player works. You can even just tell in training that she’s very in tune with everyone individually. That helps us as a collective because it helps talk to each other in certain ways or push each other.”

Even still, Angel City leaders had a timeline they wanted to follow. While they missed their initial Oct. 15 deadline by about a week, it was worth it to ensure that they hired the best possible person.

“It was also about having conversations internally to our staff just so that if there were questions that the expectation was known about what the timing did look like,” Mangano said. “I don’t think it was comfortable for anybody to be in that situation. But ultimately being able to get through the entire process being the goal and I think a very important one.”

With the interim tag officially dropped from her title, Tweed is excited to continue to build with Angel City into the 2024 NWSL season.

“It’s been an incredible journey and something that’s just started,” Tweed said Thursday. “I think we all look at: This is just a platform for us to grow from and move the needle and get bigger and better from next season.”

If any question remained about whether Becki Tweed deserves to have the interim tag removed from her head coaching title, it may have been answered Sunday when Angel City FC secured its first-ever playoff appearance.

Angel City FC did so with a resounding 5-1 win over the Portland Thorns, who have been one of the league’s best teams all season long. The win put an exclamation point on one of the greatest turnarounds in the NWSL.

After starting the season with a 2-3-6 record (W-D-L), the team fired head coach Freya Coombe and elevated assistant coach Tweed to interim head coach in her place. Since then, Tweed has proven she deserves a shot at a more permanent role, leading the team to the No. 5 seed in the NWSL playoffs.

Tweed started her tenure with an 11-match unbeaten streak across all competitions, and she finished with a 6-4-1 record in the regular season. Tweed spoke after Sunday’s win about the buy-in from players, and she shouted out her assistant coaches and her “incredible group of staff.”

“We’ve won games in these moments that haven’t just come down to the head coach or the player,” she said. “It’s a bigger squad than that. We say every day in the film room and at training, it’s not about 11 players, it’s about 26 people. We have players that graft and grind every day and don’t make a squad, but they keep going and they believe in the team.

“I can’t speak highly enough of how the group has come together. … I think the buy-in comes down to everybody being on the same page and having the same goal. I can’t speak highly enough about the team, the players and the staff that we have in and around every day that continue to push all the standards and the boundaries.”

For Angel City players, though, much of the success leads back to their head coach.

“I mean, Becki has done, can I say the eff word? Becki has done f—ing fantastic,” defender Sarah Gorden said. “She’s done a great job at holding us accountable, pushing us, knowing when to just manage players.

“She’s done great. I mean, you’ve seen the difference.”

In recent weeks, players have spoken about wanting to see Tweed take over the head coaching job on a permanent basis, noting that she has established a winning mentality and has given Angel City an edge they didn’t have before.

On Sunday, defender M.A. Vignola echoed that sentiment.

“She knows how we work. She knows the things [like], how she can say things to us and how each different player works,” she said. “You can even just tell at training that she’s very in tune with everyone individually and that kind of helps as a collective. Because it helps us be able to talk to each other in certain ways or push each other, get through s–t – the nitty and gritty – and that’s what she does best.”

Megan Rapinoe scored a brace in OL Reign’s 3-0 win against the Chicago Red Stars to clinch a spot in the 2023 NWSL playoffs.

Rapinoe headlined a banner NWSL Decision Day for U.S. women’s national team stars. The 38-year-old forward is set to retire after the season, but with her pair of goals, she assured Sunday’s match would not be her last.

Alex Morgan and Jaedyn Shaw each scored in the San Diego Wave’s 2-0 win, which sealed the NWSL Shield and the No. 1 overall seed for the club.

From an experienced veteran in Morgan, 34, to a teen phenom in Shaw, 18, the Wave represent the best of multiple generations for the NWSL and the USWNT as they splash into the postseason.

Midge Purce notched a goal for Gotham FC in their 2-2 tie with the Kansas City Current. M.A. Vignola scored and Sydney Leroux connected on a bicycle kick for Angel City FC in their 5-1 win over the Portland Thorns.

Stars from other national teams shined as well. Japan’s Jun Endo scored Angel City, while Hina Sugita scored for the Portland Thorns. Brazil’s Marta provided the lone goal for the Orlando Pride in their 1-0 victory over the Houston Dash.

For USWNT forward Trinity Rodman, though, Decision Day ended in disappointment. The 21-year-old forward received a red card early in the Washington Spirit’s 1-0 loss to the North Carolina Courage, and the Spirit narrowly missed out on the playoffs.

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.

It might have been her first U.S. women’s national team appearance, but M.A. Vignola was ready for it.

The 25-year-old defender made her USWNT debut in front of her hometown crowd Thursday in Cincinnati, playing the entire second half of the 3-0 win against South Africa. A former standout at the university of Tennessee, her college head coach Joe Kirt said it was exciting to see her debut for her country.

“M.A.’s been through a lot and to see her come out at the end of it and make an appearance to go represent her country is – she’s always had that ability, but it’s really special,” Kirt said. “So excited for her and what she’s put in. Her journey hasn’t always been a straight line, but she’s continued to excel and manage whatever comes her way. To have this opportunity at home, so, so excited for her and proud of her for the player and person she’s become.”

This could be the first appearance of many for Vignola. After the match, interim head coach Twila Kilgore said the defender had come into training camp ready to compete.

“How awesome is it to get M.A. her first cap in her home city where the crowd’s been amazing?” she said. “It’s just an incredible moment with her to actually see how well she took on the opportunity.

“She was gonna be in a good spot, just because of how she came in, ready to play. There’s things that we will work on moving forward, but even from her very first touch of the game, just being willing to settle it. We’re just really pleased. She’s going to have a good opportunity moving forward here to just build on her first cap.”

The biggest thing Vignola has worked on in the last year is her mental game, honing her ability to remain cool, calm and collected. While she felt the pressure of debuting for the USWNT, it did not rattle her.

“It’s just another game, but it was a little bit more pressure tonight,” Vignola said. “Wearing the crest is a big thing. And I felt a little bit heavy, but in a good way. Knowing that this is just the first and I’m ready to take on more as we go.”

For Vignola, getting to experience her first USWNT camp has been a “whirlwind of emotions.” That included getting to experience her first appearance with Julie Ertz, who was making her last. The two played together for Angel City early this season, as Ertz signed with the NWSL club this summer ahead of the World Cup.

Vignola said that it was both a “surreal” and “lucky” moment being able to see Ertz in the USWNT environment, and to share her first cap with Ertz as she retires.

As for making her first USWNT appearance in her hometown, Vignola said after the match that she hadn’t quite had time to process the emotions that came with it.

“I couldn’t overthink, I just came in with high expectations for myself, but also ready to learn and to take the notes of people like Julie, Megan (Rapinoe) and Alex (Morgan),” she said. “Having those people around me was something that I’ve dreamed of and it’s happening and in my home city, you can’t say any more than that.”

M.A. Vignola received her first U.S. Women’s National Team call-up on Saturday, as the team made a few roster changes before its upcoming September friendlies.

It’s the first senior call-up of Vignola’s career, with the Angel City FC defender having played for the U-17 team when she was just 14 years old. She has two goals in 15 matches for Angel City so far this season, including her first career NWSL goal in June.

It was also the game-winner for Angel City in their 2-1 win over San Diego. She got her second career goal in the next game in a 2-1 loss to the Spirit.

She was named to the NWSL Team of the Month in June, having been one of the best fullbacks in the league alongside Emily Fox and Casey Krueger. Her blocks (1.55) clearances (3.18) and aerials won (1.06) all rank at or near the top percentile in the league when compared to other fullbacks. Angel City interim head coach Becki Tweed has tabbed her as “one of the best fullbacks in the league.”

“I think people forget how young she is and how new to the league,” Tweed said of Vignola being named to the NWSL’s best XI in June. “Being a rookie in this league – she didn’t play last year so I think we can call her a rookie – is a huge compliment to the space that she’s in right now.

“I think she’s just getting started. I think she has crazy room to grow and a high ceiling. And I think she’s getting the recognition that she deserves. It’s good to see that happen. But she still wants to push and grow and I think you’ll see a lot more from her in the next few years.”

Forward Midge Purce was also added to the team. Purce and Vignola will replace Rose Lavelle and Kelley O’Hara, respectively, on the roster.

Angel City FC pulled off a thrilling victory on Saturday, rallying to defeat SoCal rival and top-ranked San Diego, 2-1, on the road at Snapdragon Stadium.

It was a statement win for 11th-ranked Angel City. After a poor showing during the first half of the NWSL season, the club fired head coach Freya Coombe on Thursday. Assistant Becki Tweed is serving as interim head coach until a replacement is selected.

“I think we just fed off her energy,” Angel City defender M.A. Vignola said of Tweed’s leadership. “She wanted us to play to our potential. We know what we have on the field. As teammates we know what we can do. She really brought it out of us. This past week of training was the most competitive training session we have had in two or three months.”

Stars of the game

All three goals in Saturday’s match were scored by defenders. San Diego got on the board first, with Kristen McNabb finding the back of the net in the 57th minute.

Paige Nielsen recorded the equalizer in the 70th minute, capitalizing on a corner kick, and Vignola scored the game-winner in the 89th minute to secure Angel City’s first win since April 2.

“We needed that one,” said Nielsen. “We knew that with the momentum, it would take the entire team to grind a game out. That is what we did today.”

“This being San Diego and being our first win in a while, it means a lot,” echoed Vignola. “A road win is always big. It being San Diego makes it so much better.”

Home away from home

Nielsen shouted out the Angel City fans who stuck with the team during their rough patch and traveled to San Diego for Saturday’s game.

“We have felt like people have given up on us. Seeing the fans in the stands was overwhelming,” she said.

San Diego head coach Casey Stoney said her side knew Angel City could be buoyed by their recent head coaching change.

“We spoke about the circumstances and we were very clear that when teams lose their manager, they bounce and they get a win,” Stoney said. “So it wasn’t something we were not prepared for.”

What’s next

With the win, Angel City (3-6-3) moved up one spot to 10th place in the NWSL standings. San Diego (6-4-2) fell from the top of the table to third after the North Carolina Courage and OL Reign each picked up points on Saturday to surpass the Wave.

Angel City and San Diego meet again in two weeks on June 28 — this time at BMO Stadium in Los Angeles for a Challenge Cup game. With NWSL players released for World Cup duty on the 26th, both teams’ lineups will look different at that point. The USWNT roster is slated to be announced this week; from San Diego, Naomi Girma, Taylor Kornieck, Alex Morgan, and Jaedyn Shaw are in contention for roster spots, while Angel City’s top hopefuls include Julie Ertz and Alyssa Thompson. San Diego goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan has already been named to Canada’s World Cup roster.

The two sides meet again on Aug. 5 — the same day the Round of 16 gets underway at the World Cup — for their second regular-season game.