ORLANDO, FL - JANUARY 22: Catarina Macario #29 of the United States moves with the ball past Colombian Daniela Arias #3 during a game between Colombia and USWNT at Exploria stadium on January 22, 2021 in Orlando, Florida. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

After a two-week January camp culminating in a pair of matches against Colombia, if anyone was wondering what shape the USWNT was in following an unpredictable and turbulent 2020, well, wonder no more.

With ten goals scored in the span of two games, which saw the return of Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd after nearly a year off the pitch, as well as the highly-anticipated debut of newly-minted U.S. citizen Catarina Macario, the USWNT looked dominant in their first showing of 2021.

 

RAPINOE AND LLOYD HAVEN’T MISSED A BEAT

After watching the U.S. face off against Colombia, any viewer would be forgiven for thinking that former captains Rapinoe and Lloyd had been playing throughout this past year. Per Andonovski, after undergoing a knee scope surgery — which ended up being more severe than initially thought — Lloyd rejoined the team as one of the most fit players on the roster and proved it in 90 minutes against Colombia on Monday and in an additional 27 minutes on Friday. Though she couldn’t quite finish a goal of her own, Lloyd assisted for sisters Sam and Kristie Mewis in the team’s first match and another for Midge Purce in the 86’ on Friday for the team’s sixth and final score of the game.

Rapinoe clocked a total of 108 minutes of playing time with 45 in the first half of the Monday match and another 63 to close out the week. Like Lloyd, Rapinoe picked up right where she left off with the team, walking away with a brace on Friday after deftly finishing a goal off of a deflection from Emily Sonnett in the 35’ minute before again finding the back of the net on a penalty kick after Sam Mewis drew a call inside the box.

The veterans weren’t the only ones making headlines, as Macario not only marked her first start with the senior team, but followed it up with her first goal off a crisp assist from Ali Krieger in the third minute of Friday’s game. Midge Purce followed suit, bookending the match with her first international goal to conclude the week.

Of course, fans won’t soon forget Mewis Monday as the sisters monopolized the score sheet in the team’s first match against Colombia. Younger sister Sam Mewis scored her first career international hat trick, before Kristie closed out the game with a textbook left-footed volley to the back of the net.

 

VLATKO ANDONOVSKI IS BEGINNING TO LEAVE HIS MARK

Taking over for Jill Ellis following the 2019 World Cup, manager Vlatko Andonovski was initially going to have only a few months to assemble his roster for the Tokyo Olympics. The postponement of the games due to COVID has now given him the chance to bring the team together on multiple occasions and, to use his signature phrase, “layer in the details.”

Watching both matches last week, it’s becoming much more clear what Andonovski means by layering in the details, as the team pressed high in the attacking third, disrupted Colombia’s short pass attacking style, and worked out its set pieces.

January camp ends, however, with the same major question dogging Andonovski as before: how will he whittle down a roster boasting more than two dozen world class players to a mere 18 for the Olympics?

Though he’s a pro at delivering consistent and diplomatic responses to any journalist hoping to crack his thinking, Andonovski has made one thing clear: he does not view this team as one in need of drastic change. In an October interview with The Equalizer’s Jeff Kassouf, he stated, “I’ve said all along, this team doesn’t need reconstruction… but they do need to evolve… other teams are not staying where they’re at, they’re getting better, too, so we’ve got to be ahead of the curve.”

Andonovski’s consistent messaging around focusing on the details and finessing what already exists suggests he may be leaning towards an Olympic roster anchored largely by those veterans who won the 2019 World Cup. If that’s the route he takes, it’s not likely to shock many.

While Andonovski took over a team with a strong internal ethos and a culture steeped in excellence, he’s clearly started to find ways to create marginal yet significant changes. In his first concrete contribution, he reinstated Becky Sauerbrunn — who he coached in Kansas City — as captain, a title she previously held in 2016 and 2017. Sauerbrunn is a player Sam Mewis dubbed her “moral compass,” stating in a pre-game press conference that “whatever she’s doing is what I know is right, so I should probably do the same thing.”

 

TOKYO OLYMPICS: WHO’S A LOCK, WHO’S ON THE FRINGE?

While Andonovski won’t name names just yet, Julie Foudy shared her Olympics analysis during Friday’s halftime show on ESPN. Per Foudy, all eyes are on the bubble players who will round out a roster that she believes will include goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher; defenders Abby Dahlkemper, Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Emily Sonnett; midfielders Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, and Sam Mewis; and forwards Tobin Heath and Christen Press. Foudy also named forwards Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe as “probable” selections.

Foudy’s overall prediction leaves room for three more players, one of which will be another keeper, most likely Ashlynn Harris. And based on this week’s performance, one has to think that Macario has a solid chance of making the cut, particularly given U.S. Soccer’s efforts in expediting her request for FIFA eligibility, which she was awarded during camp.

For the remaining spots, Andonovski has a solid bench of younger players to choose from, including Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith, who did not see playing time against Colombia due to injuries. It is also no secret that Andonovski respects the NWSL as a proving ground for talent. Having served as a head coach since the league’s inception in 2013 before rising to the manager role for the USWNT, Andonovski is familiar with all of the league’s top players. He drafted and coached Kristie Mewis at FC Kansas City, and in November cited her performance in both the NWSL Challenge Cup and Fall Series when calling her into camp. Could a strong SheBelieves Cup performance send both Mewis sisters to Tokyo?

Lynn Williams likewise scored her 10th international goal against Colombia and is a one-time NWSL MVP. Expect her to be well in the mix when Vlatko sits down to decide on his forwards.

For an 18 player roster, versatility will be key, which Andonovski leaned into this week by playing Crystal Dunn — who he called “the most versatile player on the field” — at both left back as well as the number 11 attacking position. Macario also showcased her creativity and confidence on the field playing in both the 11 and 9 spots across both games.

Purce, too, took a turn up top, subbing in for Williams in the 68’ minute during Friday’s match. Having played both up front and on the backline for her club Sky Blue, she could be another versatile player providing roster flexibility.

The ability to play in multiple positions isn’t just imperative given the limited number of players, but also crucial as the Olympic schedule gives teams only two days off in between games. Flexibility in the roster will give Andonovski depth in multiple positions despite the roster limit. Though some may assume that this schedule could hinder older players, Andonovski does not seem to share that sentiment, having told Kassouf, “I would not count those senior players out.” Based on last week’s lineups, he means it.

Noticeably missing from this camp were Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and Tobin Heath, who are all predicted to rejoin the team for the SheBelieves Cup. As Andonovski continues to polish the edges, the upcoming February tournament will give him a solid opportunity to add their skills back into the rotation as the team continues to develop the set pieces they’ve become known for while implementing new passing and player patterns.

 

THE SHEBELIEVES CUP SHOULD OFFER MORE CLARITY

To their credit, Colombia showed glimmers of their potential over the course of two games, however, the USWNT will face teams in the upcoming SheBelieves Cup that are much closer to the level of competition they are set to face in Tokyo. The rosters for those games, and the accompanying starting lineups, will be a much stronger indication of who is headed to the Olympics, should the show still go on this summer.

Though the fate of the Tokyo Olympics remains up in the air, if they do take place this summer, it’s likely safe to say that USWNT fans will see an Olympic team that closely resembles the 2019 World Cup roster. It could be one final ride for the team’s core ahead of an expected roster overhaul following the games.

With that said, this is a team overflowing with talent, and there are still ample opportunities for younger players to prove they belong in Tokyo. And as coach Andonovski stated in Friday’s post-game press conference, “ultimately, the best ones will go.”