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USWNT at Concacaf: Takeaways and top priorities for 2023 World Cup

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

Everyone can take a deep breath: The U.S. women’s national team got the job done at the Concacaf W tournament. With a roster full of fresh faces, the team qualified for the 2023 World Cup and the 2024 Olympics while holding off a full-strength Canada squad that some thought may have leapfrogged the reigning World Champions in the past year.

Throughout the month of July, the awkwardness of trying to do two things at once has been apparent in USWNT camp. If the team’s youth movement seems a little abrupt and all-encompassing, it’s because the USWNT is running late.

After the World Cup victory in 2019, it stood to reason that the players who got the U.S. their fourth star would be relied upon for stability during the coaching change from Jill Ellis to Vlatko Andonovski. After the pandemic delayed the Olympics by a year, that approach all but determined the process we’re seeing now.

Threading the needle between incorporating new players and winning games is a challenging task, made only more complicated by the program’s own expectations. Many national teams go through periods of growing pains, but it’s rare for them to not be allowed to lose a few games in the process. Due to the truncated international calendar and the stakes of a World Cup berth and a spot in the Olympics on the line in Concacaf qualifying, Andonovski was balancing on a high-wire not many are forced to stand on, with both successes and frustrations.

Learning to loosen up

Andonovski has only ever lost two games as the head coach of the USWNT, but within the positive results exists a team that at times looks both a little overworked and underprepared. In the team’s infamous 3-0 loss to Sweden at the Tokyo Olympics, they were never able to adjust to the eventual silver medalists’ intensity in the midfield, instead sending hopeful long balls forward in an attempt to bypass that area and regain control of the match.

During the Concacaf W final win against Canada, the same feeling washed over USWNT fans as a few missed chances kept the game closer than it needed to be. Andonovski also delayed making substitutes until the dying minutes as the U.S. began to run on fumes. The Jill Ellis era was similarly criticized for tactical rigidity and an overly placed faith in her starting XI (we all remember the great substitute discourse of the 2019 Round of 16). But as opponents present tougher tactical tests every game, Andonovski doesn’t always make the right call in the moment.

There were glimpses throughout the Concacaf W tournament, however, that Andonovski had learned some important things from the USWNT’s experience in Japan.

While aided by the loosening of COVID-19 restrictions worldwide, the USWNT went through the tournament in Monterrey with a decidedly looser feel than we saw in 2021. Instead of the grueling fitness testing and stark quarantining of the U.S.’s pre-Olympic prep, players came in from their NWSL clubs, played a few sendoff friendlies, and then hit the road. They got to spend time with friends and family throughout their time in Mexico, and they kept the crushing weight of the public’s expectations at arm’s length.

It might seem flippant to say that getting coffee from a local shop in the morning and time by the pool is the key to a strong team mentality, but it’s a notable enough difference in approach that it’s worth mentioning. Andonovski cited the presence of Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alyssa Naeher and Alex Morgan as helpful to keeping the young roster focused on the task at hand. This group might have simply been given more freedom to have fun, with the understanding that levity builds chemistry, too.

Letting players be themselves

The off-field chemistry only shined through on the field in fits and starts. One of the costs of keeping Morgan off prior USWNT rosters as they worked in younger players was that Morgan had to re-acclimate herself to the team in big games. Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh missed a few sitters even when the forward motion was effective, but too often a pass came a little too late or a run just a step behind as they adapted to new looks.

Morgan explained to reporters the nuances of how Andonovski would like the team to adjust their play to combat different opponents, which raises red flags while also possibly paying dividends. Gone are the days where the USWNT meets for six weeks before heading to a major tournament, as many players will be in the thick of their NWSL campaigns immediately before the 2023 World Cup. While it’s important to have ideas for what an opponent might throw at you, clear communication in short-term training environments is critical to those ideas not becoming muddy and then possibly abandoned in the moment.

A few scuffed shots and mistakes in the attacking third have gotten the majority of the attention. But one of the team’s greater overall issues lies in a position that still does not look settled: the defensive midfield. Andonovksi brought Andi Sullivan to Monterrey to hold down the No. 6 role in bigger games, and she appears to be in the team’s long-term plans for 2023 and 2024 as long as she stays healthy. The U.S. somewhat controversially left Sullivan at home during the Tokyo Olympics, asking Lindsey Horan to moonlight at the position and then rushing Julie Ertz back from injury. From there, the team’s midfield possession has never fully recovered.

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Defining Andi Sullivan's role in the midfield should be a top priority for the USWNT. (Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

Sullivan is a smart, savvy player who is best with the ball at her feet, breaking lines and setting the tempo. For the Washington Spirit, she’s an endless source of distribution and her field vision is an asset. Ertz, while a legend in the role for club and country, was never used as a passing No. 6; she was a defensive wrecking ball, disrupting play in a wide area to allow her teammates to repossess and distribute.

Despite Ertz’s prolonged absence, the U.S. has not changed the way they distribute the ball — that is the job of the center backs. When young Naomi Girma had her shot at sending probing diagonal passes up to Sophia Smith against Jamaica, the approach worked perfectly. Against Haiti, Alana Cook and Becky Sauerbrunn mostly passed between themselves before sending hopeful long balls forward, and it didn’t work as well.

Bypassing midfield passing channels to let an explosively talented front five run at a back line might not be the worst approach in a Concacaf tournament, but despite their talent advantage, it renders the USWNT too predictable at the wrong moments. It also requires Sullivan to focus on defending like Ertz while the attacking midfield pushes forward, a Herculean task for even the best player that leaves gaps for opponents to exploit.

Stepping away from the panic button

Despite a healthy list of concerns, the work of becoming a World Cup contender really starts now, and there is also a lot to like about what we’ve seen from the U.S. in this shortened incubation period. One of the hallmarks of Andonovski’s USWNT is a willingness by every single player to defend off the ball, and there is no better team in Concacaf at quickly regaining possession.

While the U.S. had tepid finishing performances at times, the greatest doubt of a result never really came from danger at the other end. Smith’s adjustment to help Sofia Huerta nullify Nichelle Prince’s attacking threat on the right wing in the second half against Canada is a good example of the small defensive changes the U.S has available to them to sway a game. The Cook/Sauerbrunn partnership also showed significant improvement from Game 1 to Game 5.

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Becky Sauerbrunn continues to anchor the backline as the USWNT's most experienced defender. (Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

There were also glimpses of what the right personality mix, while still incomplete, can bring to a USWNT that is changing. Morgan became the galvanizing force the team needed when shots weren’t falling against Canada, instilling the team with confidence and icing the game with her penalty kick. Andonovski put out the closest thing to his strongest XI in the final, and they did everything necessary to win the game.

If the USWNT does travel to Australia and New Zealand in 2023 with the deepest squad in the world, it will be in large part due to this tournament. Many other teams would have been sunk by the absences the U.S. faced going into Concacaf W, but they made their way through as the clear No. 1 team in the region, with the result rarely in doubt. Re-integrating more familiar faces into the squad is exactly the type of challenge the U.S. wants at this point in the calendar.

The kids were sent down to Mexico to sink or swim, and they found their way through. That Smith and Pugh can still improve at the international level should be exciting, as is the emergence of Ashley Sanchez as a scintillating attacking midfielder and Girma as a rookie with the mind of a seasoned veteran.

This qualifying group isn’t the team we’re going to see at the World Cup, but therein lies the point of this process. The team tested its strengths and weaknesses, got critical minutes for the next generation and, per the eternal USWNT mandate, did not lose.

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Sun’s Alyssa Thomas Ejected After Flagrant 2 on Sky Rookie Angel Reese

Angel Reese said there were "no hard feelings" stemming from Alyssa Thomas's flagrant foul. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Angel Reese might have gotten knocked down on Saturday, but she got right back up again. 

Connecticut’s Alyssa Thomas was ejected from the Sun’s 86-82 win over Chicago following a flagrant foul 2 on Reese — the first of her career. While the two were battling for a rebound, Reese took a clothesline hold around the neck courtesy of Thomas before hitting the ground.

After the game, Reese told reporters that there were "no hard feelings" and she appreciated Thomas for playing her hard beneath the basket.

"I know she purposely probably didn’t do it towards me," Reese said. "But just being able to come out there and just be strong and stand on two feet, it was going to be a tough game and that’s what I’m built for. And my teammates had my back throughout the whole game. So I was prepared for it."

She also didn’t buy into the idea that it was a "Welcome to the WNBA" moment, but thanked Thomas "sending a message" because it helped her get back up and "keep pushing."

"It’s not just because I’m a rookie. I’m a player. I’m a basketball player. They don’t give a damn if I’m a rookie. I mean, I want them to come at me every day. I want them to come at everybody," she added. "I mean, they’re not supposed to be nice to me. I hope y’all know that. They’re not supposed to be nice to me or lay down because I’m Angel Reese or because I’m a rookie."

Reese finished the game with 13 points, five rebounds, and two assists over 33 minutes.

Barcelona to Face Lyon in Champions League Rematch This Weekend

UEFA Women's Champions League Final"Barcelona FC - Olympique Lyonnais"
Saturday's game will be the third UWCL final meeting for Barcelona and Lyon, having previously gone up against each other in 2019 and 2022. (ANP via Getty Images)

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off in Bilbao on Saturday, with a couple of familiar foes set to face off for the trophy.

Olympique Lyonnais Féminin, making its 11th final appearance since 2010, will go head to head with a Barcelona side making its fourth final appearance in a row.

This will be the third time these two teams meet in the UWCL title game, having previously appeared in the 2019 and 2022 finals. Lyon won both of those prior games against Barcelona, alongside a total of eight Champions League trophies. That’s double that of any other club, with Eintracht Frankfurt coming in a distant second with four. 

Should Barcelona win, this would be the team's third title — breaking a tie for the third in the UWCL total titles race. 

But as these teams return to the UWCL final, it also marks the end of an era for both clubs. The game will be the last for both club managers, as Barcelona’s Jonatan Giráldez and Lyon’s Sonia Bompastor depart for new jobs after the season's end.

Giráldez is set to leave for the NWSL's Washington Spirit, while Bompastor will take over for incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes at Chelsea. Both coaches have earned one UWCL trophy during their tenures, while Bompastor also brought two Champions League trophies to Lyon as a player. She was the first coach to win a UWCL trophy as both a coach and player.

This season, Barcelona is looking for its first quadruple, having won a fifth Liga F title alongside the Copa de La Reina, and the Spanish Supercopa. 

"We hope he can go out with the four trophies because we know how competitive and ambitious he is," Barcelona midfielder Patri Guijarro told ESPN. "It has been a winning era with him in charge and for him to go out with all four trophies would be historic and incredible."

But Lyon's Damaris Egurrola is excited about her team's chances of overcoming Barcelona once again — and to do it in front of family and friends.

"Lyon have something special," she told Forbes ahead of the weekend's final. "We have a great team and we have the players with enough talent to win any match."

The game will be a homecoming for Egurrola, who began her professional career with Athletic Bilbao.

"I’ve been thinking of this day and night," she said. "I’ve been dreaming of playing this match. Having the opportunity to play in San Mames is amazing. This is where it all started for me."

The UEFA Women's Champions League final kicks off Saturday, May 25th at 12 PM ET and is free to stream on DAZN.

World No. 1 Iga Swiatek Headlines a Stacked 2024 French Open

Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico
Iga Swiatek serves against Coco Gauff during the group stage of the 2023 WTA Finals in Cancun, Mexico. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

The 2024 French Open starts on Sunday, with a match schedule that promises to wrap the short clay court season up in style.

Looking for her fourth title at the major is three-time Roland Garros champion and World No. 1 Iga Swiatek, considered the favorite to win the whole Slam. Three of her four major titles have come at the French tournament. 

Swiatek's career record at the French Open is a dominating 28-2, and she's currently on a 16-game winning streak fueled by victories at tune-up tournaments in Madrid and Rome.

But that doesn't mean she won't face some serious challengers along the way. Get to know some of the Polish tennis champ's strongest competitors.

Aryna Sabalenka

Sabalenka is ranked No. 2 in the world and faced Swiatek in the finals at both Madrid and Rome. She lost in three sets in Madrid, which included a close third-set tiebreak, before losing in straight sets at the Italian Open. 

She enters the French Open having won the Australian Open in January, successfully defending her title in the first Slam of the season. At last year’s French Open, Sabalenka reached the semifinals — a career best — before being ousted by Karolina Muchová in three sets.

Season record: 25-7

Coco Gauff

Currently sitting at No. 3 in the world, the highest-ranked American on the schedule is none other than Coco Gauff. Gauff won her first major at the US Open last year, and reached the semifinals of this year’s Australian Open. She faced Swiatek in the semifinals of the Italian Open last week, losing in straight sets. 

But her first major final came at the French Open in 2022, before being ousted by Swiatek in the quarterfinals at last year’s French Open. The two are on a crash course for a meeting before the finals, as Gauff anchors the other quadrant on Swiatek’s side of the draw, should they both advance deep into the competition.

Season record: 25-8

Chicago Sky Upset New York to End Liberty’s Unbeaten Streak

chicago sky's angel reese on the court against new york liberty
Angel Reese registered a near double-double against a strong Liberty side. (Evan Yu/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Liberty’s unbeaten streak came to an end on Thursday as Angel Reese and the Chicago Sky got the upset win over New York with a final score of 90-81. 

Angel Reese stood out with a near double-double, registering 13 points and nine rebounds. She’s currently the only rookie this season to exceed 10 points in her first three games, and the first player in Sky history to begin their career with three consecutive double-digit scoring games, per ESPN Stats & Info.

The outcome may not have come as a surprise to Liberty stars Breanna Stewart and Jonquel Jones, who sung Reese’s praises ahead of the game.

"She’s a workhorse," Stewart told The Post. "She doesn’t stop. She’s tough, she’s strong, she’s tough to box out and good at cleaning up for her team offensively and defensively."

"I feel like she’s an energizer bunny," Jones added. "She doesn’t stop moving, she doesn’t stop crashing the boards. Just someone that is gonna be relentless in her approach to getting to the glass and playing tough."

It was the first time Chicago has met New York this season. The game was especially meaningful for new Chicago head coach Teresa Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty for seven years as a player and joined the team's Ring of Honor in 2011.

"This place means a lot to me... I played in that jersey, I adored that jersey, I adored every player that I had an opportunity to play with. The love that I received even today was overwhelming," Weatherspoon reflected after the game.

Following the win, Sky guard Dana Evans had some kind words for her coach.

"I mean, it's just special. She's special," Evans said. "She just breeds confidence in each and every one of us. We love her. We just wanted to go so hard and play hard for her, and I feel like this one was really for her. We really wanted this for her more than anything."

Thursday's victory brings Chicago's record to 2-1, a somewhat unlikely feat given that their offseason featured starter Kahleah Copper getting traded to Phoenix. The Connecticut Sun are now the only undefeated team left in the league this season, and will formidable foes for the Sky as they take their winning streak on the road to Chicago this weekend.

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