The U.S. women's national team's refresh-focused end-of-year camp provided two victories, but more importantly, it delivered on its promise to offer opportunities to fresh faces and new ideas in the midst of a necessary rebuild ahead of next summer's Olympic Games.
Over the course of the team's 3-0 win over China on Saturday and 2-1 win on Tuesday, the on-field theme seemed to be about rediscovering a penchant for goalscoring that has historically been the USWNT's trademark but served as their greatest struggle over the course of the year. An inability to score was arguably the team's defining feature at this year's Women's World Cup, where they went more than 200 minutes without scoring and booked their earliest ever tournament exit with a round of 16 elimination. It comes as no surprise, then, that it would be the most immediate area of focus as the U.S. kicks off their Olympics preparation in earnest and as players begin their audition period for Emma Hayes, the incoming head coach who will start in May.
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The overall experience this month filled in some blanks, but left plenty of food for thought as inter head coach Twila Kilgore and Hayes ponder the options available to them.
Kilgore left veteran Alex Morgan at home to allow younger players a chance to prove they deserve more glances and rotated through her options. Kilgore trotted out a 3-4-3 for the first match starring a front line of Rose Lavelle, Sophia Smith, and Savannah DeMelo, while Casey Krueger and Trinity Rodman were in the wide positions. The second match saw Jaedyn Shaw, Ashley Hatch, and Lindsey Horan occupy those central attacking roles in a 3-4-2-1, and Emily Fox and Lynn Williams take up duties on the wings. While both games had their differences, they shared one notable trait -- the scoring issues persisted.
On Saturday, the USWNT racked up 20 shots and put 11 on target but went into the first half with just a 1-0 lead. Three days later, they had 24 shots and 11 on target, including eight total shots and three on frame in the first half. They entered the halftime break down 1-0, though, because China were more clinical with their two shots despite having just 35% of possession.
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The good news is that the four-time world champions spent much of the two friendlies doing a lot of the right things and getting into strong positions, though they were at their weakest in the first half of the second game. China's positional change from a 4-4-2 in the first game to a 5-4-1 in the second bolstered their defensive performance, but after some personnel changes, the USWNT's offense kicked into overdrive. The addition of Smith and Midge Purce at halftime in the place of Hatch and Fox livened up the attack, while Rodman was successfully thrown into the mix before Sam Coffey's 62nd minute equalizer.
In the end, the December friendlies were a strong outing for a handful of attackers. Smith and Rodman maintained their positions as the new leaders of the USWNT's offense, while Shaw, who scored the game winner on Tuesday, continues to be the most exciting prospect in the pool. The 28-year-old Purce, meanwhile, comes out of both games exceptionally well after two meaningful substitute appearances and could be a contender to assist the refresh while being able to contribute immediately.
All of these players boast the ability to play on the wing, which is an incredibly important position on Hayes' teams. The tactical pragmatist rarely sticks to one particular formation, but almost always relies on attack-minded wingers to lead the attacking effort. Purce's ability to slot in as a fullback, which she did for the injured Fox on Tuesday, only adds to her case.
As for the No. 9 position, which was occupied exclusively by Morgan during the World Cup, things still feel a bit up in the air. Smith slotted in exceptionally on Saturday and as a substitute on Tuesday, which comes as little surprise given her natural skill set up top. The 34-year-old Morgan, though, spent the entirety of 2023 in a scoring slump -- she scored just twice for the national team and posted seven goals in 19 games for the San Diego Wave. Hatch was unable to do much with her time on the field, but after building a case for herself with the Washington Spirit, she will likely earn another look as the road to Paris continues.
Though the year-end friendlies ultimately offered an unfinished glimpse at the USWNT's attack heading into 2024, it sets up for a fascinating run to the Olympics that will likely see a reinvigorated battle for attacking spots that could be just as competitive as the games themselves.