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The USWNT Is Still Coming Together Slowly

NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 19: Mallory Swanson #9 of the United States is marked by Fuka Nagano #8 and Risa Shimizu #2 of Japan during a game between Japan and USWNT at GEODIS Park on February 19, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
John Dorton/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Five months out from the 2023 World Cup, the USWNT is correctly treating the SheBelieves Cup less as a chance to rack up another trophy and more like a gilt-edge opportunity to answer several of the nagging structural questions they face in their charge to defend their 2019 title. Manager Vlatko Andonovski has experimented with at least three different formations in the team's two games against Canada and Japan, and Megan Rapinoe expressed her desire for her team to be "punched in the face" by one of the tournament's elite teams. The USWNT beat Japan, 1-0, on Sunday, though they earned the win through the called-for face-punching.

Andonovski may not have had all of his questions answered through the team's pair of shutout wins, though he can at least write Mallory Swanson's name in the starting XI in pen. Swanson is on the form of her life, scoring all three of the team's goals in the tournament. Against Canada, she pounded in a first-timer from the edge of the box, then nicked an errant backpass for her second. Against Japan, who stymied the USWNT midfield all day, Swanson showed off her game-breaking speed and confident ball-carrying abilities with, in my opinion, the best of her six goals of 2023. Near the end of the first half, Alex Morgan sent in a probing through ball that Shiori Miyake would have been able to deal with against almost any other forward. But Swanson is too fast and too skilled on the ball, and she ran onto it and controlled it perfectly before slamming the goal home.

The USWNT forward pool is unbelievably crowded, and Andonovski's decision-making process is extra tricky, as neither Sophia Smith nor Catarina Macario were healthy enough to play in this tournament. Trinity Rodman got the start on the wing against Canada and made a convincing case for inclusion, and Alex Morgan started both games and assisted two of Swanson's goals. Megan Rapinoe is also back on the team and made her first appearance of 2023 against Japan. Midge Purce, Ashley Hatch, and Lynn Williams are all fighting for spots, as are veteran stars Christen Press and Tobin Heath, and some extremely good players are going to miss out. But that's not a real problem, since the forward line is so strong.

The defense is reasonably set as well, and you can expect two of Naomi Girma, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Alana Cook to start in the center with Sofia Huerta at right back. The only real question there is where Crystal Dunn plays, which hints at Andonovski's true roster construction challenge: the USWNT midfield is still startlingly inconsistent, to the point that Dunn might challenge for a spot. Rose Lavelle is maybe the team's best player, and she'll start at the 10, though the team's ideal formation and supporting midfielders are still mysteries. Japan took the game to the USWNT, pressing them aggressively and forcing a ton of dangerous turnovers. Lindsey Horan turned it over nine times against Japan, and Ashley Sanchez looked completely lost. Starting No. 6 Kristie Mewis dutifully put out fires, though the group was so overrun that she couldn't exert much influence on the game. The USWNT only took five shots against Japan, their fewest since a game against France in the 2016 Olympics, and their lone goal didn't flow through the midfield so much as over it.

Andonovski wants to play aggressive formations to get the most out of his team's attackers, though the whole scheme falls apart if the midfielders can't win and advance the ball. Taylor Kornieck and Ashley Sanchez have shown flashes, but not quite enough. The team's best look is probably a double pivot of Andi Sullivan and Lindsey Horan behind Lavelle, and that duo played very well against a Canada team that's fighting their own rotten federation. Dunn is an intriguing wild-card here, and as she told Emma Carmichael for GQ, she has plenty of midfield experience.

Still, for all the team's inconsistency, they have yet to allow a goal against two of the best teams in the world. If Swanson can keep up her run of form, if the team can get healthy, and if the midfield can come together at the right time, the USWNT is going to come into the World Cup reformed and terrifying.

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