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The USWNT Is Under Pressure, And That’s Bad News For The Rest Of The World

Crystal Dunn #19 of the United States warms up
Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF

It’s almost time for the 2023 World Cup. To help get you ready, we will be providing you with precious information about every team in the tournament. You can read all of our team previews here.

Visions of legendary World Cup celebrations no doubt inspire the 23 USWNT players heading to New Zealand and Australia this summer. Brandi Chastain’s shirtless triumph in 1999, Carli Lloyd’s raising her arms after scoring from the halfway line in the 2015 final, Alex Morgan sipping semifinal tea in 2019, and Megan Rapinoe’s imperious pose in the same tournament’s final are lofty histories to aspire to. I have a feeling those images also haunt this squad. Pressure for a three-peat is sky-high, and what if those celebrations don’t continue? What if this summer turns out more like 2011, when three missed penalty kicks in the final shootout cost them? What if this year is like 2007, when Brazil iced them with a 4-0 shootout in the semifinal? This World Cup, like so many that came before it, is the USWNT's to lose. If only things had gone a little more to plan since the last one. 

Injuries to Mallory Swanson, Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn, Sam Mewis, and Catarina Macario have weakened this team severely. Even Rose Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe, key players from the 2019 tournament who are on this summer’s roster, are each working back from injury. In Vlatko Andonovki’s three-and-a-half years as manager, he has struggled to develop a reliable system that works, especially in the midfield. This failure has brought consequences. In the fall, the U.S. lost friendlies against European heavyweights England, Spain, and Germany. Winning a second game against Germany was a small consolation after that harrowing streak. This year, the team has gone unbeaten, but not resoundingly. Slim victories against Brazil and Japan in the SheBelieves Cup leave me unconvinced that there is an effective strategic vision in place to carry the team through what will surely be the most competitive World Cup yet. 

Alana Cook's brilliant but perhaps unintentional shot from afar was the US's saving grace in an April friendly against the Republic of Ireland.

And yet, despite it all, it would be ridiculous to write this team off. The USWNT has picked itself up from slumps before, and seems to be historically good at timing peak form for World Cups. In both 2015 and 2019, for instance, they lost to France in friendlies a few months before each tournament. Veterans Rapinoe, Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Julie Ertz, and Alyssa Naeher have won the thing twice already. First-timers Sophia Smith, Lynn Williams, and Naomi Girma are in unbelievable club form and will no doubt provide spectacular moments this summer. The team may have the wind knocked out of them, but on the biggest stage the sport has to offer, they’ve often done some of their best work with their backs against the wall. 

The USWNT is one of the most legendary teams in sports for a reason. Again and again, with signature grit and dramatics, the ever-changing group of players has fulfilled the promise of that now quadruply-starred crest. This 2023 squad has a gargantuan task ahead of it. The world, if I may, will be watching.

Who Is Their Star?

Crystal Dunn was a standout from the beginning of her career; Mia freaking Hamm personally blessed Dunn with her own jersey number while Dunn playing for UNC. Dunn narrowly (and unjustly) missed the World Cup in 2015 and she responded by, oh, just becoming the NWSL MVP that season. She’s only gotten better from there, playing totally different positions for club (midfielder) and country (fullback), and doing each task exceptionally well. With Sauerbrunn gone, Dunn will be the most experienced player with regular minutes on the backline, unless Andonovski unexpectedly makes the brilliant decision to play her in the midfield, in which case she’d be the most experienced player there.

And she’s at that perfect place in her career when her age hasn’t cost her any agility or physicality. As Comrade Patrick wrote so beautifully, Dunn is “so calm on the ball, and even when she's trying something ambitious, which she does all the time, she never overcommits to the wrong idea.” In the midfield for the Portland Thorns, she tracks all around the field without missing a beat. Her movement is a bit more restricted as a left back for the national team, but you can expect to see her moving up the sideline to make offensive plays whenever she can, not to mention breaking up opposing attacks before they even start. There are simply no holes in her game I could reasonably point out. If I was Andonovski, Crystal Dunn would be the first name down on that lineup sheet, every damn game. 

Tell Me About A Cool Youngster

Sophia Smith really is as good as everyone says, and all the other teams should be very scared to face her! As NWSL analyst Lianne Sanderson pointed out in her coverage of the June 24 match between the Portland Thorns and Washington Spirit, in which Smith scored a hat trick, Smith’s intention in pursuing the goal when she gets the ball at her feet is automatic and relentless. No matter where on the field she gets the ball, she will turn towards net and careen past mobs of hapless defenders in pursuit of it. In that game, her goals weren’t idyllic arcing shots. They were rockets down low, gone far past the goalkeeper Aubrey Kingsbury’s reaching arms before she knew they had left Smith’s foot. If Smith can keep up this absolutely lethal drive toward goal, maybe the U.S. stands a chance at winning this thing.

Who Is Their Enemy?

Well … everybody. As Alex Morgan said in a recent presser, this squad has a big bullseye on their back. No team that has won the last two tournaments can skate by the next time around without their competitors putting in some specific extra effort against them. The One To Beat narrative seems to be shared by Fox as well; they put out this ad that feels a little too America First for my comfort but still accurately conveys that the U.S. is the Goliath of this tourney.

In many of our team previews, you’ll see teams’ own federations appear in the this section; such is the state of women’s soccer across the globe. Happily, I don’t need to do the same for U.S. Soccer! With last year’s agreement to a hard-fought equal pay and treatment scheme, the USWNT players haven’t spoken out against the federation lately, to my knowledge. The NWSL has also had a kind of a rebirth since the last World Cup in the wake of the very bad 2021 abuse scandal, but even that seems to be getting sorted out, bit by bit. All this to say: structural issues won’t be top of mind for the players this summer, which is a huge improvement. 

National Folk Hero Who I Think Is Cool

In January 2021, just a week after a mob of violent white supremacists invaded the seat of democracy in action, one very brave patriot investigated the building for clues to their insurrection. "I walked through the Capitol like a detective," Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta said, "and I looked for evidence of the truth.” God bless America. 

Scran Or Not Scran: National Dish Edition

I’m sure you are familiar with hamburgers and apple pie, so I’ll spare you my personal thoughts on those. Instead I’d like to recognize that I’m writing about the United States of America, a racialized, settler-colonial state. So let’s highlight some recipes by Indigenous writers! M. Karlos Baca of the Southern Ute Nation shared this recipe for squash soup that looks delicious. Devon A. Mihesuah, from the Choctaw Nation, has this method for stuffed pumpkins. And Mariah Gladstone, who is Blackfeet and Cherokee, published this recipe for Potawatomi Berry Rice. Definitely scran. 

What Would A Successful World Cup Look Like For This Team?

The floor is the ceiling for this team. Anything less than another victory will be seen as and feel like a failure. No pressure!

The good news: whatever happens this summer, we’ve got an insanely talented crop of young players eager to get their hands on national team roster spots after the tournament ends. Expect to see hopefuls like Sam Coffey, Jaedyn Shaw, and Jaelin Howell giving those returning from this tournament a run for their money in future camps. If we lose, that’s not such a bad consolation prize at all. 

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