The USWNT just played two games against Paraguay in Ohio and, quite frankly, I really don’t have much to say about the two matches. The team won 9-0 in Cleveland before winning 8-0 in Cincinnati. Combined with the upcoming two matches against South Korea, such goalfests surely are an appropriate way to celebrate (or perhaps mourn) a bronze medal performance at the Olympics and the end of Carli Lloyd’s distinguished international career. But their ability to tell us much about the national team itself is unfortunately limited. With all due respect to their program, Paraguay is not a stern enough test to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the best team in the world.
However, there was one thing that stood out, particularly in the Cincinnati game. Due to a mixture of injuries, rotations, and other absences, we saw a starting lineup without most of the most veteran players. Take a look of this partial list of players who either missed out entirely or only came on as a substitute:
Carli Lloyd (39)
Becky Sauerbrunn (36)
Megan Rapinoe (36)
Christen Press (32)
Tobin Heath (33)
Kelley O’Hara (33)
These are some seriously significant players. These six names have comfortably over 1,000 caps between themselves. These players have been among the defining parts of the USWNT for a decade. Yet, here was a lineup without them. This signals a point of transition. It’s not going to happen immediately, but we are going to see these players start to be phased out. It’s already starting to happen what with Lloyd’s impending retirement. And frankly, this change is needed. During the Olympics, the WNT was frequently criticized for a lack of dynamism, particularly in attack. And for all their strengths, players don’t develop that kind of energy in their mid 30s.
Of course, this begs the question of who takes their place. Tuesday night, we saw Catarina Macario and Sophia Smith, both 21 years old, start and score. Joining them were Mal Pugh and Rose Lavelle, who are 23 and 26, respectively. Finally, at striker was Alex Morgan, 32. That front six was fluid and confident, able to move the ball rapidly and to seize whatever opportunity they could get, and quick to recover possession when they lost it. Where the first match was dominated by Lloyd’s offensive ability, the second saw the attacking load distributed across the team (with Lavelle particularly doing the distributing). This could very well be what the future of the team looks like.
At this point, I would like to take a step back. The men’s team similarly underwent a large and rapid transition, with players in their 30s being replaced by ones in their teens and early 20s. That’s not going to happen with the women’s team; that’s just not their culture. The USWNT has always been a heavily veteran group, and that’s not changing. Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe might be moving towards the twilight of their careers, but they aren’t just going to disappear from the national team. Same for the other players in their 30s. These players will be here for years to come. And that’s to say nothing about some of the other seriously experienced players. While they didn’t feature on Tuesday, the likes of Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, and Julie Ertz are not going anywhere, with all of them still currently in their late 20s. The USWNT is not going to suddenly and dramatically change. This is a program that slowly integrates players in and replaces key roles with players who are already established in the program.
Still, that lineup in Cincinnati signals that something is changing. And it may well have even been a glimpse into the team’s future.