The United States Women’s National Team enters the year on a bit of a sour note, having lost three of the past four matches. With the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup set for this summer, the slate of friendlies and the SheBelieves Cup are some of the final chances for the squad to gain experience as a unit. Next on the schedule are two fixtures in New Zealand, both against the co-host of the upcoming competition. The first is set for Sky Stadium in Wellington (Te Whanganui-a-Tara), followed by a trip north to Eden Park of Auckland (Te Whanganui-a-Tara).
These are the 20th and 21st all-time meetings between the two nations, with the USWNT holding a 17-1-1 advantage. New Zealand is currently ranked 24th in the world by FIFA, dropping two spots after a dismal 2022. The Football Ferns opened the year with a winless performance at the SheBelieves Cup, setting the tone for a 2-7-3 record that was salvaged by back-to-back friendly victories against Mexico and the Philippines in September.
Former Czech international Jitka Klimková was appointed to the manager role in September of 2021, given a contract through the 2027 World Cup. However, her start was delayed due to “stringent COVID rules and strict border controls,” necessitating remote coaching. The 48-year-old has experience leading Slovácko, Canberra United, Internationals SC, and a host of youth international sides, including the Czech Republic U-19, New Zealand U-17, and United States U-19 and U-20 teams. She is keeping an open mind toward building the final squad, noting that “many, many things” can happen in the coming months.
Klimková initially named a 26-player roster for the pair of friendlies, but Indiah-Paige Riley and Brianna Edwards were added, the latter in place of goalkeeper Lily Alfeld. The matches are outside of the international window, with the manager noting that “some squad members were not released by their clubs.” Various leagues in Australia and New Zealand are home to 13 call-ups, while a further six talents are spread across the American collegiate and professional ranks.
GOALKEEPERS (3): Erin Nayler (IFK Norrköping), Brianna Edwards (Wellington Phoenix), Sheaff Murphy (Jacksonville Dolphins)
DEFENDERS (8): Ali Riley (Angel City), Anna Green (Sydney FC), Elizabeth Anton (Perth Glory), Mackenzie Barry (Wellington Phoenix), Ally Green (Vålerenga), Ashleigh Ward (Southampton), Rebecca Lake (Canterbury United Pride), Grace Neville (London City Lionesses)
MIDFIELDERS (7): Betsy Hassett (Wellington Phoenix), Daisy Cleverley (HB Køge), Emma Rolston (Wellington Phoenix), Grace Jale (Canberra United), Ava Collins (St. John’s Red Storm), Jana Radosavljevic (Arminia Bielefeld), Aniela Jensen (Pacific Tigers)
FORWARDS (9): Olivia Chance (Celtic), Paige Satchell (Wellington Phoenix), Gabi Rennie (Arizona State Sun Devils), Jacqui Hand (Åland United), Hannah Blake (Michigan Wolverines), Deven Jackson (Eastern Suburbs), Tayla O’Brien (Eastern Suburbs), Grace Wisnewski (Wellington Phoenix), Indiah-Paige Riley (Brisbane Roar)
Klimková is endeavoring to create a squad that “controls the ball” with sustained possession and maintains a compact defensive structure. She typically deploys a 4-4-2 formation but has on occasion utilized the 4-3-3, showing a reluctance to make changes to the starting lineup. While 2022 was a trying year, the team showed signs of improvement, accomplishing the aforementioned goals and displaying more tenacious aggression in pursuit.
New Zealand looks to capitalize on the opponent’s mistakes, particularly when the back line makes bad touches, with the advanced attacking line always looking to pounce. The Football Ferns can struggle to combat combination play, particularly when a fullback overlaps on the wing and creates an overload. Handling crosses and clearing out ensuing rebounds are also constant issues, as Total Football Analysis notes the presence of “loose passes, not doing enough defensively, and failing to use what is available.”
The presumptive number-one goalkeeper is Erin Nayler, who competes with Umeå IK and was relegated from the first-tier Swedish Damallsvenskan last season. The 30-year-old has earned 78 caps for New Zealand and is considered the best at her position in the Oceania Football Confederation. She covers the entire net and has strong hands, redirecting the ball wide of the goalmouth when making saves.
Perth Glory centre-back Elizabeth Anton should be the key figure on the back line, working hard to block shots and put herself in position for clearances. When in possession, she looks to play long passes to the wings in hopes of springing the counter-attack, although the attempts can charitably be described as speculative. Her likely partner is Mackenzie Barry, a relatively new addition to the program who made her debut last October. The 21-year-old competes with Wellington Phoenix and is a strong aerial presence with the ability to elevate above the crowd and win headers. Hard tackling is also an asset, using long limbs to reach in and jostle the ball loose.
At right back is Alexandra “Ali” Riley, a Los Angeles native who made her senior debut for the Football Ferns in 2007. The Angel City defender covers the length of the field, disrupting opponents with almost five tackles per match and delivering devastating diagonal crosses to the back post. On the other side of the formation is Anna Green of Sydney FC, another long-term member of the squad with experience at three World Cups. She is more of a stay-at-home safety option, but there is that occasional burst of attacking prowess to tilt the balance of proceedings.
Betsy Hassett of Wellington Phoenix is one of the squad’s veterans, having made over 130 appearances since debuting in 2008. The 32-year-old has settled into more of a defensive role and become a fierce ball-winning midfielder. She can be an asset in transition and looks to break out quickly on the counter-attack, possessing a decent long-distance shot. Daisy Cleverley recently joined HB Køge after ending her collegiate career with Georgetown University, having the capacity to contribute in both phases of the game. Her pressing involves clogging passing lanes and quickly moving into the final third.
On one wing is Olivia Chance, a Celtic attacker who does her best work on the edge of the box and looks to keep passes on the ground. She has a decent shot from distance that typically comes off during rebounds and possession recycles. The other side of the formation is patrolled by Gabrielle “Gabi” Rennie of Arizona State University, a forward who made three appearances at the 2022 SheBelieves Cup. A prolific and reliable producer in her youth, the ability to fight through opponents and open space for her dangerous left foot will be necessary for her team to enjoy success. The lineup could also feature Emma Rolston, a utility option and an effective dribbler. The veteran displays a willingness to throw herself into tackles and physical engagements.
For the friendlies, New Zealand will be without the usual reliable scorers. Wellington Phoenix’s Paige Satchell can line up across the top of the formation, often serving to first carry or receive the ball in the final third. The 24-year-old covers cannot be pinned down to a side and is an all-over presence. The duo should be completed by Grace Jale, perhaps the program’s most in-form player. After dealing with several injuries, she has scored in bunches for Wellington Phoenix and now Canberra United, thundering past or through defenders. Dangerous on crosses and pacey enough to run behind back lines, the opposing back line will have to constantly monitor her movements.
These friendlies are useful to both nations: the USWNT is looking to build momentum toward the summer’s title defense, while New Zealand is attempting to widen the player pool. The visitors should be expected to coast against the lower-ranked opponents, taking advantage of a roster that lacks cohesion and experience. Additionally, traveling to the site of the 2023 World Cup provides an early opportunity for practical experience and gaining familiarity with the surroundings.
The first match is scheduled for Tuesday, January 17th at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific. The sole viewing option is streaming on HBO Max.
The second match is scheduled for Friday, January 20th at 10:00 p.m. Eastern, 7:00 p.m. Pacific. The sole viewing option is streaming on HBO Max.