Ahhh, Uzbekistan. I must admit that when I called the second of two friendly matches the American women’s national team played against Uzbekistan for ESPN, I began to wonder 30 minutes later – after the United States had scored six goals – why Uzbekistan said yes to these two – game dredging.
Growth mindset, I understand that. You have to play the best to be the best. Yup. It just seems like you can sometimes extract a lesson less emphatically and in a less psychologically damaging way, right? Uzbekistan, No. 48 in the world, is the lowest ranked team USWNT has faced in seven months. The United States is ranked No. 1.
As I try to summarize what we learned during this international battle window in April regarding USWNT, I keep saying “Yes, but …”
The American team scored 18 goals over two matches against Uzbekistan. Impressive, in fact.
The United States had nine different players to score the 18 goals.
The top three of Mal Pugh, Catarina Macario and Sophia Smith are creative, dynamic and fun to watch. The American starting front five often looked silky soft.
The outside backs, Emily Fox and Sofia Huerta, looked powerful and confident going forward. Subs came in and made an impression.
Yes, but … it was Uzbekistan. Herein lies the problem. You do not want to take 38 shots to your opponent’s zero (as in goose eggs, nada, not a shot at all – not even outside goal), as was the case in the second match, a 9-0 victory for USWNT.
You have to give these younger American players time, minutes, confidence, chemistry – all of the above – but when it involves teams like Uzbekistan, Iceland, New Zealand and the Czech Republic (USWNT’s opponents so far in 2022), it’s hard to assess how much growth is happening at all.
You can certainly check the confidence and chemistry boxes, but this level of resistance does not expose you enough to fully understand what needs to be tightened up technically and tactically. It does not expose these young players to the critical moments of adversity that require you to break through, find a way, lean on each other, and eventually realize that you can survive and most importantly, thrive in those moments. .
And yes, to be fair to American football, I appreciate how difficult it is to plan teams right now. The COVID-19 pandemic continues to wreak havoc with long quarantines required on return to some countries. World Cup qualifiers in April meant that not all competitive European teams were available in this window. The euro at the beginning of July means that the FIFA window in June will also be difficult to plan.
But all I know is that these opponents need to be stronger (there I solved world peace) in order to fully assess how these players are doing. That’s why Vlatko Andonovski and his staff will so closely watch the National Women’s Soccer League and other professional leagues across the globe in April, May and June. This is what will give them their best reading on where these players are.
Now to the debate about younger players vs. veteran players: It’s hard to predict what that mix will look like this summer. If anyone tries it, I do not buy what they are selling because of the above quarrel and because we have not seen the rest of April, May and June – all big months for the veterans trying to get back in the fold.
Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe and Becky Sauerbrunn will have to shine in the coming months for Vlatko to take this step. And as Vlatko has repeatedly said: “Everyone must earn the right to be called back to the American team through their game with their club team.”
And do not forget also the middle group of players. We have not talked about them in the short term due to pregnancy (Crystal Dunn, Julie Ertz and Casey Krueger) or injury (Sam Mewis). They may not be available for this summer’s World Cup and Olympic qualifiers in Mexico, but that group will be very much in play in 2023.
So there you have it. April proved to be beneficial for chemistry and self-confidence, for sure (thank you, Uzbekistan), but May and June will really bring the answers. And hopefully (insert finger crossed emoji) that comes with a better June opponent for American games.