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USWNT needs a new tactical identity after 2023 Women’s World Cup exit

The USA’s 2023 Women’s World Cup started with dreams of an historic three-peat.

It ended in a nightmare.

Vlatko Andonovski’s team suffered a last 16 exit to Sweden – the earliest exit suffered by any US women’s national team at any Women’s World Cup – and nobody could argue they deserved anything more.

While the USA performed well over 120 minutes against Sweden, their tournament as a whole was underwhelming, certainly for a team with so much talent. Struggles against the Netherlands and Portugal hinted at an early exit for the defending champions and so few were surprised when the USWNT’s trophy defense finished with shootout despair.

This was always likely to be a difficult Women’s World Cup for the USA. The women’s national team is in the midst of a generational transition while the standard has improved across the board. This is particularly true in Europe where the likes of England, France, Germany and Spain have become superpowers of the women’s game.

Even still, the USA should have been capable of more in Australia and New Zealand this summer. Andonovski never established the framework to support a team at the elite level. While most other countries at the top of women’s international soccer have forged a tactical and ideological identity, the USA has nothing.

With Andonovski widely expected to depart his role as head coach before the end of his contract at the end of the year, US Soccer must settle on a vision for the future before hiring a replacement. It’s no longer enough for the USWNT to get by on talent alone. Every national team is now talented. The next USWNT head coach must be a difference-maker.

“For someone again to question the standards, the mentality, the mindset of this team after everything that they do, first, I don’t think it’s the right time for that and, second, I don’t think it’s the right thing as well,” Andonovski said before the round of 16 exit to Sweden, when the 46-year-old was already facing tough questions.

“They keep raising the standards from day-to-day and in terms of the competition and what everything is happening, I mean we want to blow every team out five goals, who doesn’t want to do that, right? But those results are gone. I mean they’re not going to happen.”

A number of potential replacements have already linked with the USWNT job. Some fans would like to see Jill Ellis return as head coach. Tony Gustavsson, Ellis’ former assistant, is currently doing an admirable job as Australia boss and would be good candidate for the USA. OL Reign manager Laura Harvey could be the favourite.

Whoever US Soccer turns to next, there must be a plan to underpin the appointment. The USA still boasts the infrastructure and depth to lead the women’s game again, but the country needs a new direction at executive level. The identification of a new manager must be only one part of that process. 

US Soccer missed the warning signs that emerged during the Tokyo Olympics. The USWNT performed poorly at the tournament as they only made the semi-finals. Failure at the Olympics doesn’t always equate to failure at the Women’s World Cup, but all the hallmarks of the USA’s poor performances this summer were evident in 2021. 

The USWNT must get better at converting its control of possession into creativity. Breaking down a low defensive block is arguably the most difficult thing to do in soccer, but the US struggle more than they should in this respect relative to their talent level. The next USWNT head coach must do a better job of harnessing the creative talent in the squad.

Some argue the US has a talent problem, not just a managerial one. However, players like Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma and Alyssa Thompson are good enough to sustain the national team for a long time to come. The NWSL also remains the strongest domestic league in the world, giving the USA an advantage over the competition.

2027, and the next Women’s World Cup, feels a long way off right now, but the 2024 Olympics are already looming on the horizon, meaning US Soccer must decide on a new direction for the women’s national team as quickly as possible. Lessons must be learned from the last few years. If that happens, the USWNT can dominate again.

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