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Same, but Different: USWNT Again Uses SheBelieves Cup As Olympic Proving Ground

The 2020 SheBelieves Cup was supposed to be a precursor to the Olympics, but the pandemic changed that. A year later, the U.S. talent pool is evolved, and the competition is once again preparation for Tokyo.

At this time last year, U.S. women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski was announcing the roster for the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, a proving ground to find the squad he’d take to Tokyo for the Olympics.

Twelve months later, Andonovski is again readying for a SheBelieves Cup. And after a pandemic-induced postponement, he’s still preparing for the tough task of whittling down his player pool to 18 ahead of an Olympics scheduled to start in July.

Fifteen of the players who lifted the SheBelieves Cup in Texas on March 11, 2020—what wound up being the U.S.’s last match until Nov. 27—are on this year’s squad, but a host of personnel developments since then have made Andonovski’s upcoming roster decisions even more interesting. A core group of players moved overseas. New young players entered the pool. Older, veteran players reentered the pool.

“I think when it comes down to picking the team, it’s going to be who’s in form and also who is healthy,” said U.S. forward Lynn Williams. “It’s definitely stressful sometimes, but I’m happy I am not the coach, because I think that’s going to be a hard decision come time to select the team.”

USWNT's Carli Lloyd

A few absences aside, most of the U.S. players will be ready when the U.S. begins its quest for its fourth SheBelieves crown on Thursday against Canada in Orlando.

Amid uncertainty about whether the Olympics will continue as planned, the U.S. is still viewing this month’s stateside tournament as a point of preparation for the summer. The round-robin format mirrors that of the Olympic group stage, with each team playing three games in seven days—Brazil (Feb. 21) and Argentina (Feb. 24) are the Americans’ next opponents after the opener.

Andonovski has kept his cards close about exact plans to experiment and rotate lineups in those three games, but he said the U.S. would use the tournament to test and evaluate the team’s deep talent pool.

“There’ll be a mixed approach. With some players, we are going to test how they’re going to react in three consecutive games in a short period of time, because it resembles the group stage in the Olympics,” Andonovski said. “With some players, we’re going to use it as an evaluating platform so we can make decisions going forward.”

Manchester City midfielder Sam Mewis and Manchester United forward Tobin Heath are the two main injury-related absences for the U.S. this month. Heath is still recovering from an ankle injury incurred with United, while Mewis is also working through an ankle knock from the Jan. 22 friendly win over Colombia.

Mewis has started eight of the national team’s last 11 games, scoring seven goals in that stretch. She’s developed into one of the best midfielders in the world for both club and country. Forward Megan Rapinoe recently called Mewis the best player on the national team.

USWNT's Megan Rapinoe and coach Vlatko Andonovski
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Andonovski expects Heath and Mewis to recover in time for Olympic preparation in the coming months.

The rest of the national team’s England-based contingent—Man City’s Rose Lavelle and Abby Dahlkemper, and Man United’s Christen Press—are all available in Orlando, as is Lyon starlet Catarina Macario, who made her U.S. debut in thrilling fashion in last month’s friendlies.

All four of those overseas players have joined the U.S. straight from competition in Europe, and they’ll return to their club seasons once the tournament concludes later this month. The U.S. has not had this many players based in Europe return for SheBelieves since 2017, when Carli Lloyd (Manchester City), Alex Morgan (Lyon) and Crystal Dunn (Chelsea) came back and the U.S. finished fourth.

Macario is the highest profile of the fresher names in the player pool, but she’s joined by a number of young and less-experienced faces on the roster. Goalkeepers Jane Campbell and Casey Murphy, defender Midge Purce, midfielder Jaelin Powell and forward Sophia Smith received nods to Orlando. They have 10 caps combined. Kristie Mewis also continued her international resurgence with another call-up.

USWNT's Catarina Macario and Kristie Mewis

Even among the fresh faces in camp, the roster still has its share of veterans fighting for their own spots in Tokyo. Rapinoe (35) and Lloyd (38) are two of the group’s oldest players, but both played well in the January friendlies, and defender Becky Sauerbrunn (35) earned the captaincy earlier this year.

After a year in and out of the national team—she missed Olympic qualifying and SheBelieves in 2020 while pregnant, returned for a November friendly against the Netherlands, and then was out with COVID-19 in January—Alex Morgan is also back.

“If she’s at her best,” Andonovski said, “she can be deadly.”

The SheBelieves slate typically features European squads, but this year will feature all teams from the Western Hemisphere. Orlando Pride star Marta will return to the Brazilian national team after missing the squad’s fall camp with COVID-19, and Canada will be without seven key players, including captain and international soccer's all-time leading scorer Christine Sinclair.

Argentina replaced Olympic host Japan, which withdrew in January due to COVID-19 concerns. The South American side will play its first matches since November 2019.

Since the tournament’s inception in 2016, the U.S. has yet to take home a SheBelieves crown and a summer trophy in the same calendar year. It had clear aims to do that in 2020, and, with another shot at Olympic gold still on the horizon, those goals are no different in 2021.

“We are excited for these top opponents that we’re playing up against. They’re going to give us different challenges, and every game, every training is ultimately preparation for the Olympics,” Dunn said. “Everyone’s excited to be here. We’re excited to step on the field together and, obviously, hopefully win this tournament.”