An Overwhelming USWNT Leaves Glimmers of Hope for Olympic Foes

The U.S. women have won every match under Vlatko Andonovski and appear destined for gold—but contrary to the run of results, there are ways to tame the world champions.
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Three wins and a trophy later, and the U.S. women's national team managed to accomplish one of the few things it had yet to do.

The U.S. women are SheBelieves Cup champions again, finishing their first back-to-back run in the six-year-old competition by overpowering and overwhelming Argentina on Wednesday night, 6–0. Winning this trophy isn't the chief objective this year, though, not with a delayed Olympic tournament looming this summer. So there's one big question facing the U.S. and its opponents: What will it take to keep the Americans from the highest step of the medal stand in Tokyo?

First, some perspective and context. Global circumstances meant this was the weakest SheBelieves Cup field in the six years of the competition's existence, and personnel circumstances meant that one of the top two contenders, Canada, was a far more experimental side than is accustomed to playing against the U.S. 

The USWNT wins the SheBelieves Cup

That hardly diminishes the U.S.'s achievement, and considering that the team didn't concede a goal in the competition and has now kept clean sheets in 14 of its last 15 matches—including the last six—as part of a 37-game unbeaten streak, the well-oiled machine has continued to churn. The U.S. has now won all 16 games since manager Vlatko Andonovski took charge, conceding just three goals in that time. The sheer dominance those numbers project are daunting for any challenger to comprehend.

That's not to say it's all been perfect, and for a team whose sterling record makes each glimmer of a weakness seem greater and more hopeful for the opposition than it actually is, it still does possess a level of vulnerability that can be exploited. Any side that plays as aggressively and with as much initiative as the U.S. will. But to beat a team as overpowering and deep as the U.S., you need to take your chances, and you need to not be overawed by the mystique of the opponent. It's oversimplifying everything to boil it down to those terms, but just look at what Canada and Brazil passed up when presented with the opportunity in games that were close:

Goals change games, as the captain-obvious-level saying goes, but failing to capitalize on opportunities, and in some cases, gifts, like that against a U.S. juggernaut like this is to concede victory. It's demoralizing enough to see those chances go begging. It's even worse when the U.S. can then bring on a line change like it did vs. Canada by subbing on Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Rose Lavelle, with the latter breaking through with the inevitable winner.

For all of the effort and focus it takes to hang with the U.S., it becomes that much more difficult when fresh legs belonging to some of the world's preeminent players factor into the final half-hour of an intense and tight contest. That alone can wreak psychological havoc on most national teams the U.S. will face.

Opponents who aren't completely committed to defending with almost everyone behind the ball can take advantage of the U.S.'s aggressive approach, with the fullbacks pushing way up with regularity and the Americans often overwhelming with its numbers in the attacking half. Crystal Dunn's dynamism allows the U.S. to get away with it to a degree, with her ability to recover a good reason why the attacking standout on the club level has become a defensive mainstay internationally.

Anything that appears to be a weakness now could be moot come Olympics time, though. Despite the record and winning streak, the team remains a work in progress. The U.S., as Andonovski alluded to during the past week, has multiple NWSL-based players not in season, and it completed its SheBelieves Cup run without the injured Sam Mewis, who is one of the top players in the world and the kind of aerial weapon that few possess, and Tobin Heath, whose injury recovery will be of significance in the coming weeks. 

If you'll remember in 2019, the U.S. showcased its vulnerabilities in a friendly defeat to France and SheBelieves Cup draws to Japan and England before ironing out its issues in the months that followed, and embarked on a second-straight Women's World Cup run. As successful as the U.S. has been since Andonovski took charge, there's an expectation that everything will be a bit more fine-tuned come July. There are still two more FIFA windows and U.S. training camps to come before the Olympics are scheduled to be played, with a pair of April friendlies in Europe reportedly in the works. Andonovski's biggest challenge may not be a tactical one but one of the personnel variety in narrowing a stacked U.S. pool to just the 18 players to take to Tokyo.

“With this game we’re getting a step closer,” Andonovski said following the Argentina win. “A lot of things come into play: performance, fitness, the fit on the team, versatility and specialty. It’s an ongoing process, and as we go forward, I’m sure I am going to have more clear answers. Right now, we’re still evaluating everyone, and the list is pretty big.”

The Olympic field is pretty strong, but some of Europe's top sides—namely France and Germany, two of the most worthy challengers to the U.S.—won't be there due to UEFA's odd qualifying setup, which sent the three best performers at the 2019 WWC to Tokyo (Team Great Britain, Netherlands, Sweden).

Host Japan, Brazil, New Zealand, Canada, Zambia and Australia have also cemented their berths, while South Korea and China will play for one (Asia's second berth) and Cameroon and Chile will play for another (African–South American intercontinental playoff) in the April FIFA window. 

The U.S. will be the overwhelming favorite to claim gold and become the first to follow a World Cup triumph immediately with an Olympic one. Despite winning just about everything, there are still frontiers for this U.S. group to conquer.