USWNT earn W Gold Cup title the hard way, show signs of growth

SAN DIEGO, Calif. — With the glimmer of a well-deserved Concacaf W Gold Cup trophy in the hands of the U.S. women’s national team, it’s easy to forget that just weeks ago, the journey into the inaugural tournament began with a statement of regret from team captain Lindsey Horan.

“First and foremost, I would like to apologize to our fans,” said Horan days before the start of the W Gold Cup. “Some of my comments were poorly expressed and there was a massive lesson learned for me.”

Stream on ESPN+: LaLiga, Bundesliga, more (U.S.)

The issue? It all stemmed from an interview with The Athletic in which Horan stated: “American soccer fans, most of them aren’t smart … They don’t know the game. They don’t understand.” The context is key here, and as she went on to note in the February article, the Lyon midfielder seemed to want to highlight how the sport is understood at a higher level in France during her time abroad.

Had she worded things differently, it could have been seen as more of a fair point, but the timing couldn’t have been worse. Horan and her teammates were not only getting ready for a new tournament, but also looking to bounce back after their worst finish in a major competition, having exited the 2023 Women’s World Cup in the Round of 16. Shortly after Australia-New Zealand 2023, head coach Vlatko Andonovski resigned, leaving Twila Kilgore in charge as interim.

Whether a fairweather U.S. sports fan or a journalist, both likely arrived at the same conclusion before the start of the W Gold Cup: Something was off about the four-time World Cup champions, who didn’t seem to have the same fire in their moment of flux. Sure, the USWNT then extended an undefeated streak to eight games with Kilgore after winning their first two W Gold Cup games recently, but any sense of things settling back to normal imploded after a historic 2-0 loss to Mexico in their W Gold Cup group stage finale late last month.

Most American soccer fans weren’t happy. The result marked the first time that the U.S. had lost to their Mexican rivals since 2010. In what has been a one-sided rivalry for years, the defeat was just the second time ever that the USWNT lost to Mexico. Perhaps most painful of all was how it reminded everyone of the problems seen in last year’s World Cup.

“The U.S. women’s national soccer team’s 2-0 loss to Mexico on Monday felt all too familiar,” wrote Jeff Kassouf after that game. “After a pair of encouraging matches that saw interim coach Twila Kilgore deploy a young, energetic lineup in more experimental formations to start the 2024 Concacaf W Gold Cup, the Americans rewound the clock to last year, when they were stuck in a cycle of rigid predictability that led to their worst World Cup finish.”

With hindsight being 20/20 though, it could be argued that the Mexico result was a good thing for the USWNT. The fact that it came during the group stage and after they’d already qualified for the knockout round, the loss could be processed as a painful wake-up call and not an early exit like it was at the World Cup. As if given a second chance at life and an opportunity to build confidence in an Olympic year, the USWNT bounced back in the W Gold Cup with the distinct return of fire in their eyes.

In the quarterfinals, the USWNT matched the aggressiveness of Colombia with a younger roster that applied more pressure and took a direct approach to goal. With a 3-0 win under their belts, they battled their Canadian rivals in the semifinal on a field that was literally waterlogged at Snapdragon Stadium. Initially adapting more quickly to the soaked surface, the USWNT let their lead slip twice before defeating Canada in a dramatic penalty shootout.

Back at Snapdragon for Sunday’s final vs. Brazil — the pitch fully dried after some more typical Southern California sunshine — the USWNT overcame their South American opponents who succeeded at keeping them pinned back for much of the first half. Even with some questions about certain players left out of the XI — like tournament Golden Ball winner, Jaedyn Shaw — Kilgore’s starters were able to frustrate Brazil in equal measure before finding the lone goal of the game.

As the game drifted towards a scoreless first half, the USWNT took a 1-0 lead in the 46th minute via a well-placed header from Horan in the 46th minute. Weeks after seeming to lose a connection with USWNT supporters, the captain then celebrated in front of a roaring attendance of 31,528 — a record for a Concacaf women’s game — at Snapdragon Stadium.

Even though Brazil would outshoot the U.S. 12-7 over the 90 minutes, the hosts held their 1-0 lead and Kilgore’s side proved they could defend a narrow lead, forcing their opponents to take low percentage opportunities. High pressing one day, fighting through a rainstorm during another, and then closing things out by showcasing the ability to grind out a 1-0 result, there was a real depth in how the USWNT got things done in the knockout round of the W Gold Cup. It may not have been as dominant or one-sided as people may have expected, but the rocky path after the Mexico loss provided this USWNT side with a catalyst for growth.

“This is a team and a program that will always have attention and expectations on it, and we say that pressure is a privilege,” said Kilgore post-game. “We’ve regrouped, we’ve set new goals, we’ve set a new style of play. We’re working towards something together and it’s a very public process, and that’s just not easy. I’m just so proud of them and I’m just so happy.”

Kilgore, who will be replaced by permanent coach Emma Hayes once she completes the 2023-24 season with Chelsea Women, also felt optimistic about how things are going for the team that will seek more redemption at the Olympics. “This is a group that’s moving forward together, that still wants more time together. It’s time to go back to club for them and do those things, but we genuinely enjoy being together and feel like we’re just getting started,” said the interim coach.

“This is a group that’s just getting started.”



USWNT stars react to Gold Cup win: We overcame so much adversity

Lindsay Horan, Alex Morgan and Naomi Girma react to the USWNT’s 1-0 victory against Brazil to win the CONCACAF Women’s Gold Cup.

Looking ahead to April’s She Believes Cup and June’s double-headers vs. South Korea — the latter will see Hayes begin her tenure — the USWNT face a quick turnaround before finalizing their provisional squad that must be whittled down to 18 players for the Olympics. Leading up to Paris 2024 this July, plenty of questions still remain regarding the right mix and integration of up-and-coming players with remaining veterans, how rapidly Hayes can make her mark, and if the USWNT can return to their once loftiest of lofty status. But on Sunday, those were worries for a different time.

In place of the heavy rain from Wednesday’s semifinal, the weekend’s championship was drenched in confetti and pyrotechnics behind the USWNT as they lifted the W Gold Cup title after their hard-fought victory. Sunglasses on and drinks poured — and with a $1 million prize as the tournament winners — the team then partied in the locker room with their 15th Concacaf title secured.

Beginning the competition with a somber apology from Horan, things did finish in a very different manner with one more apology of sorts from another high-profile USWNT figure during the championship festivities. Beer in hand, star striker Alex Morgan walked into the media’s mixed zone. “I could have brought extra, I didn’t know,” said Morgan.