USWNT looked like its former self in brave win over Japan

It took 31 seconds for Saturday’s 2024 SheBelieves Cup opener in Atlanta to look like it could become a complete disaster for the U.S women’s national team.

The U.S. back line was caught high, near midfield, and Japan midfielder Kiko Seike flew down her team’s right side, in behind, and neatly tucked the ball inside the far post to score. The USWNT had not conceded that early in a match in 21 years.

Then, however, the rest of the match played out as if that opening sequence from Japan never happened. The USWNT stuck with its game plan, holding a high line, and applying relentless high pressure to disrupt Japan’s desire to play short passes out of pressure.

It eventually paid off with an equalizer from Jaedyn Shaw 20 minutes later, and the U.S. continued to dictate play in the second half before Lindsey Horan‘s penalty kick delivered a 2-1 victory for the Americans.

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More than anything, the USWNT’s performance marked the type of confidence of a world power that dictates games rather than a team that reacts to opponents — the type of swagger the Americans leveraged into World Cup titles in 2015 and 2019 but consistently lacked in recent years.

Even with impending head coach Emma Hayes still watching from afar, this was the type of risk-reward tradeoff that is the trademark of a bold Hayes team. This was a window into what the U.S. hopes is a more fruitful future.

“We’re always looking to be on the front foot,” USWNT interim coach Twila Kilgore said. “Yes, there’s times we sit in a block, but part of our DNA is to be on the front foot and make sure that we’re dictating play and influencing how other teams play, and making it difficult to play against us.”

Jenna Nighswonger is the archetypal Hayes defender, a converted full-back who can play in this kind of high-and-wide role or, as she has been utilized in some of her previous six caps, as a more aggressive third center-back in a three-back system. On Saturday, Nighswonger was also a microcosm of the dichotomy at play in this system.

She was caught high on the USWNT’s left side when Japan scored early, and Japan targeted the space behind the left full-back in several other transition moments early in the match. Nighswonger, however, was pushed high by design to get involved in the attack, and the U.S. was rewarded frequently as she combined with forward Mallory Swanson, each of them serving dangerous crosses into the box.

Nighswonger remained high up the pitch for large stretches as the U.S. sat four or five players on Japan’s back line and pressed into the opponent’s penalty area. The approach meant playing most of the game in Japan’s defensive half, but it also left the U.S. back line, — which had to make an early change in the 18th minute when Abby Dahlkemper came on for an injured Naomi Girma — in potentially compromised positions, and high up the field.

The U.S. frequently moved almost all 10 field players into Japan’s defensive half, which left space behind over the top.

“It’s something that we go through in what we call our what-if scenarios,” Kilgore said of the risk-reward balance. “We have triggers that we follow that give us a clue. I’m not gonna tell you what those are. And we also have what-if scenarios if this is happening… or where we need to regroup. What would we do? And that gives us a gauge of where we want to be on the on the pitch when we’re defending.”

Swanson’s return to the team, and Japan’s typical reluctance to play long, made for the perfect scenario to take these risks.

Swanson was electric in her first U.S. game in a year following a torn left patella tendon last April. A goal-line clearance early in the game denied Swanson a of a tally in her return, but her ability to interchange with Nighswonger on the left flank, and with striker Alex Morgan and Shaw in the No. 10 role, made the U.S. more unpredictable and dynamic in attack.

Swanson is a winger who likes to invert, while Shaw is best utilized as a No. 10 who has the freedom to drift wide. The tendencies of the two players allowed for seamless interchangeability both in the attack and defensively, something Kilgore praised after the match and identified as a strategic goal of the game plan.

The USWNT’s ability to press a talented, technical Japan team into repeated mistakes on Saturday was impressive. As Japan coach Futoshi Ikeda said via a translator after the match, his team needed a “Plan B or Plan C to go around U.S. women’s national team high press” and was too “passive” in response.

Even more impressive from the Americans was their ability to forget that the first minute of the match happened. Kilgore half-joked that, when the U.S. conceded the opener, there wasn’t even enough time to know if the game plan wasn’t working. Perhaps that was for the better. The U.S. stuck with its approach, and it worked wonders.

Remove that early blemish, and the hosts largely dominated Japan in a performance more reminiscent of the 2019 World Cup triumph than of the toothless display at last year’s tournament.

Progress was palpable in Saturday’s U.S. victory, not just from the recent 2-0 loss to Mexico — from which the U.S. recovered from to win the Concacaf W Gold Cup last month — but from last year’s SheBelieves Cup meeting with Japan, when the visitors dominated a disjointed USWNT team, but the U.S. won, 1-0 behind Swanson’s individual brilliance. That lack of chemistry foreshadowed the USWNT’s poor 2023 World Cup, especially with Swanson out injured and unable to save them.

Saturday’s performance was entirely different. Swanson was back not to play the role of savior, but to create dangerous combinations with a new group of players than the one she last played with a year ago.

On Saturday, the U.S. looked more like the U.S. of old, a team relentless in its pressing ways and unshaken by the odd mistake, a team capable of dominating a world-class opponent. Not every game will look that way in this evolving landscape of improving opponents, but it was another step in the right direction ahead of Hayes’ formal arrival next month.

On Saturday, the risk was worth the reward.