USWNT player pool lacks creativity, problem-solving skills

The U.S. women’s national soccer team’s 2-0 loss to Mexico on Monday felt all too familiar. 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.

Monday’s loss to Mexico felt a lot like that World Cup group stage finale on Aug. 1 against Portugal, half a world away in Auckland, New Zealand. As a faulty fire alarm caused mild panic and confusion in the stands that day, the Americans slogged through a scoreless draw with Portugal that laid bare all the immediate dangers that their preparations had portended. The U.S. ultimately needed the help of the post in second-half stoppage time to avoid a group stage exit that day.

The stakes were much lower for the USWNT on Monday, with their place in the Concacaf W Gold Cup knockout stage already booked, but the performance against Mexico was equally concerning. Here was the return of a U.S. team that, challenged with a strong tactical plan executed by technically gifted players, could not solve pressure in real time.

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It was a familiar U.S. team, too — eight of the 11 starters against Mexico took part in the 2023 World Cup, with most of them earning significant minutes. The Americans’ tactical shape also generally mirrored the 4-3-3 formation seen last year (with plenty of nuanced tweaks), temporarily turning away from the aggressive three-back system that Kilgore recently explored with a new group of young players.

Mexico looked and sounded a lot like Portugal on Monday. El Tri players knew they would need to put in their best performance and never entertained the idea of losing, according to Mexico coach Pedro Lopez. He sounded like Portugal coach Francisco Neto seven months earlier, only Lopez could delight in a mission accomplished rather than the heartbreak of narrow elimination from the World Cup group stage.

Before the game, Lopez described a hungry Mexico team as a “wolf in sheep’s clothing.” By “jumping out of their shape,” as Kilgore described it, Mexico made the U.S. look like the sheepish underdog. After his side won, Lopez concluded: “We have seen that wolf.”

Mexico’s forward line of María Sánchez, Kiana Palacios and Lizbeth Ovalle forced sloppy, hurried passes out of an experienced U.S. back line — three of the four starting defenders were also starters in the same positions when the USWNT won the 2019 World Cup. With no buildup play on the ground or through midfield, the Americans played long, and Mexico made nearly twice as many interceptions while also matching the Americans in duels won, per TruMedia.

“I think the game is about moments,” Kilgore said. “And if we look at those moments where if you take [Mexico’s first] goal for example, it’s a microcosm for the game because a team [scored] from a defensive goal kick for us, which is something that we generally pride ourselves on, and we didn’t win the first ball, didn’t win the second ball and then didn’t execute.”

What is important from a U.S. perspective is that this is no longer about Mexico or Portugal, specifically. It is not about a scoreless draw with the Czech Republic two years ago, or a miserable three-game losing streak at the hands of England, Spain and Germany to end 2022. The trend is now clear: The USWNT’s problems are deeper-rooted than any individual opponent and are an indictment of an American player pool lacking creativity and problem-solving skills, just as the failures of the World Cup exposed.

Monday marked Mexico’s second time beating the USWNT in 43 all-time meetings, the type of numbers that bring about the cliché narrative that the world is catching up. Yet such a view is outdated; the world caught up a long time ago.

Just look at the grueling path the USWNT took to win the 2019 World Cup, when the other seven quarterfinalists hailed from Europe. Four years later, Spain won its first World Cup while the U.S. went home just as the knockout stage began after pedestrian performances over four games. In the time between 2019 and 2023, the USWNT regressed by way of standing still, grinding out an unconvincing bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

After the Olympics in 2021, then-coach Vlatko Andonovski attempted a roster overhaul plagued by injuries and won Concacaf’s qualifying tournament for the World Cup and Olympics. A solid victory over Canada in the final papered over obvious concerns from earlier in that tournament, including a young, athletic Haiti team that made the U.S. back line look stuck in quicksand. The difference between Haiti on that night — or Argentina last Friday — and Mexico on Monday is that El Tri struck first and didn’t give the U.S. a window to punch back.



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This U.S. team badly needs a new direction and a reassessment of how the squad should be constructed — as such, the planned arrival of incoming manager Emma Hayes cannot come soon enough. Judging by Monday’s performance, it seems unlikely that Hayes alone can overhaul this U.S. team in time to win an Olympic gold medal. The U.S. women remain in an identity crisis, stuck between a mere renovation and a complete teardown.

The group stage of this Concacaf W Gold Cup was a good time to find out what could work, and indeed, the fluid formations that made teenagers the focal point in the opening two games achieved that — to a degree. Personnel changes against Mexico were in part influenced by a three-day turnaround between group stage games — Kilgore said she wanted to see how players handled the cadence of a tournament that mimics the Olympics schedule. But reverting to old habits against Mexico was a step backward, only highlighting the work ahead.

Kilgore was correct in her postgame analysis that there are “no easy games” anymore and the Mexican team, with its individual talent and guidance from Lopez, is no pushover. El Tri‘s capacity to defeat the U.S. is a testament to how competitive the global game is now.

Hayes was hired with the USWNT’s long-term future in mind. Neither she nor U.S. Soccer would publicly admit it, but her agreed-upon late-May arrival only works if the federation isn’t prioritizing the short term of the Olympics as much as the long term of the 2027 World Cup. Fixing everything in time for this summer’s Olympics — in the amount of time Hayes will have — is probably an order too tall even for one of the best coaches in the world, and U.S. Soccer surely knows that.

Hayes brings the right mix of deep familiarity with the U.S. player pool — and, as her recent comments before being hired suggest, a deep awareness of its shortcomings. The Americans need a no-nonsense outsider who will come in and rip up the playbook of long-standing conventional wisdom.

Signs of the latter have been there even before Hayes’ actual arrival. Prior to Monday, there was renewed optimism about this U.S. youth movement, and that should not be forgotten because of the loss to Mexico. Olivia Moultrie, the 18-year-old midfielder, looked ready for more responsibility in her two-goal performance against Dominican Republic, and 19-year-old Jaedyn Shaw met the moment again, as she has so many times already in the National Women’s Soccer League, with a brace and dazzling performance against Argentina.

Hayes’ thirst for creative solutions should lead to plans that revolve around Shaw, among others. Catarina Macario, who Hayes knows well from recruiting her to Chelsea, is finally nearing her return after two years on the sideline recovering from a torn ACL. Macario was supposed to be the new attacking focal point for the USWNT before her injury in 2022. Mallory Swanson looked like one of the best forwards in the world before her knee injury last year, and she too could soon return to the field.

One of the more immediate conundrums that needs to be solved by Hayes and Kilgore is the dichotomy between the individual talent in this U.S. player pool and its flat performances as a collective. Monday’s USWNT lineup didn’t lack individual quality, nor did any lineup rolled out at the 2023 World Cup, but the USWNT squad has repeatedly looked less than the sum of its parts.

Just as we saw at the World Cup, the USWNT on Monday looked like a team where talented individuals had little to no connection with each other. The forward line led by Sophia Smith in the No. 9 role, flanked by Trinity Rodman and Lynn Williams, played in siloes. In midfield, Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan either occupied redundant space or were effectively cut off from the flow of play by Mexico, which took the unconventional approach of having center-back Rebeca Bernal floating forward like a false No. 6 to jam up passing lanes.

How is it that such supremely talented individuals, who have proven their abilities in arguably the best league in the world, the NWSL, cannot seem to find a modicum of chemistry in high-pressure international settings? Coaching is not the whole answer. Andonovski took much of the heat for the USWNT’s poor 2023 — he deserved his share of the blame for sticking with what wasn’t working for too long, but players offered no solutions to the problems in front of them within games. Even the best tactical plan or personnel changes would have failed at the World Cup based on the USWNT pool’s inability to solve complex pressure.

That lack of creativity Hayes has lamented, and the lack of chemistry so clearly on display, have come back to bite the USWNT too frequently in recent years.

Monday’s stumble against Mexico means the U.S. will face Colombia in the Gold Cup quarterfinals, which will see teams uniquely reseeded based on their points accumulated (and tiebreakers) rather than predetermined matchups based on group finishes. Among the 12 teams at the Gold Cup, Colombia secured the best finish at the 2023 World Cup with a quarterfinal appearance. The South American guest team at this tournament profiles similarly to Mexico in that it has the tactical nous to control the game and individual flair to capitalize on key moments.

Until Monday, the U.S. women had not lost a game in a Concacaf competition in over 13 years, another shocking loss to Mexico at World Cup qualifying in Cancun in 2010. That defeat 14 years ago in the semifinals of the competition represents the only time the American women have not won an official Concacaf competition in which they have competed, 15 in total. Now, they are staring at a possible quarterfinal exit on home soil if they can’t produce a vastly better performance than they did on Monday.

If that happens, it will set off further alarms, but much like that August night in Auckland, the Americans have tried to play through those warnings for a long time. Rebounding to win this tournament would restore a crumb of confidence, but more important is that they show some chemistry and direction. Finding those qualities has been a stop-start process over recent months, one that requires more patience than the fan base might have after decades of unprecedented success.

Change is hard, but at some point soon, it must feel like the U.S. team is truly moving forward.