With a new teen star and high-octane press, the USWNT is fun again

With a new teen star and high-octane press, the USWNT is fun again

The four-decade history of the U.S. women's national team is bursting with splendid talent and legends of the game. It's full of brilliant attackers and ruthless finishers. It's Mia Hamm and Michelle Akers; Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd. It's Hall of Famers, soccer royalty and household names — none of whom ever did what 19-year-old Jaedyn Shaw accomplished Saturday.

Shaw, in a 2-1 U.S. win over Japan, became the first player to score in each of her first five USWNT starts.

And she is a central reason that, after years of insipidity, the USWNT is fun again.

She was the star of Saturday's SheBelieves Cup semifinal in Atlanta, the fan-selected Woman of the Match. She ignited a crowd of 50,644, the largest for a USWNT match on home soil since the 1999 World Cup final (90,185), with her goal in the 21st minute.

But she was far from the only one.

Mallory Swanson, back from the patellar tendon tear that sidelined her for almost a year, played with energy and trademark verve.

Sam Coffey created Shaw's goal by charging into the attacking third and winning a duel — as she did all afternoon, and as she had in last month's W Gold Cup final.

None of those three were Down Under for the 2023 World Cup, which, by all accounts, was a mostly joyless experience as pressure seemed to paralyze the USWNT. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski's tactics hampered and discombobulated them. The result was stale, stagnant, uninspiring soccer — and the earliest World Cup exit in program history.

The aftermath brought change. Andonovski resigned. Veterans retired. Newcomers arrived. The roster evolved. And the first few months of evolution were occasionally painful. A dull draw in October reinforced pessimism. A 2-0 loss to Mexico in February felt like disheartening evidence of a new normal.

It led, though, to Saturday, to perhaps the best all-around USWNT performance since 2021.

Even a Japan goal in the very first minute couldn't muffle a high-octane show.

It was a stark departure from last year's SheBelieves Cup. The USWNT beat Japan on a brisk February 2023 afternoon, but its sloppiness and slowness that day were ominous — and proved prophetic. Andonovski's U.S. looked hopeless trying to play through Japan's smart and aggressive press, just as they did for the better part of two years, from the 2021 Olympics through their World Cup ouster.

Saturday's first half was quite the contrast. The U.S. press, which had been so "out of sync" at the World Cup, was suffocating. Led by Alex Morgan, fortified by Shaw and Swanson and Coffey and Trinity Rodman, it turned the world's second-best possession team into a turnover machine.

Time and time again, those U.S. forwards won the ball high up the field. Their aggression slowed Japan, and led to flurries of chances.

In the 15th minute, for example, with Japan scrambling in offense-to-defense transition, Morgan picked out a square pass to Lindsey Horan, who slotted a tidy ball to Swanson, who nearly scored.

The U.S. was also better on the ball, as a cohesive and coordinated unit, than it had been in the recent past. It built with a 3-2 base; right back Emily Fox tucked in with the two center backs; Horan and Coffey operated in a double pivot. Left back Jenna Nighswonger pushed high to join the attackers, and set up Rodman for an early chance after defender Tierna Davidson had calmly broken Japan's initial line of confrontation.

Possession percentages were close to even. But the USWNT spent the vast majority of the game, and especially the first half, in Japanese territory. It out-shot Japan 18-6 — a reversal of last year's 5-15 margin. This was domination — of a team that, prior to the World Cup quarterfinals, was the most impressive of any last summer in Australia and New Zealand.

The only American shortcomings came in and around the penalty box. But Shaw solved those by stinging a 20-yard effort past a helpless goalkeeper.

She has spent most of her blossoming USWNT career playing out wide, and tucking inside from a starting position on the right or left wing. On Saturday, interim coach Twila Kilgore deployed her as a modern No. 10. The goal, Kilgore said, was to "allow [Shaw] to do her thing" — which is everything. It's vision and technique, speed and agility, instincts and creativity.

"I think she did an exceptional job," Kilgore said. "Not only did she score a brilliant goal, and not only was she part of a lot of very effective buildup, but she did a great job defensively."

Jaedyn Shaw (L) scored the USWNT’s first goal of the 2024 SheBelieves Cup. Sam Coffey (R) created it. (Photo by Andrea Vilchez/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

She contributed as much as anyone to the ferocious U.S. press. It eased a bit when Emily Sonnett replaced her after 62 minutes, and again when Sam Coffey exited 10 minutes later. (Coffey, according to Kilgore, "is being evaluated for a head injury.")

At that point, the game was still level at 1-1, but the U.S. attacks kept flowing because attacking weapons kept appearing. Sophia Smith entered off the bench, split two defenders, and won a penalty. Horan converted.

The U.S. held on for a narrow victory, but it was the joy with which they played, and the vibrancy they conveyed, that was most refreshing.

"Part of our DNA is to be on the front foot, and making sure we’re dictating play," Kilgore said. For so long, month after month, ever since the 2021 Olympics, they didn't do that. On Saturday, against their most formidable opponent yet under Kilgore, they finally did.


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