A combined 9–0 scoreline masks the growing pains of a relatively young USWNT side.
By Laura Fay
Going into halftime of the USWNT’s friendly against New Zealand on January 17th, the overwhelming feeling was concern. Sure it was just the first 45 minutes of international competition of the year, but the U.S. looked lethargic, slow, and overall lacking the characteristic sense of urgency that had set them apart from competitors in the past. That all changed coming out of the break.
The newly subbed on Trinity Rodman led the attack. A pass-focused forward, Rodman’s precise cross found Mallory Swanson who headed it in to put the U.S. ahead 1–0, and they were off to the races. Three goals later, the USWNT had something to celebrate in their first match of the year. Still, it was clear the team needed to find a new gear for the rematch on Friday.
While Rose Lavelle and Lindsay Horan held down the midfield, coach Vlatko Andonovski has gone back and forth on who the third member of the midfield trio should be. On Tuesday that was Taylor Kornieck, earning her first international start in an unfamiliar defensive mid role. Kornieck did her best when put on the spot, but passes through the midfield only started connecting when Andi Sullivan came in for her at halftime.
“One of the biggest things is start out strong,” Rose Lavelle said to ESPN. “We had a slow start [on Wednesday]. I think when we come out strong and we play like that, I think it’s going to be harder [for opponents] to keep up, so I think that’s the biggest thing. When I think of what we did in 2019, I think a lot of it was we had a really strong start and we would score really early. I definitely think that’s an emphasis for us.”
During the 2019 World Cup, the USWNT scored before the 12th minute in every game except the final. And Lavelle, who scored in that final, was key to the U.S.’s quick start on Friday. One of the USWNT’s promising young talents during their 2019 run, the now 27-year-old Lavelle has taken on a new role as a stalwart veteran. She captained the team on Friday and proved her adaptability as Andonovski again played with the midfield lineup.
With Lindsay Horan omitted from the side to return to her club team, Lyon, Lavelle shifted back into the defensive midfielder role and operated deeper than she ever had for the national team. Playing in a double-pivot with Andi Sullivan, Lavelle orchestrated midfield traffic and picked out passes to the forward line and Ashley Sanchez, who started in Lavelle’s usual No. 10 role.
It was an instant improvement from Tuesday, and it showed in the scoreline. Sanchez started the play that led to Ashley Hatch’s goal in the 22nd minute before Sofia Huerta’s long ball bypassed the entire midfield to find Lavelle, who tucked it away for a 2–0 lead.
Lavelle made it a brace in the 79th minute, while goals from Swanson and Kornieck rounded out the 5–0 win. It is part of Lavelle’s brilliance that while playing deeper than ever, she was still directly involved in three scoring sequences.
There are other positives from the trip as well. Mal Swanson continued her red-hot form, having now scored in three straight matches. Swanson broke into the national team as a teenage sensation and played in the 2019 World Cup, but was dropped from the roster for last year’s Olympics. Now, having had a near MVP-caliber NWSL season, she looks to be in the best form of her life. She has linked up especially well with Trinity Rodman, and a young forward line of Swanson, Rodman, and Sophia Smith would strike fear into the hearts of any defense.
Also promising is Ashley Hatch, a 27-year-old forward looking to make her first international roster. Starting in place of Alex Morgan (out with lower leg tightness) on Friday, her opening goal highlighted the kind of midfield buildup play that the national team has been missing in recent months. The 2021 NWSL Golden Boot winner, Hatch has maximized her international minutes and consistently finds the space and finish to get on the scoreboard. While perhaps not Andonovski’s first choice forward, her efficiency in front of goal adds to the team’s depth.
Going forward, the national team’s focus will be finding their sharpest form early in the match. With some exceptions, the USWNT plays better when they meet an opponent for the second time. For example, their 2–1 win over Germany last fall came three days after a 2–1 loss. Those slow starts appear to have continued into 2023 with the lackluster first half to Tuesday’s game. While New Zealand was unable to punish the U.S. for it, Germany and other top teams can and will. To make a run at a third World Cup title, the USWNT need to come out of the gate sharper. They’ll have a chance to test their playbook against stronger competition at next month’s SheBelieves Cup.