Youthful USWNT bounce back to impose themselves on Colombia

Youthful USWNT bounce back to impose themselves on Colombia

LOS ANGELES — As the rain dissipated into an idyllic sunset sky at BMO Stadium on Sunday, so too did a storm that has been surrounding the U.S. women’s national team.

Days after falling to rivals Mexico for just the second time in a historic 2-0 loss in the group stage of the Concacaf W Gold Cup — and with an underwhelming round-of-16 finish in the 2023 Women’s World Cup still fresh in mind — a more youthful and aggressive U.S. XI began to steer their ship in the right direction during the weekend’s quarterfinal vs. Colombia. Hoping to avoid another disaster, goals from Lindsey Horan, Jenna Nighswonger and Jaedyn Shaw guided the USWNT to a much-needed 3-0 victory.

The win was claimed thanks to a more direct approach, excellent pressure and, notably, dialling down the number of seasoned players on the pitch. Utilizing an XI with five players aged 23 or under (the XI vs. Mexico only had two), the U.S. seemed to find the right balance of players who were able to thrive in a scrappy game against the World Cup quarterfinalists.

“We knew it would be a big physical battle,” Twila Kilgore, interim coach of the USWNT, said afterwards. “I thought we did a really good job of dealing with the physicality, matching physicality and imposing ourselves, but also being very mindful.”

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Featuring crunching tackles, shoves, and plenty of the dark arts between both sides, seven yellow cards were shown in the game that shockingly didn’t have a single red. But amid the chaos, it was the next generation of key USWNT figures that helped build momentum and make a case for themselves in front of a boisterous 16,746 fans in Los Angeles.

Shaw, 19, made an impact in only her third start at the senior international level. Pressing the opposition from the left wing, the San Diego Wave forward was a menace for Colombia’s backline throughout the game, and was rewarded with a goal in the 47th minute. According to U.S. Soccer, Shaw has now joined Shannon Boxx as “the only players in USWNT history to score in each of her first three starts.” Not bad.

On the other side of the U.S. frontline, 21-year-old winger Trinity Rodman perfectly embodied the tenacity that was needed against Colombia. Although her opponents nearly pressed the right (or wrong) buttons that could have led to her landing a second yellow card, Rodman was always dangerous going forward and provided the assist for Shaw’s goal.

In midfield, 20-year-old Korbin Albert quietly flourished alongside Sam Coffey and, behind the two, the return of 23-year-old Naomi Girma into the defensive line highlighted just how much of a necessary presence she is in the XI.

Of all the youngsters though, the most impressive of the night was Nighswonger. After stating ahead of the W Gold Cup that the tournament “is a great opportunity to get in with the team and show myself,” the 23-year-old full-back and current NWSL Rookie of the Year has done exactly that in recent days.

Looking capable of playing as a goal-scoring winger if needed, the NWSL champion had no trouble finding the back of the net in the 22nd minute. And, active in both defense and attack, she earned praise from Kilgore after the match.

“We’re really, really pleased with Jenna. She fulfilled different roles and responsibilities today than we’ve asked of her in the past. We asked her to get higher up the field, and actually, the goal she scored is indicative of that,” Kilgore said. “She just has a really good ability to read the game and play simply, and obviously it doesn’t hurt to have a left foot. She’s capable of playing multiple positions. I would expect at some point in her career that she’ll play multiple positions for us.”

With players like Nighswonger willing to go forward, it also helped keep some of the scrappiness of the game away from the USWNT’s half of the pitch. While the crowd roared and jeered when calls were made during those battles, and also when some confusingly weren’t, the USWNT made progress by forcing more of the refereeing decisions in Colombia’s end of the field.

“I think we always have bite, but I think tonight part of the key was to play in their third because anytime it’s this physical … you don’t want to put a referee in a situation where they’re asked to potentially make those calls closer to your goal,” Kilgore said. “That was a big identifying factor for us today and part of that is being on the front foot defensively and locking them into an area where you hope to win the ball.”

The USWNT youngsters did well, but navigating through the growing storm required the knowhow and talent of well-experienced figures like goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and marquee striker Alex Morgan too.

Naeher, on her 100th appearance, was selected as Player of the Match and, despite only making three saves, two of them were game-changing moments that denied Colombia an opportunity to fight back.

Meanwhile, up front, the 34-year-old Morgan highlighted how she can remain in the roster conversation despite initially being left out at the start of the tournament. In the first half, she not only won the early penalty that Horan scored, but also dished out a clever assist for Nighswonger’s goal. Like many others on the team, she also didn’t back down when confronted by Colombia’s players.

But as the USWNT head south to San Diego for Wednesday’s W Gold Cup semifinal against Canada and a possibly final against either Brazil or Mexico, there are still some concerns. As impressive as Sunday’s win was and as important as it is to note that solutions are available, it doesn’t fix a team that are still in an era of transition under Kilgore.

While it’s exciting for the fanbase to know that a successful manager like Chelsea’s Emma Hayes will take over as permanent coach after the end of the Women’s Super League season, the reality is that everything will remain in flux until then. The squad had warning signs well ahead of their loss to Mexico and while defeating Colombia is a step back on track, the four-time World Cup champions must make greater leaps in the coming weeks.

The USWNT have never failed to win a Concacaf tournament they’ve participated in and, seeking to gain confidence as they prepare for the 2024 Olympics this summer, anything short of a title this month will be seen as a letdown for a program that aspires to be constant champions. Will those youthful foundations be built upon through the rest of this W Gold Cup? Or will Canada —who have yet to concede a goal in the tournament — throw them off course again?

“Canada is another country that’s close to us, we’ve played many times,” Kilgore said. “We’re looking forward to that and I think the keys will be a little bit of a mix of what we saw tonight in terms of being on the front foot, making sure that we are making it uncomfortable [for them].”

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