USWNT crowned champions of CONCACAF despite growing pains

By Laken Litman
FOX Sports Soccer Writer

It was the final we all anticipated when the tournament started: a clash between the reigning World Cup champion United States and the reigning Olympic gold medalist Canada

On Monday, the U.S. Women’s National Team beat Canada 1-0 in the CONCACAF W Championship thanks to a late penalty kick by Alex Morgan. The USWNT not only avenged last summer’s crushing Olympic semifinal loss, in which Canada also won on a late penalty, but they have now automatically qualified for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

The U.S. came out with energy and quickly put pressure on Canada’s back line. Scoring opportunities came from all over — Morgan, Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith and Lindsey Horan all took quality shots that just didn’t go in. As has been the case the entire tournament, the U.S. struggled to finish. Canada, a worthy opponent, couldn’t finish either.

“Even though it didn’t seem as convincing, I thought there were moments of the game and certain situations in the game that showed improvements from Game 1,” coach Vlatko Andonovski said.

Despite the lack of goals, this was the USWNT’s best performance of the tournament by far. 

Here are three takeaways from the game.

U.S. clinches 2024 Olympics berth

First thing’s first: The U.S. had already qualified for the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand earlier in the tournament. And with its 1-0 win over Canada, it also clinched a spot in the 2024 Paris Olympics. Jamaica, who beat Costa Rica to finish in third place, and Canada will play in a two-leg playoff in September 2023 to earn the region’s second Olympic spot.

This was an important win for the USWNT. Canada has been a consistently worthy challenger on the international stage — they won the gold medal at the Tokyo Games last summer, beating Sweden in penalties after upsetting the U.S. in the semifinal match. The USWNT went home with bronze.

But if you thought this game was all about revenge, Andonovski explained that was not really the case.

“We didn’t really look at this game as a revenge game because if you look at the roster, I mean 60% of the roster is different,” he said. “They didn’t really feel the loss from the Olympics. But for us, it’s a win. We love to win, but we hate to lose more so that’s why we are celebrating this moment. 

“We think this is just the beginning of what we are going to see in the next nine to 12 months. And I was just reminded a minute go, that I totally forgot about, was that we qualified for the Olympics. Obviously the World Cup is our focus. Since the moment we qualified, we’ve talked about what it takes to prepare for a World Cup, and we don’t want to look past that, but now we know that we are going to the Olympics.”

Still not World Cup ready

Despite winning this tournament, the USWNT is not World Cup ready and Andonovski knows that.

“I have to say, if you ask me if we’re ready to go into the World Cup, into a competitive World Cup tomorrow, we’re probably not ready for it,” Andonovski said last week. “But are we going to be ready in a year? Absolutely. I’m very happy with the development of the team and the development of the individuals on the team, as well. I think that we’re doing a good job and we’re moving in the right direction.”

The U.S. is still in that tinkering phase as Andonovski figures out the right combinations. Monday night was his fifth different lineup in five games. 

It’s important to remember that this is a newer group of players – Morgan and Megan Rapinoe returned to the national team in June for the first time since last October. And there are new faces all over the field, like Smith and Pugh up top and Emily Fox and Sofia Huerta on the back line. 

“The team is significantly younger than the previous time we played Canada, and they came with pretty much the same team from the Olympics,,” Andonovski said. “We changed five players in the starting lineup. Players that are going to be here for at least three, maybe four World Cups, so, get used to it.”

It takes time for a team to gel, build camaraderie, and get comfortable playing with each other. The starting lineup in the final averaged 28 years old with 77 caps. Just three players – Morgan, Horan and Becky Sauerbrunn — had more than 100 caps. Three others — Huerta, Fox and Alana Cook — came into the game with fewer than 20.

On top of that, there are so many players who aren’t on this roster right now  – Crystal Dunn recently had a baby and Julie Ertz is pregnant; Tierna Davidson, Catarina Macario and Christen Press tore their ACLs; Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis and Lynn Williams are recovering from various injuries. 

There’s a lot of talent and the U.S. is capable of making history as the first time to ever win three consecutive World Cup titles. Big picture, this tournament gave Andonovski an opportunity to evaluate what he has and what he still needs as he builds his roster for next summer.

The USWNT is a work in progress. And that’s OK. At least for now.

Morgan wasn’t missing

The U.S. could have and should have scored about five or six goals. But the theme of the tournament seemed to be its inability to finish. 

It wasn’t until the 78th minute when Morgan delivered the biggest moment of the game, nailing a penalty kick past Kailen Sheridan, to give the U.S. a 1-0 lead. It was the only goal Sheridan, who happens to also be Morgan’s San Diego Wave teammate, gave up all tournament.

After Rose Lavelle was fouled in the box, it looked like Horan was going to take the kick. Then Morgan stepped in and took the ball, which was a gutsy move considering the familiarity between her and Sheridan. 

Morgan and Andonovski admitted after the game this was planned and that she was actually the designated penalty taker for the tournament. 

“Alex is a big player and big players are born for big moments,” Andonovski said. “That’s what makes her special.”

As she prepared to take the kick, Morgan was locked in.

This moment – and tournament as a whole – was huge for Morgan. She’s in top form and leads the NWSL with 10 goals in 11 games. But up until this roster was announced in June, she hadn’t been called into the national team since last October. 

Morgan is arguably sharper and more dangerous than ever. Defenders have always had to be fully aware of her presence on the field, but it’s even more intense now as she’s become a smarter player. Morgan is always drawing attention and can either pass the ball off to Pugh or Smith, or finish it off herself. All with her two-year-old daughter watching.

Morgan had been on the field last summer when Canada beat the U.S. in the Olympics, so this was personal. It was huge for her to score and clinch the win this time.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously covered college football, college basketball, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team and the Olympics at Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. Her first book, written in partnership with Rizzoli and Sports Illustrated and titled “Strong Like a Woman,” was published in spring 2022 marking the 50th anniversary of Title IX.

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