The U.S. women's national team won the 2023 SheBelieves Cup with an unblemished record, and before we get to the caveats and concerns and reasons for World Cup worry, that's worth appreciating.
The USWNT welcomed continental giants to American shores for the four-team tournament, its truest 2023 World Cup tuneup.
It played 270 minutes against Canada, the Olympic champ; Brazil, the South American champ; and Japan. It didn't concede a goal until the 270th of those minutes.
It completed a trifecta of wins with a 2-1 triumph over Brazil on Wednesday night. Alex Morgan's late-first-half curler was the breakthrough. Mallory Swanson's second-half side-footer — her seventh goal in five games this year — was the clincher.
— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) February 23, 2023
The USWNT did all of this without really getting out of second gear, and so, in the moment, it looked vulnerable; unimpressive; unrefined and anything but fearsome. Its performances against Japan and Brazil spoke to defects and shortcomings, and validated fears that its title defense this summer will end in failure.
But all of that is a subjective interpretation. Another subjective interpretation is this: The mere fact that the U.S. can dispatch three World Cup contenders while in second gear is a reminder of its might, and of its potential.
It struggled for control in the latter two games, but won them because it has Swanson, and Morgan, and Lindsey Horan, and Rose Lavelle — and no opponent ever will. Soccer can be simple sometimes. Each match is a complex equation with millions of variables, movements and decisions, but results often depend on moments and individuals.
"The difference between being a good team and a great team," former U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart recently told Yahoo Sports, "is having individuals that can change a game in a short moment.”
He was talking about the men's national team, which doesn't yet have those individuals; the USWNT undoubtedly does.
The worry is that, more so than ever before, European teams like England, France and Germany do too. They used to travel here for the SheBelieves Cup, which is why it became an annual measuring stick. But the USWNT's stiffest test as it builds toward the 2023 World Cup actually came last fall, when it played friendlies against England, Spain and Germany (twice) — and lost three of four.
So yes, the concerns are valid. The U.S., for most of its 270 SheBelieves minutes, looked troublingly ordinary. On Wednesday, head coach Vlatko Andonovski rolled out his likely World Cup starting 11, minus Sophia Smith — Alyssa Naeher; Emily Fox, Naomi Girma, Becky Sauerbrunn, Crystal Dunn; Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle; Mallory Swanson, Alex Morgan and Trinity Rodman — and still, his team looked unremarkable.
After two more training camps — one in April, one in June-July — that team will head to New Zealand as a contender. Some bookmakers might even call the Americans favorites. They will arrive with pedigree and a ruthless mentality that has persevered across generations. They will venture into the World Cup with the ability to win games they don't dominate, to ride individual brilliance, just as they did this month.
But they are, clearly, not the all-powerful force they once were.