Treated like a tournament group stage, the United States women's national team maneuvered through the 2023 SheBelieves Cup with little issue. They were better at the finish than the start, coach Vlatko Andonovski played lots of players (22 saw the field, with 19 of them playing at least 45 minutes), and the U.S. went a perfect 3-0-0, beating three teams in the top 11 of the FIFA rankings. As far as preparation goes for the real group stage -- that of this summer's Women's World Cup -- this was pretty good.
Held to the exacting standards of this team's history, though, there were still plenty of flaws and question marks. The world is getting better at women's soccer, and the U.S. isn't dominating as much as it did only a few short years ago. Here are some takeaways from SheBelieves 2023 and where things stand heading toward this summer's big tournament.
MVP: Mallory Swanson
It's so hard for Next Big Things to not only live up to hype, but to exceed it. Mina Kimes profiled Mallory Swanson (formerly Mallory Pugh) for ESPN the Magazine before the 2019 World Cup, when she had already racked up over 50 caps for the U.S. before her 21st birthday. She played sparingly then -- 118 minutes, primarily in group stage mop-up duty -- and produced a goal and an assist, but simply having broken into a loaded attacking rotation at such a young age was a sign that heavier expectations were on the way. And damned if she hasn't met the moment.
Following a three-match, four-goal performance at the SheBelieves Cup, Swanson's up to eight goals (with 14 chances created for teammates, no less) in her past six matches in a national team shirt. She's up to 87 caps and 32 goals (14 since the start of 2022) and she still won't turn 25 until April.
Perhaps the most impressive thing about her showing in this tournament? Each of her four goals was completely different. In the 2-0 win over Canada, she scored with a pinpoint strike in a crowded box, then put the match away by pouncing on a poor pass in buildup play. In the 2-1 finale against Brazil, she put away a transition goal from a tough angle on the right. In between, in by far the toughest match of the bunch against Japan, she assured victory with an old-school, one-woman breakaway in counterattack.
Swanson does whatever the moment requires, and for as good as she clearly already was, her improvement of late has been startling. Some stats:
2021 NWSL season: 25 matches, five goals, four assists (50 chances), 3.1 shots per 90 minutes, 0.54 xG+xA per 90 minutes
Feb. 2020 to Feb. 2022 for USWNT: 8 matches, three goals, five assists (24 chances), 2.8 shots per 90 minutes, 0.88 xG+xA per 90 minutes
2022 NWSL season: 17 matches, 11 goals, six assists (38 chances), 4.3 shots per 90 minutes, 0.82 xG+xA per 90 minutes
Last year for USWNT: 18 matches, 13 goals, seven assists (49 chances), 3.6 shots per 90 minutes, 1.16 xG+xA per 90 minutes
England's Lauren James is starting to do scary things for both Chelsea and her national team. Bunny Shaw, of both Jamaica and Manchester City, has been the best attacker in the Women's Super League this season. Players like Wolfsburg's Ewa Pajor and Barcelona's Mariona Aldentey are lighting up the Women's Champions League too, but you can make a pretty solid case that Swanson is the best and most in-form attacker in the world at the moment.
That's a good thing to have when you're heading toward the biggest tournament in the world.
The U.S. won with finishing
This was a good week for the U.S. if only because they beat a series of good teams. That had become more difficult for them of late. Canada, Japan and Brazil all rank among the top 11 (top 10, not including the U.S.) in FIFA's world rankings, and the U.S. went three-for-three; over their previous five matches against such teams, they had won twice (against Canada and Germany) and lost three times (to England, Spain and Germany). Wins of any kind can be cleansing, and the U.S. needed a confidence boost of sorts.
Really, the only primary difference between the Americans' performance over the past couple of weeks and that of 2022 was that they finished their chances. They didn't create as many overall, however.
U.S. attack, last year vs. top 10 teams: 1.0 goals per match, 1.6 xG per match, 0.14 shots per possession, 0.12 xG per shot
U.S. attack, 2023 SheBelieves Cup: 1.7 goals per match, 1.6 xG per match, 0.13 shots per possession, 0.12 xG per shot
The underlying basics were almost identical. But their shots went in this time. And by "their," I mean "Swanson's."
Swanson: 4 goals from seven shots worth 1.8 xG
Everyone else: 1 goal from 31 shots worth 2.9 xG 1 goal from 31 shots worth 2.9 xG
In their four matches against England, Spain and Germany last fall, the U.S. scored just four goals from 53 shots worth 5.1 xG. Sophia Smith was the silver bullet then -- she scored two goals from shots worth just 0.6 xG -- but the rest of the team, including Swanson to a degree (1.6 xG, 1 goal), just couldn't get the ball in the net.
Finishing was an issue in those matches, but pure shot quality was, too. While the overall xG-per-shot averages were decent, only eight of 53 shots in those four fall matches (15%) were worth even 0.15 xG. In the SheBelieves Cup, 11 of 38 shots (29%) were at 0.15 xG or higher. They scored on their three best opportunities of the tournament (all from Swanson), then nabbed two goals from lesser opportunities.
There are lots of ways to average 0.12 xG per shot, but particularly big chances matter, and the U.S. won this tournament by creating the most of them.
Shots worth at least 0.15 xG, SheBelieves Cup:
United States: 11 attempted, two allowed (+9)
Japan: 10 attempted, five allowed (+5)
Brazil: six attempted, 11 allowed (-5)
Canada: four attempted, 13 allowed (-9)
Less brute force, more modernity ... less success?
There was an extremely telling passage in the ESPN the Magazine piece on Swanson above:
"What you're seeing across Europe is that the federations are pouring resources into the women's game," [former USWNT coach Anson] Dorrance says. "It's putting these countries on much better footing, because the advantage they've always had is soccer marinates their entire culture."
[Swanson] agrees. "The rest of the world is catching up," she says. She was impressed earlier this year, she adds, when the USWNT played Spain, a team that has never advanced out of the group stage in the World Cup but has recently dominated at the youth levels. Across Europe, clubs like Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain are pouring money into their women's organizations, which nurture the young players who will eventually compete on national squads.
That was written four years ago, and the world has indeed begun to catch up. Barcelona's technical dominance in recent Champions Leagues has been revelatory, the level of quality in last summer's Women's Euros was obvious, and that impression was backed up when three of the best teams from that tournament, including Spain, turned around and beat the U.S. last fall.
Even as recently as the 2019 World Cup, the U.S. was able to win with pure brute force as much as anything. Comparing some of their raw averages from that World Cup (minus the 13-0 win over Thailand, which skewed all averages) to what they produced at the SheBelieves Cup this month is a pretty telling exercise.
At the SheBelieves Cup, the USWNT had...
- More touches per match (699.7 to 636.3)
- More pass attempts (495.0 to 433.8) and a higher completion percentage (82% to 76%)
- More sequences per match with 9 or more passes (13.7 to 10.5), fewer sequences with 0-2 passes (89.7 to 109.7), longer average possessions (22.4 seconds to 19.8) and more passes per possession (5.2 to 4.2)
- Lower direct speed* (1.30 to 1.56)
They also had...
- Fewer shot attempts (12.7 to 14.8), fewer shots on goal (5.0 to 6.2) and fewer touches in the attacking third (156.7 to 191.9)
- More shot attempts blocked (3.7 to 2.0)
- Far fewer aerial attempts in both the attacking third (3.3 to 8.5) and middle third (7.0 to 23.7)
- Fewer cross attempts (13.7 to 16.0)
- Fewer progressive carries (43.3 to 58.2)
- Far fewer possessions starting outside the defensive third (43.0 vs. 67.4)
*Direct speed: the average distance, in meters per second, that a team pushes the ball upfield in a given sequence.
Under Ellis, the U.S. used basic tactics -- vertical passing, aggressive dribbling, lots of crosses, lots of headers, lots of pressure (especially in the midfield) -- to maximize their physical superiority. It worked, obviously, but knowing that said physical and technical superiority will be diminishing moving forward as the rest of the world catches up, part of Andonovski's task in recent years has been to modernize American tactics to account for that.
Long term, that's probably a good thing. But in the short term, it's still a learning process, especially without attacking midfielder Catarina Macario, who's still working her way back from a 2022 ACL injury. And it was probably telling that, against a Japan side that was remarkably organized in possession and tilted the field well, the U.S. had to rely on a moment of old-school verticality (and two huge, late saves from goalkeeper Casey Murphy) to get the win.
Organization is the way forward, but the U.S. still has size and speed advantages over much of the World Cup field.
It's hard to make the case that the U.S. is the World Cup favorite at the moment
USWNT never got out of 2nd gear here and it's still looking pretty comfortable. Still wondering if and when we're ever going to see this team put in a performance like England did earlier today though.— Kim McCauley (@kimischilling) February 23, 2023
The current World Cup betting odds from Caesars Sportsbook suggests that there are five primary tournament favorites.
USA +260 (equivalent to a 28% chance)
England +350 (22%)
Germany +350 (22%)
Spain +600 (14%)
France +600 (14%)
Sweden is at +1000 (9%), and no one else is listed at +1800 (5%) or better. (Here's your reminder that the equivalent odds add up to greater than 100%. That's how sportsbooks make money.)
The books indeed list the U.S. as the favorites, but among those favorites, it's pretty clear who's been the best of the bunch of late.
Record vs. current FIFA top 10 over the last two years:
England: 5 matches, 15 points (3.0 per game), +11 goal differential (+2.2), +2.4 xG differential (+0.5)
Germany: 7 matches, 13 points (1.9), +3 GD (+0.4), -2.4 xGD (-0.3)
USA: 7 matches, 12 points (1.7), +1 GD (+0.1), +4.8 xGD (+0.7)
Sweden: 6 matches, 9 points (1.5), +1 GD (+0.2), +3.9 xGD (+0.7)
Canada: 5 matches, 6 points (1.2), -1 GD (-0.2), -5.4 xGD (-1.1)
Spain: 5 matches, 5 points (1.0), -1 GD (-0.2), +1.5 xGD (+0.3)
Among those who have played at least two matches against the top 10, no one else averages more than 1.0 points per game. (France has three points from four matches, albeit with an excellent +3.0 overall xG differential.)
The xG figures suggest that the U.S. has been a bit unfortunate overall, and the SheBelieves Cup certainly provided some progression to the mean when it comes to finishing (even if it all came from one player).
England, however, hasn't lost a match since April 2021. That includes 14 matches against teams in this World Cup field (11 wins, three draws). They beat Japan 4-0 in November. In this month's Arnold Clark Cup in England, they beat South Korea (15th in the current FIFA rankings), Italy (17th) and Belgium (20th) by a combined 12-2. They aren't infallible -- they sandwiched that domination of Japan with draws against Norway (13th) and the Czech Republic (28th) -- but both winning the Euros and beating the U.S. at Wembley Stadium last year took England's confidence to a new level. These February matches only furthered that.
The U.S. has a pair of friendlies against Ireland (23rd in the FIFA rankings) coming up in April and will probably flash some dominant moments in them. But it would have been great to see a few more of those moments over the last week or so.