Commentary: U.S. women show they can bring their own 'noise' in Gold Cup quarterfinal win

United States defender Jenna Nighswonger (3) celebrates with teammates after her goal during the first half of a CONCACAF Gold Cup women's soccer tournament quarterfinal against Colombia, Sunday, March 3, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

All those whispers about the demise of the women’s national team, Naomi Girma says the players never hear them.

“There’s so much outside noise. And there’s a lot of opinions, which is great. That means people are watching and they care about us,” she said.

“But also,” Girma added “it can be distracting.”

So the outside noise stays right there, outside, while inside the team’s circle there are no whispers, there is no doubt. There is only belief.

“We’re still building,” goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher agreed. “I trust any one of the 23 players that we have on the roster. It’s just putting the pieces together and continuing to improve one game to the next.”

Read more: U.S. women dominate Colombia to set up Gold Cup showdown with Canada

The U.S. accomplished that and more Sunday, rebounding from a disappointing loss to Mexico last week to brush away Colombia 3-0 at BMO Stadium and advance to Wednesday’s semifinals of the CONCACAF W Gold Cup. The Americans will face Canada, the reigning Olympic champion, while Mexico will play Brazil in the other semifinal.

A potential rematch with Mexico, unbeaten in 23 straight games under coach Pedro López, looms on the horizon. But first there are those pesky, defiant whispers, the ones that began even before last summer’s World Cup debacle.

The U.S. didn’t score in its final 238 minutes in that competition, going out in the round of 16 for the first time. That came just two years after it was forced to settle for bronze in the Tokyo Olympics. Never before had the Americans failed to reach the semifinals in consecutive global tournaments.

Sure, the U.S. has lost just once in regulation in the last 15 months — that being the game with Mexico. But scratch below the surface and the whispers say it’s obvious something isn’t right.

The roster is too old. Or maybe it’s too inexperienced.

It’s no longer a team, it’s a den full of divas, a constellation of stars. On the other hand, maybe it doesn’t have enough star power.

None of those contradictory criticisms are new. But after the loss to Mexico, the whispers built into a shout. Gone are the days when the U.S. could simply roll out the ball and dominate teams with its swagger. Yet those expectations remain.

The problems, meanwhile, run deep. With Mia Fishel out after tearing the ACL in her right knee earlier this month and with Mallory Swanson still rehabbing the torn patellar tendon in her left knee, the U.S. is so thin at striker that an aging Alex Morgan, 34, has played all four games in the Gold Cup.

The midfield, once the gritty heart of the team, has lacked for both grit and heart. That could get a boost with the return of the spectacularly talented Catarina Macario, who missed 20 months with her own ACL injury before returning to the field Sunday to score in her Chelsea debut.

And the depth at center back starts and stops with Girma, U.S. Soccer’s female athlete of the year. The fact that 38-year-old Becky Sauerbrunn, an injury replacement for Alana Cook, started two of the Americans’ last four games does not bode well for the team’s efforts to get younger.

The window to fix all this is closing. The Olympic tournament kicks off in less than five months and the U.S., which hasn’t played in an Olympic final since 2012, will face arguably the strongest field in women’s soccer history in Paris.

One game won’t fix all that, of course. But Sunday’s performance at least suggested that news of the team’s death may have been greatly exaggerated.

The Americans frustrated and rattled Colombia. They passed with a purpose, the young double pivot of Sam Coffey and Korbin Albert clogged the midfield and Morgan looked rejuvenated, playing between wingers Jaedyn Shaw and Trinity Rodman and contributing to all three goals.

As bad as the U.S. looked against Mexico, that’s how well it played against Colombia.

“We genuinely didn’t do anything differently that we do every day,” interim coach Twila Kilgore said. “And that’s the key to being part of this program. To show up when it’s not going well and be the same player, execute in the same ways.

“It’s really just about regrouping.”

Neither Shaw, 19, nor Albert, 20, is old enough to drink — and combined they’re not much older than Morgan is by herself. Rodman, meanwhile, is 21 and Coffey 25 while the backline consisted of Girma and Jenna Nighswonger, both 23, and Tierna Davidson and Emily Fox, both 25. Leave out Morgan and Naeher, who recorded her 61st clean sheet in her 100th appearance Sunday, and the average age of the other nine starters was just 23.

The goals, all in the first half, came from Shaw, who became just the second player in U.S. history to score in each of her first three starts; Nighswonger, who has two goals in her last four matches; and captain Lindsey Horan, who scored on a penalty try.

Want to talk about the future? Five of the team’s last eight goals from the run of play have been scored by teenagers.

Read more: Column: How Mexico scored a 'historic' Gold Cup win over U.S. women

“The entire performance was very professional and really well-executed. Especially the young players,” Morgan said as she cradled her 3-year-old daughter Charlie.

Was it enough to quiet the whispers? Only until the next time Morgan looks her age, the midfielders look like they’ve never met one another and an aggressive opponent reminds the team that the rest of the world is catching up to U.S. soccer.

But that race, Nighswonger said, isn’t over yet. The team, she said, just might outrun those whispers.

“There’s so much more for this group,” said the defender, one of four starters who began Sunday with fewer than a dozen international caps. “We have a lot of newer players working in. We’re building a lot of new relationships. Let’s see how we mesh and once we find all the right answers, we’ll reach our full potential.”

Read more: Column: How Mexico scored a 'historic' Gold Cup win over U.S. women

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.