Key USWNT questions as the calendar flips from a dormant 2020 to an Olympic year

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If anyone thought nearly eight months dormant would render the U.S. women’s national team rusty and erode its dominance, that speculation was quickly disproven in Friday’s friendly against the Netherlands.

While the USWNT’s last prior game was in March and some starters hadn’t played a game of club soccer since July, the Netherlands was fresher, with the Dutch league having as much of a “normal” season as COVID-19 allows and the national team playing Euro qualifiers this fall. But no matter — the USWNT cruised to a 2-0 win to finish 2020.

So, does that mean the Americans are ready to win gold at the Olympics next summer? Not yet. Will they be? Maybe, but manager Vlatko Andonovski & Co. still have work to do.

The USWNT’s convincing win Friday answered at least some questions that cropped up during the team’s long hiatus, but plenty remain. Here is what we know heading into the Tokyo Olympics, and what we will still need to learn.

Vlatko Andonovski has built a USWNT to weather 2020

Speaking last week to Yahoo Sports for an exclusive interview about her role in shaping the USWNT’s future, U.S. Soccer’s head of women’s soccer Kate Markgraf laughed. “We’re playing a team that’s completely played in and we haven’t played together in eight months,” she said.

She didn’t outright state it, but the implication was there: The USWNT might not be very good and the Netherlands could potentially rout the Americans.

If she really did think that, she certainly was not alone. In a sport where game sharpness and team chemistry can take weeks or even months for players to achieve after injury, it would stand to reason that an eight-month break could lead to a jarring return for the USWNT.

But after about 15 minutes of looking a little sloppy at Rat Verlegh Stadion in Breda, the Americans quickly figured it out.

“A lot of things changed in 2020, but one thing that didn’t change and will never change with this team is the heart and the mind,” Andonovski said. “I was so proud of the players, the way they stepped up and handled the game considering some of them didn’t have a chance to train properly before this camp, training on their own or literally just on a treadmill getting ready.”

Andonovski had clearly drilled the team on how he wanted them to press, and the USWNT played as a cohesive unit, responding to triggers in unison to force the Netherlands into constant turnovers. The Dutch never really looked goal dangerous, and it was partly because they couldn’t enjoy any sustained possession around the box.

USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski's emphasis on continuity served the Americans well in Friday's victory over the Netherlands. (Photo by Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images)
USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski's emphasis on continuity served the Americans well in Friday's victory over the Netherlands. (Photo by Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images)

That the Netherlands seemed so rattled by the USWNT’s press is perhaps an indictment of their own preparations, but this Dutch team still reached the World Cup final last year and is ranked No. 4 in the world. For the Americans, it was a sign of progress under Andonovski that they immediately knew how to execute their coach’s game plan.

Sure, the USWNT is a talented team, but there is a difference in approach from Andonovski over his predecessor Jill Ellis that seems to have especially served the USWNT well in 2020. While Ellis was a tinkerer who liked to sometimes test out players in uncomfortable roles or switch up tactics from game to game, Andonovski seems to have favored continuity.

That may have more to do with timing than anything else — by the time he took over as coach one year ago, Adonovski thought he had a mere seven months before the Olympics and thus he had to keep his approach simple. Regardless, in a 2020 where the USWNT has lacked routine and rhythm, his approach has seemingly made it easier for players to pick up where they left off.

The result is a USWNT that can never been counted out, and it’s a team that doesn’t look as far from Olympic gold contention as we all might’ve thought.

What’s the ideal USWNT midfield? Can Kristie Mewis fit in?

Andonovski seemed pleased with Friday’s win, but he did raise some concerns about “the defending of the middle block.”

“We were able initially to match their midfield, which I thought we did a good job, but when they [the Netherlands] dropped the false nine, that threw us off a little bit,” Andonovski said. “So, there’s a little work that we need to do there and how we can overcome that.”

That missing defensive piece is probably due to the lack of games more than anything else. But it’s interesting that the midfield was the one area Andonovski identified because it happens to be the spot on the field that offers perhaps the most intriguing roster questions.

Andonovski has played Julie Ertz as both a defensive midfielder and as a center back, and although she started in the midfield Friday, a relatively thin roster of pure center backs on the USWNT compared to other positions means Ertz can’t be ruled out along the backline. If Andonovski sees more depth in the midfield, that could influence his thinking even more.

A long-debated question with no clear answer is whether Samantha Mewis or Lindsey Horan should be the starting box-to-box midfielder for the USWNT. Both are world-class players for their clubs, and both have helped the USWNT succeed.

Unfortunately, however, Horan missed Friday’s game because she had tested positive for COVID-19 before departing the U.S., so she couldn’t fight for a spot against the Netherlands.

One player who may have further solidified a spot in the midfield is Rose Lavelle.

One of last year’s USWNT highlights was during the World Cup final when Lavelle sliced her way through the Dutch defense and scored a beautiful goal. So when Lavelle did nearly the same thing on Friday, you’d be forgiven if you did a double take.

Lavelle hasn’t seen the field much since transferring to Manchester City in August, but she has established herself as a unique, special player for the USWNT. Less reliant on power and speed, Lavelle summons her magic from pure creativity and finding space where it seemingly doesn’t exist. Over the years, the USWNT has lacked players who can play a string-pulling No. 10, but Lavelle is that player.

Whether her goal Friday will bode well for her standing in Manchester remains to be seen, but Andonovski expects to see her more soon, hinting she remains firmly in the USWNT’s plans.

“I don’t know if I expected any more or less with her playing time,” Andonovski said. “She needed a little bit of time to adjust, one thing, and then she had a small injury going into it [the season] so that’s why I don’t know if I had any different expectations. She’s finally healthy, she’s playing well, she’s mentally in a good stage and the fact that she scored a goal like that proves she’s ready.”

Assuming Lavelle, who has had on-and-off hamstring issues throughout her career, is healthy and playing ahead of the Olympics, it’s hard to imagine a USWNT midfield without her.

But could Kristie Mewis push for a spot?

Kristie Mewis, the elder of the Mewis sisters, replaced Lavelle in the 60th minute and also scored, making her the player who waited the longest in between USWNT goals: a whopping 2,722 days.

She has had a tough road back to the USWNT, shuffled around by coaches who didn’t know where to play her. She’s dealt with injuries, and she has also admitted she needed to do some soul-searching to regain a spot on the USWNT. But after a fantastic run of form in the NWSL, Mewis finally earned her first USWNT cap in six years.

Midfield is where she initially broke into the team, and that’s where she played Friday. She’s a well-rounded player — so well-rounded, in fact, that coaches have shuffled her to fullback, winger and central midfield, which could make her a viable USWNT midfield backup if she keeps up her form.

“In the last two years, the end of 2019 and 2020, we see a little bit of a different player,” Andonovski said after Friday’s game. “Off the field, a little more committed, a better pro, and on the field with her play and her performance, she showed she deserved to be around this group of players. If you look at the players in the U.S. or the NWSL, 2020 is Kristie Mewis’ year.”

But the USWNT has other players who could contending for spots, such as Andi Sullivan once she returns from injury or Morgan Gautrat (née Brian), who was not called up for this latest camp.

As the Tokyo Olympics near, it may come down to how Andonovski wants the team to play as much as player form, which makes the midfielder crop worth keeping an eye on. There are lots of options, and reason to believe the midfield is not yet settled.

Kristie Mewis scored her first national team goal in 2,722 days on Friday and is playing her way back into the USWNT picture. (Photo by Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images)
Kristie Mewis scored her first national team goal in 2,722 days on Friday and is playing her way back into the USWNT picture. (Photo by Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images)

Where do Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe stand with the USWNT?

Perhaps the two most influential players on the USWNT over the past few years are also two of the biggest question marks ahead of a 2021 Olympics.

Megan Rapinoe was not with the team in the Netherlands, and Andonovski said she wasn’t called up because she wasn’t ready.

“She’s in a situation where she was not able to train,” Andonovski said. “She didn’t do the Challenge Cup or the Fall Series and she was not able to train in a team environment. From a physical perspective in this short camp that we have, we will not be able to help her to get her up to speed.”

Rapinoe has seemingly been busy enough outside of soccer, recently publishing a book and remaining a prominent voice in the media for civic causes.

Over the summer, Rapinoe said she wasn’t comfortable with returning to the NWSL during the COVID-19 pandemic and was keeping herself at a “baseline level” of fitness, but admitted it would take longer to get back to game fitness, whenever the time comes, because of the amount of time she’d had off.

Typically, that’s what January camps are for anyway. In non-pandemic times, players have usually been off for at least a couple months, if not more, and USWNT coaches tend to call in a larger group of players for a January camp. Andonovski said he expects Rapinoe will be there.

Until Rapinoe is back, however, it’s impossible to know what kind of role she could play at the Olympics, when she’ll be 36.

Rapinoe’s world-class service, audacious dribbling and penchant for trying stuff that confounds defenses are qualities any coach would want. But her form is still the question mark.

For as good as Rapinoe is, the 2016 Olympics proved that poor form can’t overcome pure talent. She didn’t play well in that tournament, and neither did the Americans. Rapinoe has enough time to be 100% before the USWNT goes to Tokyo, but there are no guarantees.

Then there is Carli Lloyd, who was not with the team in the Netherlands either due to injury.

Andonovski said he expects she will be back in time for the USWNT’s January camp, but Lloyd is missing out on valuable chances to state her case for a very small 18-player Olympic roster, unless the pandemic prompts a rule change.

She figured to be a possible replacement for Alex Morgan as more of a striker in Tokyo, but now Morgan is months removed from giving birth to her first child and looking nearly 100% fit, with players like Christen Press and Lynn Williams making convincing cases as well.

Lloyd could push to reprise a midfield spot, but with such a small roster, the chances are narrowing for the USWNT great, who will be 39 next summer.

The USWNT’s commitment to social justice is nothing new

It's no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention the USWNT players demonstrated against social injustice and systemic racism before beating the Netherlands in Friday's friendly. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Pool via AP)
It's no surprise to anyone who's been paying attention the USWNT players demonstrated against social injustice and systemic racism before beating the Netherlands in Friday's friendly. (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Pool via AP)

If you had only followed national news outlets that rarely dip their toes into the world of soccer, the only thing you’d know about Friday’s game was that the USWNT’s warm-up gear included a message in support of the Black Lives Matter movement protesting racial injustice.

For this team historically, however, progressive social justice causes aren’t anything new. From the team’s many public and private fights over gender equality, to Rapinoe’s act of kneeling during the national anthem long before it became a mainstream protest in 2020, the USWNT has a track record of speaking up.

That’s not to say that everyone on the team has the exact same views and approaches these issues the same way, as could be seen from the mixture of players kneeling and standing on Friday. These are topics that have nuance and complexity, after all.

But the USWNT, which in some ways reflects the diversity of the country it represents, has always been a team where, as long as players respect one another, they can band together and dominate on the world stage.

The USWNT proved all of that yet again on Friday. And the angry anonymous commenters online who claimed they will never watch the USWNT “again” because some of the players kneeled have clearly never even watched the USWNT in the first place.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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