USWNT loses consecutive games for first time in 5 years. Is it time to worry?

Megan Rapinoe of USA and OL Reign in action during the Women's International Friendly match between Spain and USA at El Sadar Stadium on October 11, 2022 in Pamplona, Spain. (Photo by Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Three days after the U.S. women's national team lost to England, and as it readied to meet a Spanish team devoid of 17 top players, U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski came to a pre-match news conference prepared with some basic math.

He knew he'd be asked about those missing Spanish players, who'd temporarily resigned in a dispute over working conditions; and about the Roja remnants that, surely, we all assumed, the U.S. would beat. And he repeatedly made a point that the American narrative seemed to be missing.

"They can say the same thing about us," Andonovski argued, almost preemptively. Unprompted, he rattled off the names of 15 players whom his team was missing, and whose absences severely weakened the USWNT on their European tour.

Without them, the U.S. lost 2-0 to Spain on Tuesday. The Americans put zero shots on goal until late in the game, and looked disjointed going forward. They were physically superior to a Spanish side missing roughly nine of 11 starters, but tactically and technically inferior. They conceded a sloppy first-half goal, and never recovered.

They dropped a second consecutive game for the first time since 2017, and naturally, worries spiked. The World Cup is nine months away. The team's only major tournament so far under Andonovski ended in disappointment. Preparations for the next one are going far worse. As Esther Gonzalez volleyed home Spain's second goal, a fan base wondered in unison: Is it time to panic?

But the answer, according to Andonovski and to common sense, is an emphatic no.

Among the names that Andonovski rattled off on Monday were Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh, Sam Mewis, Julie Ertz, Kelley O'Hara, Emily Fox and Tierna Davidson. He initially forgot to mention Catarina Macario, arguably his best player. All of them are currently injured or otherwise absent. All should be in Australia and New Zealand next summer.

Without them, the USWNT still should have been better than a Spanish B-team. That they weren't was less a cause for alarm, and more a reminder of longstanding flaws. Even with Pugh and Morgan present, their attack has often been inefficient. Its structure and rhythms don't generate the type of chances that such a talented front six should.

But without half of those six — and especially in the context of a "heartbreaking," emotionally draining week after the release of the Yates report — the USWNT's performance really isn't worth overanalyzing.

"There's no excuse with the team that we have, because I think we have incredible players," Andonovski clarified Monday. "And I think every single one of them has earned the spot on the team."

But he knows that half of his starting lineup is missing. He knows that he could've added Crystal Dunn, who remains on a minutes restriction five months after giving birth, to his list. He knows that they all have the better part of a year to get healthy, and that he and the entire team have the better part of a year to fix their flaws.

And there are flaws, certainly, even beyond the incoherence of the attack. The defensive personnel is unsettled. Given the spate of injuries and pregnancies, on-field chemistry is lacking. The USWNT is very much not a finished product.

But the one certainty is that it will be far more of a finished product at next summer's World Cup.

The last time it lost two consecutive games, in 2017, it went on to lose only two of its next 78. Among the dozens of wins was a 2019 world championship.

The loss to Spain will give renewed rise to the narrative that Europe has "caught up." But that was the narrative four years ago. "The rest of the world caught up 15 years ago," Andonovski said. "But the U.S. always figured out a way to stay a little bit ahead, or find a way to get on top."

And it can do so once again in 2023. Two tight losses away from home, with its roster and emotions both tattered, aren't reasons for doubt.