USWNT wins W Gold Cup on the backs of 2 young midfielders once overlooked for World Cup

United States' Sam Coffey (17) battles Brazil's Duda (20) for the ball during the first half of the CONCACAF Gold Cup women's soccer tournament final match, Sunday, March 10, 2024, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

The U.S. women's national team beat Brazil in Sunday's W Gold Cup final on a commanding header from captain Lindsey Horan.

But the stars of the show, the linchpins that held together a shaky USWNT, were two young midfielders who embody the program's post-World Cup transformation.

Korbin Albert, 20, had never even worn a USWNT jersey when the team set off for New Zealand last summer.

Sam Coffey had, but she was curiously overlooked in 2023, and watched from home as the U.S. floundered.

Both have been welcomed to the fold ever since their elders struggled Down Under. And in the USWNT's biggest moment since the World Cup, with pressure mounting after a 2-0 loss to Mexico last month, interim coach Twila Kilgore leaned on the youngsters.

Kilgore, who's been communicating regularly with incoming coach Emma Hayes, dropped the once-undroppable Rose Lavelle from her starting lineup for a quarterfinal against Colombia. She inserted Albert, who's been balling at PSG in France, and never looked back.

The Albert-Coffey double-pivot anchored a 3-0 win over Colombia, then navigated a sloppy, "unplayable" semifinal against Canada. Their most influential performance, though, came on the grandest stage, in front of 31,528 fans at Snapdragon Stadium in San Diego. And on the doorstep of halftime, Coffey, an NWSL Best XI selection with the Portland Thorns, helped swing the game.

She charged into a challenge in midfield. She won a duel, and released Trinity Rodman down the right wing.

Rodman's first touch was wayward, but her patience was crucial. She passed out of a double-team to Emily Fox, who lofted a cross to the far post. Horan rose to meet it, and powered home what ended up being the only goal of the game.

Horan has been something of a positional enigma for the USWNT. She is clean on the ball as a deep-lying playmaker. She's also lethal in the box as something of a second striker, especially in the air. But she's not mobile enough to impact games in both areas.

Previous U.S. coaches, at times, have tried to give Horan the freedom to do both anyway. She played in front of a traditional defensive midfielder, and behind Lavelle, nominally as a "No. 8." But it never quite worked. U.S. midfields felt disconnected. It became clear that other solutions had to be explored.

Kilgore's solution was to push Horan into a No. 10 position. The Coffey-Albert pair gave Horan more attacking freedom. On Sunday, Horan took advantage of that freedom, while the relative newcomers cleaned up everything behind her.

They, and the USWNT as a whole, still struggled in possession. Brazil had more of the ball and more shots attempted. Even without several prominent players, the Seleção were superior for much of the first half.

But the best American passages of play were propelled by high pressure from Coffey and Albert. "What an impact they’ve had," Kilgore raved after the game. They also helped stabilize the U.S. in the second half. Albert, the second-youngest USWNT player to start a competitive final, went the full 90, and was particularly strong in individual battles.

The back four — glued together by Naomi Girma and Tierna Davidson, the center-back pairing of the future and the present — also held firm behind them.

And the U.S. held on to win this inaugural regional tournament, which, on the whole, was a roaring success.

It was vital preparation for the Olympics, which kickoff in July.

For the USWNT, it was far from perfect. But it was galvanizing, and confidence-boosting. It was necessary proof that a program known for serial winning has not completely lost its way.

"We have, all together, owned our World Cup experience," Kilgore said. "We've regrouped. We've set new goals. We've set new style of play. We're working towards something together."