Young USWNT team struggles offensively in scoreless draw with Czech Republic

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United States' Sophia Smith, left, is chased by Czech Republic's Gabriela Slajslova during the second half of a She Believes Cup women's soccer match Thursday, Feb. 17, 2022, in Carson, Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
United States' Sophia Smith is chased by Czech Republic's Gabriela Slajslova during the second half of a SheBelieves Cup match Thursday in Carson. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Christen Press wasn’t in uniform when the women’s national team opened play in the SheBelieves Cup at Dignity Health Sports Park. Ditto Alex Morgan.

There was no sign of Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath or Carli Lloyd either. And while that might sound like no big deal, it meant Thursday’s game with the Czech Republic was the first major tournament match the U.S. has played without at least one of its Fab Five forwards since 2007.

The absences were felt, with their tentative young replacements taking 18 shots, putting eight on them goal, but failing to get any past Czech goalkeeper Barbora Votíková in settling for a scoreless draw. That’s not the start coach Vlatko Andonovski wanted for what could be the national team’s most thorough overhaul in more than a decade.

The five veterans played in last summer’s Tokyo Olympics, where the roster the U.S. fielded was the oldest in the tournament and the forwards coach Andonovski started averaged 33 years of age. The Americans often looked their age, stumbling to a bronze medal.

The three forwards Andonovski started Thursday — Sophia Smith, Catarina Macario and Mallory Pugh — averaged 22 years of age. And while the roster remake, which Andonovski calls a “refreshing,” might have begun a bit too late, it’s also starting a little early, just five months before qualifying begins for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Paris Olympics.

And that leaves Andonovski facing an age-old problem: Who should stay and who could go?

“All these players are very good players. They’ve done so much for this team and they’ve won everything possible,” Andonovski said of the veterans who weren’t called up this month. “But right now I want to give a chance to players like Sophie Smith and Mal Pugh and Catarina Macario.”

That doesn’t mean time has passed for the older players. With the exception of Lloyd, who retired last fall, they all remain afloat in Andonovski’s player pool.

However, it does mean a resume is no longer enough to earn a spot on the team.

“Players that have done well in the past are [not] just going to come back here in the next camp because they’ve done well a year ago or two years ago,” he said. “There’s a reason why we’re not calling Mia Hamm or Julie Foudy in. The same goes here: They need to perform and show that they can still contribute and be valuable for the national team.”

Czech Republic goalkeeper Barbara Votikova stops a shot from United States' Trinity Rodman.
Czech Republic goalkeeper Barbara Votikova, right, stops a shot from United States' Trinity Rodman (2) during the second half of a SheBelieves Cup match Thursday in Carson. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Speaking of Foudy, she has seen this before. A two-time World Cup and Olympic champion, Foudy helped build the foundation of the national team, making her debut alongside Hamm in 1988, then retiring with her in 2004.

By then the two had passed the baton to Abby Wambach, who handed it to Lloyd, and then to Morgan and Rapinoe.

“Typically, you stagger it a little more. You have layers of veterans with a lot of young kids,” Foudy said. “Vlatko has gone mostly young with just a couple of veterans, which seems a little jarring to some. But I do understand why he’s doing it. It’s probably not such a bad idea to put a little shot of energy to the veterans. ‘Hey, things aren’t necessarily as secure as you think they are.’ ”

The next handoff has already started, perpetuating the Circle of Life that has long defined the women’s national team. The exchange got off to a slippery start, though, with the top-ranked U.S. outplaying the Czechs but failing to convert any of their chances, getting shutout at home for just the second time since 2017.

“You look at the players that were on the field, how many times have they been on the field together?,” Andonovski said. “That’s something that will come with the minutes and games together. It’s not easy. It doesn’t matter how good they are and how much potential they have, to just throw them on the field and expect [them] to click immediately.

“We all know that’s how we look,” he continued, “and where we’re at is nowhere good enough to win games.”

The last time the U.S. played a meaningful match without one of the Fab Five was in the 2007 World Cup, when both Lloyd and Hope Solo were on the bench, and Kristine Lilly wore the captain’s armband. Also missing Thursday were defender Abby Dahlkemper and midfielders Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan, who are injured; outside back Crystal Dunn, who is pregnant; and midfielder Julie Ertz, who is out for undisclosed reasons. That left Andonovski without nine players he used in his team’s last competitive game in Tokyo.

“There just didn't seem to be a joy or an energy to that group,” Foudy said of the Olympic team. “With younger kids, they totally bring a really fun element because everything's new to them. Everything's exciting. You get kind of jaded as you get older. They bring fresh eyes, fresh blood.

“Obviously the pendulum will rock back. It seems like it's swinging really far, but in the end it will settle somewhere where there's a balance.”

In the tournament opener, Dagný Brynjarsdóttir’s goal in the first minute lifted Iceland to a 1-0 win over New Zealand. The U.S. will meet New Zealand in the opener of Sunday’s doubleheader at Dignity Health Sports Park with the Czech Republic facing Iceland in the second game. The competition then moves to suburban Dallas for the final two games next Wednesday.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.