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- Macedonian-American soccer player and coach
The USWNT ended its 2021 campaign with a pair of matches against the Matildas in Australia.
The young squad came away from its stint Down Under with a 3-0 win and a 1-1 draw.
Roster change is coming — here are the biggest takeaways from the USWNT's final camp of the year.
A new era has arrived for the US women's national soccer team.
Following a bronze-medal finish at the Tokyo Olympics this summer, the world's top-ranked team prepared to embark on a transformational period, the likes of which it hasn't seen in many years. Veteran superstar Carli Lloyd played her final game for the stars and stripes after 16 years with the USWNT, and 2019 World Cup Golden Ball and Golden Boot winner Megan Rapinoe publicly stated that she's mulling over retirement herself.
With a changing of the guard imminent, the USWNT traveled to Australia for two friendlies against the Matildas to end the year. And in a stark departure from the veteran-laden roster he brought to the Midwest for the team's four-game slate, USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski called in a markedly younger, less-experienced group for the trip Down Under.
With an average age of 26.2 and a whopping six newcomers without a single cap for the national team, Andonovski's 23-player roster was full of fresh faces. And the budding stars delivered, earning a 3-0 win and a 1-1 draw against a talented Matildas squad playing in front of record crowds on its home turf.
But more relevant — and more consequential — than the final scorelines are the implications each individual performance has on the national team's future. So as the USWNT looks ahead to a busy 2022, here are the biggest takeaways from the team's final camp of 2021.
Casey Murphy is the next goalkeeper in line for the USWNT
Murphy has long been a force between the pipes at the club level. First a keeper for French Division 1 Féminine club Montpellier HSC, the 6-foot-1 Rutgers alum took her talents stateside to the National Women's Soccer League (NWSL) beginning in 2019.
She enjoyed a spectacular debut season in Seattle, allowing just nine goals in 19 games in front of the net for OL Reign. With six clean sheets to boot, Murphy finished second behind Washington Spirit's Aubrey Bledsoe in 2019 NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year voting.
The following year, Reign traded their young keeper to the North Carolina Courage. Murphy thrived in the Tar Heel State and once again had a compelling case for Goalkeeper of the Year in 2021. Through 23 games, she led the league with 96 saves — good for a third-best in the NWSL 81.4% save percentage — and 11 clean sheets.
Andonovski called Murphy into November camp as a direct result of her stellar play at the club level, and it translated to the pitch down in Australia. Somewhat surprisingly, Murphy got the starting nod for the USWNT's first matchup against the Matildas and made the most of the big moment.
The 25-year-old became the seventh goalkeeper in USWNT history — the first since Alyssa Naeher — to record a clean sheet in her first cap. She recorded eight saves, several of which were acrobatic and awe-inspiring, to keep the national team out of trouble for the full 90 minutes and earn Budweiser Woman of the Match honors.
"I thought this was a great experience for Casey; it could not get any better for her," Andonovski said after the match. "Playing in front of a great crowd — very loud, very stressful — against some of the best forwards in the world, what else can we ask for? She came out big. It's not just that she helped us win, but [she] gave us confidence."
"I thought she was great for the team," he added. "She was great for the back line — they felt very comfortable with everything that went behind them."
Rather than giving fellow netminders Jane Campbell and Bella Bixby a shot in goal, Andonovski stuck with Murphy for the second game of the two-part series. And once again, Murphy did not disappoint.
She and the USWNT defensive unit held the Matildas scoreless through the first 87 minutes of regulation, pulling off an impressive, fully-extended fingertip save on a line-drive volley from Australia's Mary Fowler.
—U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) November 30, 2021
An unlucky deflection resulted in Murphy's first — and only, to this point — goal against in her senior national team career. In the 88th minute, Australia's Kyah Simon launched a low, hard ball from just outside the penalty arc, which ricocheted off the outstretched leg of veteran USWNT center-back Becky Sauerbrunn and found the back of the net.
Murphy, who was following the likely trajectory of the ball when it left Simon's foot rather than the deflected path, couldn't recover the lost ground to make the save. Despite the concession, Andonovski expressed full-throated support for the young star.
"I feel comfortable saying that even though this is the first cap for Casey, it's just one of many," the head coach said.
A young defensive core is emerging as the national team's back-line-in-waiting
Tierna Davidson has long been the future of the USWNT's defense. As of the Tokyo Olympics, she's seemingly become its present; the 23-year-old center-back started ahead of national team regular Abby Dahlkemper in both the USWNT's semfinal loss against Canada and its bronze-medal match against Australia.
Now, the next generation of stars who will surround Davidson on the back line is beginning to take shape.
A superstar at the collegiate level for Anson Dorrance's North Carolina Tar Heels and Racing Louisville FC's prized first-overall pick in the 2021 NWSL Draft, Emily Fox is poised to find a foothold within the USWNT's defensive unit. She's been to several camps ahead of November's stint in Australia, but her masterful performances at outside back leave little question that she'll be welcomed back to the national team many times again.
In a combined 121 minutes at left back the two matches Down Under, Fox showed poise as she locked down some world-class attackers coming up the wing for the Matildas. She went toe-to-toe with Manchester City's Hayley Raso and Olympique Lyonnais' Ellie Carpenter throughout the series, using her physicality and standout speed to contain offensive threats from the pair of Aussies.
And on the attacking end, Fox was not at all timid about pushing forward to place pressure on Australia's defense. She nearly had an assist in the first game. In the second, she did enough to earn Budweiser Woman of the Match honors.
The impressive effort in just her seventh and eighth appearances for the national team caught Andonoski's attention.
"First I want to say that Fox played an incredible game," he said following the team's second game in Australia, citing her ability "to deal with players like Hayley Rasso and [Ellie] Carpenter — to stop them on every transition and to stop them from penetrating on every attack" and "create as many problems as she did" in the attacking third. "I'm very proud of her and I think that she showed how much potential she has or how good she can be."
Fox wasn't the only newcomer to earn significant time on the defensive end. Alana Cook, a 24-year-old center-back for OL Reign, played back-to-back full 90s in Australia. In tandem with Davidson, she did well to limit the efficacy of Sam Kerr — the Chelsea striker who is undoubtedly one of the most lethal attackers in all of women's soccer.
Cook's club teammate, Sofia Huerta, helped her own standing with Andonovski and the national team as well. Not only did the 28-year-old hold her own in the defensive third over her 130 minutes of play, but she managed to generate offense from the right back position.
And even though Imani Dorsey — the 2018 NWSL Rookie of the Year who naturally plays as a forward — only got a few minutes on the field in her first-ever national team cap, she too managed to expertly balance shutting down Aussie onslaughts with catalyzing the US attack.
Much to USWNT fans' collective chagrin, Sauerbrunn has reached the twilight of her career. At 33 years old, veteran outside back Kelley O'Hara is not too far behind. And with Crystal Dunn — the do-it-all Portland Thorns superstar who has predominantly played left back for the national team — out for the foreseeable future due to her recently-announced pregnancy, now is as good a time as any to introduce some new talent into the defensive rotation.
So far, so good.
No need for speed — the new-wave attackers have the USWNT covered
The future of the national team's offense is really, really speedy.
Let's start with lightning fast Lynn Williams. The Courage forward overcame a 2019 World Cup snub and alternate status for the Tokyo Olympics to become a pivotal member of Andonovski's offense. She scored a goal and added an assist in the USWNT's Olympic quarterfinal matchup against the Netherlands, and since then, she's kept her foot on the gas.
In the five friendlies she's played in this fall, Williams has tallied two goals and three assists. And while her speed is certainly a useful tool in her arsenal, its far from the only one at her disposal. She's crafty, she has impressive field vision, and her ability to pressure the opposing defense upon a change in possession is second to none.
And while Williams isn't exactly new, her 43 caps were more than any other forward on Andonovski's Australia roster. The rest — Bethany Balcer, Ashley Hatch, Margaret Purce, Sophia Smith, Ashley Sanchez, and Morgan Weaver — had 19 caps combined heading into the two-game slate.
That same group of six combined for two goals and two assists.
Hatch scored twice, and twice she did so in the first five minutes of play. Her speed allows her to beat defenders head-on, and her ability to time her runs and sneak behind the back line helps teammates find her at opportune times. Both contributed to her scoring efforts in Australia.
Originally pegged as a defender for the national team, Purce made her way onto the November camp roster as a forward thanks to her efforts with the NWSL's NJ/NY Gotham.
Andonovski's decision to switch her position proved fruitful, as Purce had two assists — one to Rose Lavelle and another to Hatch — in her 146 minutes on the pitch. In both instances, the 26-year-old Harvard alum forced her way down the right flank through smart runs and impressive speed, then cut back to deliver through balls on a silver platter in the penalty box for her teammates to bury.
24-year-olds Weaver and Balcer and 26-year-old Hatch all earned their first USWNT caps on the trip. Though none of the three saw significant minutes, they each got a taste of the pressures of national team play and held their own. Smith, the 21-year-old who has factored into the USWNT's offensive scheme for the better part of two years, was held off the field Down Under due to concussion protocol.
Andonovski seems keen to combine the aforementioned six forwards with experienced, but still young, national teamer Mal Pugh and up-and-coming superstar Trinity Rodman. Both players opted out of the Australia trip despite receiving invites to camp, potentially signaling that they did not meet the COVID-19 criteria for traveling into the country.
'The kids are gonna be alright'
There's still plenty of work to be done, and there's still much that can change between now and the USWNT's next major tournament: the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. But seeing a group of young — and mostly inexperienced — players travel halfway across the world and successfully rival a formidable opponent like the Matildas is an encouraging sign for fans and Andonovski alike.
Should Naeher — the USWNT's starting keeper since 2014 — go down with an injury like she did at the Olympics, Murphy would be a better-than-good option to slide in between the pipes.
If Sauerbrunn or O'Hara retires, or Dunn doesn't return from parental leave in time for the World Cup, or the back line catches an injury bug, Fox, Cook, Huerta, and Dorsey will be ready to hold the line around Davidson.
And when the veteran national team attackers start stepping away from the pitch, a deep pool of physically, tactically brilliant up-and-comers are poised to take the reins.
When Purce found Hatch for a fourth-minute goal in the second of the two USWNT-Australia matchups, ESPN broadcaster Sebastián Salazar proclaimed "The kids are gonna be alright!"
—U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) November 30, 2021
Consider that sentiment seconded.
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