College Football & Soccer Analyst
The U.S. women’s national team is ready to move on.
After a cruel ending to this summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, in which the Americans were ousted earlier than in any other major tournament in history, this squad is feeling motivated and looking forward to 2024.
“During the course of our careers, these things do happen and as cliché as it sounds, it’s what we make of it,” a reflective captain Lindsey Horan recently told FOX Sports. “I know there’s going to be disappointment. I know there’s going to be failure. I think now it’s just like, what are we going to do with this?
“All of the talk, all of the commotion, what people think of us, it’s there. It’s whatever. But now we are moving forward and it’s, how do we change the situation? What do we do in the course of this next year [looking ahead to] the Olympics and through the next World Cup [in 2027]? Now it’s on us. It’s our responsibility.”
The new year will bring opportunities for this team. There’s the inaugural Concacaf W Gold Cup in February and March, and the 2024 Paris Olympics in July and August. Chelsea manager Emma Hayes, who was hired as the USWNT’s new head coach in November, will officially take over in May and expectations are high.
“We expect to do everything we possibly can to win,” Horan said. “We just came off an unsuccessful tournament, but being the USWNT means we are going out to win everything that we possibly can. And especially at [the Olympics] where we haven’t been at our best in the last few [tournaments] we want to go win gold.”
For what it’s worth, anytime the U.S. hasn’t won the World Cup, it went onto win gold at the following Olympic Games in 1996, 2004, 2008 and 2012.
While the squad moves on, let’s quickly reflect on how 2023 went down for the U.S. women:
The USWNT takes early injury hit
Months before the 2023 World Cup kicked off, the Americans were dealt a bad blow. That was when star forward Mallory Swanson tore the patella tendon in her left knee during the first half of a friendly against the Republic of Ireland in April. The injury was gruesome and she and her teammates were visibly shaken up. Swanson underwent immediate surgery and was unfortunately ruled out for the World Cup.
This summer was supposed to be hers after not making the roster for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. She was on a mission to be the best player in the world. The good thing for Swanson, who started running again in September, is only 25 years old and still figures to be a major player in the team moving forward. There is still no public timetable for her return, but the next Olympics are now just seven months away.
In addition to Swanson’s injury, the USWNT also missed Catarina Macario (knee), Becky Sauerbrunn (foot), Abby Dahlkemper (back), Sam Mewis (knee) and Christen Press (knee). The only player who was called into the December training camp was Dahlkemper, so monitoring those injuries will be a story line heading into 2024 as well.
World Cup disappointment
The U.S. entered this summer with the mindset that it was going to make history as the first nation to ever three-peat. After winning the 2015 and 2019 tournaments, the team believed they could run it back in 2023.
But after years of talking about how the rest of the world was catching up to the USWNT, the rest of the world not only caught up, but blew by the Americans. The U.S. lost to Sweden in the round of 16 following a dramatic penalty shootout. They never even looked like a real contender during the group stage, which they almost didn’t survive.
U.S. players were in shock after the loss, especially considering players like Megan Rapinoe, Kelley O’Hara and Sophia Smith missed their penalty kicks. It was the earliest the squad had ever bowed out of a major tournament. Previously, the USWNT had never finished a World Cup worse than third place.
In the aftermath, the Americans lost their FIFA No. 1 world ranking and were knocked down to No. 3 behind Sweden and Spain.
Vlatko Andonovski resigns
Less than two weeks after the USWNT was eliminated from the World Cup, head coach Vlatko Andvonoski and U.S. Soccer agreed to part ways.
The departure was expected – Andonovski’s contract was set to expire later in the year. And while he was well-liked by players and staff, he did not produce results. There was concern surrounding his tactics and overall strategy leading up to and during the World Cup, and once there, the U.S. simply couldn’t score goals.
In addition to this summer’s flop, Andonovski oversaw the unsatisfactory third-place finish at the Tokyo Olympics where the USWNT had entered as the favorite to win gold. Despite his record at major tournaments, Andonovski will be remembered as the one who gave first caps to several young players who will be the next stars of this team. Among those are defenders Naomi Girma and Emily Fox, as well as forwards Smith and Trinity Rodman.
U.S. Soccer immediately tapped assistant coach Twila Kilgore to be the interim head coach, and she has kept the squad together ever since. Meanwhile, Andonovski was hired to coach the NWSL club Kansas City Current.
Legends retire, newbies enter the chat
A month after the World Cup, the USWNT said goodbye to retiring legends Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe. Each player had their own special celebration and emotional farewell during the September camp, marking the end of a remarkable era that included plenty of hardware, including two World Cup titles.
Before her final match, Rapinoe was asked what she will be most proud of when she reflects on her career and legacy.
“By a mile, what we’ve done off the field,” said Rapinoe, referencing everything from achieving equal pay to being a voice for minority groups to driving conversation on topics like LGBTQ+ rights and racial justice.
“I’m incredibly proud of everything we’ve done on the field,” she continued. “Obviously, we’ve been a really special generation of players. But I think it says a lot about us that everything on the field kind of pales in comparison to what we’ve achieved off the field and where we’ve chosen to throw our weight in the way that we have used what is our greatest gift in all of our talent: to try to make the world a better place and try to leave the game in a much better place than where we found it.”
Since Ertz and Rapinoe have exited the world’s stage, new and young faces have entered. In the final few camps of the year, players like Mia Fishel, Jaedyn Shaw, Olivia Moultrie and Jenna Nighswonger each earned their respective first caps and are expected to play critical roles in the near future.
[Related: USWNT might have something special in Mia Fishel, Jaedyn Shaw pairing]
Emma Hayes hired as next USWNT head coach
In mid-November, following an intense interview process, U.S. Soccer hired longtime Chelsea manager Emma Hayes to be the next USWNT head coach. Hayes, however, will not take over the squad fully until May after the Women’s Super League season is over.
U.S. Soccer Sporting Director Matt Crocker has called Hayes a “serial winner,” which seems like an appropriate description considering she has led Chelsea to six WSL titles and five FA Cups among other accomplishments. Her club players were devastated when the news broke, while her new U.S. players were thrilled.
Hayes, who will become the highest-paid women’s coach in the world, briefly visited the USWNT at the start of its December training camp. She started building relationships and also gave her marching orders. Kilgore will be her eyes and ears on the ground until May, overseeing day-to-day operations; while Hayes will keep a keen eye on the squad from London and will collaborate with Kilgore on roster selections and other decisions for the next several months.
[Related: Emma Hayes has already won over USWNT: ‘Emma will take us there’]
Players say they feel energized by the hire and trust Hayes to lead them back to the top of the soccer world.
“You couldn’t have picked a better coach for our team in my opinion,” Smith told FOX Sports.
“She wants to coach this team, wants to take this team to the next level, and you can see that. You can feel it. You can hear it,” added Horan.
Hayes will only have two camps with the USWNT before the Olympics. While the arrangement is a bit unorthodox and certainly not ideal, players are OK with it and believe they can still win a gold medal.
“That’s the only thing on her mind,” Mia Fishel, who currently plays for Hayes at Chelsea, told FOX Sports. “She only cares about winning the right way with the right team, and when she has that in her mind, she’s gonna get it.”
Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.
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