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Takeaways from USWNT's SheBelieves Cup triumph amid distraction and coronavirus uncertainty

Christen Press has been one of the USWNT's best players in the team's latest competitions. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The world of sports has turned topsy-turvy with the coronavirus putting just about everything on hold indefinitely, and U.S. Soccer is in a state of crisis after the abrupt resignation of president Carlos Cordeiro

Buried in all that, however, is that the U.S. women’s national team won the SheBelieves Cup on Wednesday, sweeping the four-team friendly tournament and putting the Olympic field on notice.  

The USWNT had its April friendlies canceled, and we can only speculate whether the Olympics will start on time, if at all. But for now, the SheBelieves Cup remains the best opportunity to assess where the USWNT is at ahead of a major tournament.

And the out-of-season USWNT looked good, comfortably beating England and Japan. Spain offered the toughest challenge, similar to the 2019 Women’s World Cup, but the Americans as usual found a way to win.

Now, despite uncertainty about how COVID-19 changes the months ahead, the focus shifts entirely to the Olympics in Tokyo this summer, where the USWNT will try to become the first team to win a Women’s World Cup and an Olympics in back-to-back years. 

Here are the takeaways from the USWNT’s dominant SheBelieves Cup and the past week of craziness:

Christen Press needs to be on the field

Coach Vlatko Andonovski is in an unenviable position. With a roster brimming with talent, he has to pare it to 18 players for the Olympics and then choose a starting 11 from that group.

But if anything became apparent over the SheBelieves Cup, it’s that Christen Press absolutely must play a significant role on the field. She can play as a winger, she play up top as a center striker, but no matter where Andonovski puts her, she will make an impact.

In all three games of the SheBelieves Cup, Press added to the USWNT’s goal tally, either by scoring herself or with an assist. She’s been sensational, not just in her ability to score impressive goals, but also her ability to read the plays and help her team in possession. 

Although Press has been in good form for about two years, she’s gone to another level since Andonovski took over, scoring nine goals in 10 games. That’s probably not a coincidence.

There’s more “gray area” in his tactical approach than under former coach Jill Ellis and former assistant coach Tony Gustavsson. That allows more freedom, more creativity and more instinctual playing.

“With Tony and Jill, we were in a very regimented system, which provided a lot of clarity for players but didn’t necessarily allow everyone’s individual talents to shine. Some people, absolutely, but others less,” Press said after the Spain game. “There’s bit more freedom now with less thinking about what you should be doing and doing what you want.”

Vlatko’s style fits this USWNT

It doesn’t seem like a Herculean task to get good performances out of the USWNT. Player for player, it may be the best team in the world.

But since Andonovski took over, to Press’s point, the attack has looked especially free-flowing and dynamic.

Andonovski’s coaching style in the NWSL has been possession-oriented, and he’s taken that to the USWNT, where they want the ball at all times. That means counter-pressing to win the ball back, using an aggressive set of pressing triggers to unsettle teams, and playing with the audacious fearlessness that has been a hallmark of the USWNT.

That’s not exactly a stark departure from Ellis, who also coached the team to be aggressive, albeit with more regimented demands on players. But one major difference is the consistency in Andonovski’s lineups and tactics.

Sure, Andonovski has given bubble players chances to play, but unlike Ellis, we haven’t yet seen any players thrown into unfamiliar roles or abrupt formation shifts. If Ellis was a bit of a tinkerer, Andonovski seems more set in what he wants to do.

Andonovski is letting the players get comfortable together and, so far, it shows.

USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski looks on during a SheBelieves Cup game against England on March 5, 2020. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Precious few spots for bubble players

If Andonovski wanted, he could just take the roster that won the World Cup last summer, make a few cuts, and bring that group to the Olympics. 

That team would probably be competitive for a gold medal, but Andonovski has emphasized that it’s a clean slate and every player is getting a chance under him. He backed that up by repeatedly calling in players who didn’t fit into Ellis’ vision of the team, such as Lynn Williams and Andi Sullivan, and cutting Mallory Pugh on the previous roster. 

But the SheBelieves Cup is proof that, more than likely, the World Cup players will take up all the Olympic spots and it’ll be incredibly difficult for new players to break in.

Williams, for what it’s worth, showed decently well in all three games. Her speed appears to be a notch above the rest of the players on the roster, and her work rate is exceptional. 

USWNT's Lynn Williams defends against Spain's Irene Hernandez during their game at Red Bull Arena on March 8, 2020 in the SheBelieves Cup. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

With Alex Morgan possibly ruled out of the Olympics due to her pregnancy, the USWNT could use a striker like her who chases down balls and uses off-the-ball movement to pull defenses apart. Williams could be that player.

But when it comes to the clutch goal-scoring and assists the USWNT needs in high-stakes games with few chances, the player who has done that more in a USA shirt is Carli Lloyd.

Likewise, the 24-year-old Sullivan may end up being an important player for the USWNT one day, but it’s hard to see it happening while the USWNT’s established central midfielders — Samantha Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Julie Ertz — are all in form. 

It’s not that there’s no chance at all for the non-World Cup bubble players, but it’s a small one.

USWNT rose above U.S. Soccer’s mistakes

First, it was Cordeiro’s letter, which the now ex-president of U.S. Soccer issued the day before the USWNT’s game against Spain. The letter was ostensibly an attempt to nudge the USWNT into settling, but the timing of it and mischaracterizations in it only irked players.

But then there were the stunningly sexist arguments contained in U.S. Soccer’s response to the USWNT’s wage discrimination lawsuit, which was filed the day before the Japan game. U.S. Soccer said its female athletes are inferior to male ones in a public document for the world to see. 

When the players came out for their warm-ups Wednesday, they wore their training tops inside out so you could only see four stars and the outline of where the U.S. Soccer logo was supposed to be. The players chose to wear those crest-less tops for their pregame photo and, instead of just the starting lineup, everyone on the roster stood together in solidarity.

U.S. Soccer should’ve known better than to mess with the USWNT.

After the players’ protest, and after brands like Visa, Budweiser and Coca-Cola expressed dismay at U.S. Soccer’s sexist legal arguments, Cordeiro issued an apology while the USWNT was playing again Japan. More bad timing, and too little too late.

After all, the depositions that led to U.S. Soccer’s misogynistic legal filing happened months ago. The legal counsel for U.S. Soccer asked Lloyd questions about men being faster and stronger than women in December, and they later cited her responses in the filing. The federation was apparently fine with it until it backfired spectacularly.

There’s an irony in U.S. Soccer hosting an event called the SheBelieves Cup, the federation’s attempt at appearing to support women, and then behaving in such a manner. The players’ protest was a powerful visual, and it made U.S. Soccer look foolish once again.

Cordeiro resigned late Thursday, but it appears the USWNT has forced the federation into a reckoning. Everyone who has been involved in what Rapinoe called an “undercurrent” of “blatant misogyny and sexism” — from the board of directors to the high-ranking staff — will need to take a hard look in the mirror.

That the USWNT won the SheBelieves Cup, despite having to deal with so many distractions from their own federation, is quintessential for this team and still impressive.

Carlos Cordeiro abruptly resigned as president of the United States Soccer Federation amid controversy with the USWNT. (Photo by Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images)

What happens next?

As a result of a wild past few days, the schedule ahead for the USWNT looks unclear.

Because of COVID-19, friendlies against Australia (April 10) and Brazil (April 14) are canceled. There are no other confirmed games on the USWNT calendar.

The USWNT’s equal pay lawsuit is scheduled for May 5, but as the coronavirus pandemic continues, it’s possible the trial will be postponed as well. Already some federal courts have pushed trials back.

The women’s soccer portion of the Olympics is supposed to begin July 22, but for now, it’s unclear if the tournament will go on as planned, be delayed or canceled altogether. The CONCACAF men’s qualification tournament, which was supposed to begin next week, has been postponed.

Olympic officials have vowed that they expect the event will continue as planned. But President Trump, after a phone call Japan president Shinzo Abe, tweeted that there are “lots of options” suggesting changes may be necessary.

Meanwhile, U.S. Soccer is grappling with the resignation of Cordeiro and the transition to Cindy Parlow Cone. 

The federation’s governance has made little sense to begin with — Cordeiro’s presidential role was an unpaid volunteer position that was supposed to act as chair of U.S. Soccer’s board of directors. But Cordeiro, like all the presidents before him, was substantially more involved than that.

How Parlow Cone takes to her sudden promotion after serving as a part-time volunteer vice president remains to be seen. But clearly, much larger changes are needed at the federation than a change in president.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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