The U.S. women's national team opened the 2023 SheBelieves Cup with a solid 2-0 victory over reigning Olympic champions Canada. Winger Mallory Swanson scored twice in the first half, the first with a sharp finish and the second via a giveaway deep inside Canada's defensive third.
The rest of the match was played out on more level terms, but the U.S. was able to comfortably see the game out. Combined with Brazil's 1-0 triumph over Japan earlier in the day, the win puts the U.S. atop the SheBelieves Cup standings on goal differential. The SheBelieves Cup is the second-last window of international games for the U.S. before the 2023 Women's World Cup begins in July, hosted in Australia and New Zealand.
Off the field, the match started with a show of solidarity between the U.S. and Canadian players on two fronts. Players from Canada have entered a very public dispute with their federation over financial resources and pay, which the American players have expressed support for, and both teams wore wristbands showing support for transgender students due to recent legislation in Florida, where the game was played.
1. The USWNT starts fast, and gives Canada a hard time
It's tempting to think that the upheaval in Canada's camp over the past few days -- first they weren't playing over a lack of federation support, then suddenly they were -- played a part in how the opening minutes played out. The purple warmup shirts with "Enough Is Enough" emblazoned on them pretty much said it all in terms of how Canada's players feel about their federation at present.
But the fact remains that the U.S. pressed the bejesus out of their northern neighbors from the opening whistle, and didn't really let Canada breathe until about 20 minutes into the match.
By then the U.S. was already 1-0 up via Swanson (née Pugh) and it could have been more. Swanson's first attempt at goal came just 12 seconds into the match, though Canada goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan was well-positioned to stop her tight-angled shot. Sheridan did well to save Ashley Sanchez's effort a minute later, and there was thought, however brief, that this might be one of those nights for the U.S. in front of goal.
But Swanson soon banished such thoughts in the seventh minute, blasting home from 16 yards after Alex Morgan -- honored for her 200th camp prior to the match -- touched Trinity Rodman's cross back to the top of the box.
Eventually, the U.S. had to take its foot off the gas, and finally did so midway through the first half, allowing the visitors its first long spell of possession around the 22nd minute. But Canada still looked a bit shell-shocked, and Swanson then doubled the home side's advantage in the 34th minute. Morgan pressured Vanessa Gilles into a weak back pass, and with Sheridan attempting to provide a better passing angle, Swanson pounced and fired into a wide open net.
About the only times the U.S. was under pressure was when it was sloppy with the ball in its own half. One such incident took place in first half stoppage time when defender Alana Cook gave the ball away to Canada's Janine Beckie, but U.S. goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher was on hand to stop the ensuing shot with a fine save.
The high-pressing tactic is one that the U.S. can't trot out in every game. Brazil and Japan, the other opponents in this tournament certainly have the skill to play through such an approach. But Thursday's match showed that if it can used at the right time, it can be mighty effective.
2. Swanson does her best to earn a guaranteed World Cup spot
Is Swanson in the best form of her career? At least at international level, a strong case can be made. Granted, she didn't have a bad 2022, scoring 11 goals in 17 regular-season matches for the Chicago Red Stars, and scoring seven more times for the USWNT, including one in the semifinal of the Concacaf W Championship against Costa Rica.
But now Swanson is taking her game to another level.
Thursday's match made it four games in row with a goal, and now has five goals on the year. Better yet, she's constantly finding herself in good position to get clear looks at goal.
All of that said, Swanson can't take anything for granted given the competition at the wing positions that includes Lynn Williams, Midge Purce, Megan Rapinoe and the absent Sophia Smith. Newcomer Trinity Rodman is in that group as well, though on this night she didn't take advantage of the open-field opportunities presented to her.
But at the moment, Swanson is making it impossible for U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski to take her out of the lineup.
3. Positioning and personnel answer No. 6 question
Given the continued absence of Julie Ertz, the holding midfielder position has been a hot topic of late in terms of who will take over. Is it Andi Sullivan, Sam Coffey, Lindsey Horan or Taylor Kornieck?
In this match, Sullivan took over that No. 6 defensive midfielder spot, though Horan was often by her side to help provide another option in the buildup. It has to be said, Sullivan didn't do her prospects of keeping her spot in the lineup any harm. While Sullivan's strength is her distribution, she delivered some crunching tackles in the first half that helped keep Canada under pressure.
So, maybe the problem wasn't the personnel so much as it was their positioning. Horan's mobility and skill means an additional outlet but also one that can provide some defensive help when needed. In her comments after the match, Horan seemed to prefer playing deeper alongside Sullivan.
The prospects of facing Japan and Brazil in the remaining matches will give the U.S. a much different kind of challenge. But it's worth trying the Sullivan/Horan partnership again ahead of the World Cup later this summer.
Best and worst performers
Best: Mallory Swanson, USWNT
Goals don't come any easier than Swanson's second, but she finished her first off with aplomb.
Best: Kailen Sheridan, Canada
Sheridan kept the game from getting out of hand in its earliest moments, including a top-class save from Ashley Sanchez's drive in the third minute.
Best: Andi Sullivan, USWNT
There have been lots of questions about the No. 6 position, and while Horan dropped deep to help build the attack, Sullivan put some solid tackles in and was sharp on the ball as well.
Worst: Vanessa Gilles, Canada
Gilles had a nightmare night in terms of her distribution. In addition to her gaffe on Swanson's second, she nearly gifted the U.S. another goal late in the first half, only to make up for her mistake by blocking Morgan's shot.
Worst: Christine Sinclair, Canada
Aside from one header late in the first half, Sinclair had little impact on the match, and was subbed in the 57th minute.
Worst: Jessica Fleming, Canada
Did little to settle the game in the early going, and wasn't much of a factor on the defensive side of the ball.
Highlights and notable moments
Mallory Swanson said that coach Vlatko Andonovski said he wanted the USWNT to start fast and that's exactly what they did. Swanson scored in just the 7th minute with a beautiful finish.
Swanson wasn't done there, though.
Canada defender Vanessa Gilles helped Swanson out with a terrible back-pass to goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan, which Alex Morgan helped pressure her into doing. Swanson pounced, but to her credit, she finished it well.
- Live blog replay: What you missed as it happened
After the match: What the managers and players said
USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski on Swanson: "I don't know if I would say [two goals is] what I expect, but that's what I would want from her every game: two goals. It is not just the two goals. Her flair in the game, it just makes the game look so easy sometimes. Every time I watch her play, not just in games, but in trainings, I feel like I can go back and play this game. That's how easy it looks. She plays so well individually, but we can see more and more and Mal combining with the, with the players around [her]."
Andonovski on Sullivan's performance: "I thought [Sullivan] was tremendous. I thought she was very good, defensively and covered every little gap that developed. And part of the reason why Canada couldn't break us through the middle was because of Andi and her ability to close down."
Andonovski on Horan's performance: "Lindsey was Lindsey. Pressure doesn't phase her, and she has the ability to do things on the ball that not many players can do. She's just a world class midfielder. But one thing that I was happy about Lindsay is that she doesn't neglect the work off the ball. She puts a proper shift and effort off the ball. So that's what makes her world class."
USWNT midfielder Lindsey Horan on playing a deeper midfield role: "I'm loving it. It's enjoyable for me, going to get on the ball and feeling out the game. I think that's what I did today, that's where I feel like I'm at my best, but the others around me allowed me to do that. So think the team played great today and I was little bit more involved than usual."
Canada coach Bev Priestman on her players' performances after a week of protesting the Canadian federation: "In many ways you think that your players are superhuman and they're not. I felt, for what was in front of me, frustrated on the sideline of course, because we started flat. I think it's the result of the emotional and the training days lost and you add all those things up, they definitely play into it. But I think, not to make excuses, I thought the U.S. came out really well. They're on game three of 2023. They had the two games in New Zealand, they've had a longer camp going into it, and you could see that."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
Mallory Swanson scored her team-leading fifth of the 2023 calendar year. It's also her fourth straight match with a goal.
Swanson's second goal of the game is the 30th of her international career. She joins Alex Morgan (120) and Megan Rapinoe (63) as the third player on the roster with at least 30.
The U.S. women's national team has started 2023 strong with three shutout wins by a combined 11-0 (against New Zealand twice and Canada). That comes after losing three (against England, Spain and Germany) of their last four matches of 2022 and conceding goals in their last five games of the calendar year.
United States: The USWNT continues their SheBelieves Cup campaign when they face Japan on Sunday, Feb. 19 at 3:30 p.m. ET.
Canada: The Canada WNT continues the SheBelieves Cup on Sunday, Feb. 19 when they face Brazil at 6:30 p.m. ET.