It finally feels like the new era of the U.S. women's national team has begun. With the retirement of legend Carli Lloyd with last month's games, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski brought a young squad to Australia for a two-game series that finished up Tuesday, including five USWNT players who got their first caps.
With a 3-0 win Saturday for the USWNT followed by a 1-1 draw on Tuesday, the Matildas may not have provided the sting the Americans may need in the long run, but the games did mark a full page-turn from the summer's 2020 Olympics, which saw the U.S. finish with bronze. With an average age of 26 years old and a dozen of the players with single-digit (or fewer) caps, the trip abroad was a good test for an American team that is very much in transition after failing to meet expectations in Japan.
Of course, the Matildas are a team in transition, too. Their weakest spot, central defense, was even more vulnerable thanks to a new pairing -- 17-year-old debutant Jessika Nash and 19-year-old Courtney Nevin -- who were tested together in the first game. Matildas coach Tony Gustavsson had no choice but to tinker and try to shore up an Aussie back line that's conceded a whopping 36 goals in 15 games. That may have flattered the USWNT a bit, but there's no denying that the USWNT was the better team in the first game, and they also looked destined for another win until giving up a late equalizer in the second.
Andonovski was clearly experimenting not just with new players, but also with tactics, as the Americans switched to a back-five defense in a new formation at one point. But as small of a sample size as a pair of games is, playing on "enemy" turf in front of a record-sized crowd in Australia is as good a test as any of these players may get for some time -- after all, the USWNT doesn't usually go abroad that for friendlies that often.
So who rose to the challenge and raised their stock within the USWNT pool?
GK Casey Murphy
In her first two caps for the USWNT, Casey Murphy quickly showed that the USWNT may have found its next starting goalkeeper after Alyssa Naeher. That's no small revelation given that 33-year-old Naeher is still a likely candidate to lead the U.S. to the 2023 World Cup. After Hope Solo's unchallenged dominance in goal for so long, as well as the abrupt change that put Naeher in her spot, the USWNT hasn't had a true positional battle for the starting goalkeeper spot in at least a decade.
Murphy could change that. Across both games, the NC Courage keeper faced 10 shots on goal, registering nine saves -- some of them difficult ones that showed off her impressive wingspan to stretch for the ball. The 6-foot-1 goalkeeper had her share of quick reactions, command of the box and good communication with her defenders, which may only get better if she gets more reps. She also out-performed the expected goals conceded stat -- an advanced metric that projected two goals for Australia, though Murphy conceded just one on a deflection.
Although the USWNT's 3-0 win over the first game looks like a runaway on paper, Australia worked their way back into the game, forcing several key saves out of Murphy.
"The last 10 minutes of the first half we basically relied on Casey," Andonovski said. "We needed her there, and when we needed her the most she came up huge. I thought it was good for her. She gained a lot of confidence."
MF Lindsay Horan
Horan had the most touches on ball of any American across both games and she was an engine in the middle of the field, creating danger and holding possession. That was especially true in the first game as she danced through yellow shirts and, after threatening all day, eventually found the third goal, albeit on a penalty.
That said, it's not surprising to see Horan do well. In 2018, she was the best player in the NWSL, rightfully earning the league's MVP award that season, a run of form that helped her solidify her spot on the USWNT. Horan wasn't just good, she was consistent, and consistency is the hardest part -- so much so that during the 2019 World Cup, Samantha Mewis took her spot and Horan's been locked into a positional battle ever since.
That's the question for Horan: Can she continually step up in every game? A more consistent showing across both games might have vaulted Horan further.
In the first game against Australia, Horan led the way with the best passing accuracy (79%) of any American starter other than Emily Fox (83%) -- but the second game was tougher going. The Portland Thorns midfielder still got plenty of touches, but completed just 66% of her passes and was less effective in helping the USWNT move the ball. When a player has a ceiling has high as Horan's, the expectations become all that much higher.
Still, it's notable that Horan wore the captain's armband for both games, and she did lead the way in expected assists for both games. While she may not have necessarily sewn up a starting spot -- Andi Sullivan is an admirable potential challenger, along with Mewis -- Horan clearly continues to factor into Andonovski's plans in a big way. Horan is a player to watch.
DF Emily Fox
With the news that attacker-turned-defender Crystal Dunn is pregnant, the left-back spot is open for the taking, at least for a little while, and Emily Fox did not pass her opportunity up. To be clear, although Dunn has been the USWNT's best option at left-back, Dunn is a good option anywhere on the field; if a better left-back had come along, there's reason to believe Dunn would be deployed elsewhere. That hasn't happened over the past several years due to a dearth of viable options, but now it seems Fox is changing that.
Given the unenviable task of trying to contain speedy forward Hayley Raso and the overlapping runs from even speedier fullback Ellie Carpenter, Fox rarely put a foot wrong, getting into much-needed one-on-one battles and closing down space. She also looked comfortable playing through pressure, and was a threat up the field as well.
FW Mallory Pugh, FW Trinity Rodman
Two players not in this camp are Pugh and Rodman. Andonovski said both were called in, but both opted out, and Andonovski has said not said why they have opted out, nor have the players. Days after the USWNT roster was announced, Pugh missed an NWSL playoff game in a COVID-related absence. Andonovoski noted that per an Australian government mandate, all players had to be vaccinated as a requirement to be allowed into the country for the friendlies.
Regardless of why the pair ultimately missed out, it was a lost opportunity for Pugh, a player trying to re-establish herself with the national team after falling out of the squad, and Rodman, a young player looking for her first USWNT cap.
"The forward position is an area where we felt we needed to increase the competition -- and not just the competition, but the overall experience of the players, so we have to give them games like this in tough environments like this," Andonovski said of the young players he brought in. "We have to see where they're at."
The crop of forwards in Australia largely looked up to the task, and unfortunately for Pugh and Rodman, the slate of newer call-ups -- including Morgan Weaver, Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch and others -- didn't leave any obvious shortcomings. Indeed, while Hatch clearly led the way with her two goals in two games, all of the attackers did enough to earn more time with the USWNT to fight for a spot against established veterans like Alex Morgan and Christen Press, who were not part of this camp.
Still, the Australia friendlies were one window of many that will come between now and 2023 World Cup qualifying, which will likely not start until January 2023, and Andonovski said Pugh and Rodman will have another chance soon.
"The January window is open for all these players," he said. "And like I said, you know, someone like Mal and Trinity, super, super good young players, one of the most exciting players probably in the in the league this year. We're excited to have them in the next camp."