Sunday , July 3 2022

Catarina Macario, Mallory Pugh impress, Trinity Rodman slowed by injury

The U.S. women’s national team won its fifth SheBelieves Cup, the annual spring invitational hosted by U.S. Soccer. But the tournament wasn’t so much about lifting the trophy as it was about playing the kids. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski did exactly that, giving chances to players who haven’t yet earned a spot on the USWNT or are trying to win a USWNT spot back.

So who took advantage of the opportunity and rose their stock? And who may not have seen their stock drop but will need a chance to prevent that from happening?


STOCK UP

Catarina Macario, FW

Coming into the SheBelieves Cup, Macario was a player in the USWNT pool with huge upside, but yet-untapped potential, on the senior international stage. That’s partly because in the past, Macario had been shoehorned into a midfield role that perhaps wasn’t the best fit. It’s easy to see why: she’s so good with the ball at her feet, her sharp vision creates chances for the players around her, and she’s willing to put in the work on the defensive side of the ball too. But her preferred position is the position she got a chance to play at the SheBelieves, center striker, and it showed.

By the USWNT’s final game against Iceland, she was sensational, finding seams to attack and showing on-field chemistry with Mallory Pugh as the pair combined repeatedly. It took a little time for Macario to get there, in large part because Macario was playing a new role.

Andonovski told reporters afterward: “We saw from Game 1 to Game 3 how Cat grew, but we mostly saw how the team grew around Cat in understanding her movements, her positioning, the angles, the balls she was playing.” She’s earned more time to try to win that striker spot.

Ashley Sanchez, MF

Sanchez didn’t get the chance to show up on the stats sheet as much as some of the other attackers on this list — even if her two assists were nothing to sneeze at — but the eye test didn’t let her down. When she had the ball at her feet, she was aggressive and confident, taking players on and beating them on the dribble. She wasn’t afraid to try stuff and that not only made her fun to watch, but unpredictable for opponents.

She’s more than earned the chance to feature for the USWNT against some better competition, and it will be worth seeing how she can stand up to that. What the USWNT can expect in the immediate future, however, is parked buses and low blocks, both when they face Uzbekistan in April, and in July when they face CONCACAF competition in qualifiers for the World Cup and the Olympics.

A player like Sanchez could help unlock such defenses.

Mallory Pugh, FW

ESPN’s Bill Connelly called Pugh’s stats throughout the SheBelieves Cup “otherworldly,” and it’s hard to argue with that. Among all USWNT players over the course of the three games, she ranked No. 1 in expected goals, expected assists, winning aerial battles, and crosses completed. But it’s not merely Pugh’s stats that impressed, but the way she played.

Pugh is a player who has already made it on the national team — she won a World Cup in 2019 and although it was in a substitute role, there’s no denying she belonged on that roster — but in recent years, she’s fallen out of favor. Her form had been poor and her hunger has been questioned. But in this SheBelieves Cup, she played like she wanted to be there and prove a point as she chased down balls, backtracked to defend, and put in the work. She won a whopping 91% of her duels, leading the USWNT’s field players.

Emily Fox, DF

The odds of Fox raising her stock in the SheBelieves Cup were stacked in her favor. Why? The USWNT doesn’t really have another left-back right now. Crystal Dunn, who has been playing as a left-back for the U.S. even though she’s otherwise been an attacker throughout her career, is out pregnant. The USWNT’s backup in the position has been Kelley O’Hara, the team’s starting right-back, and for whatever reason, Casey Short has never been able to win that spot.

The truth is, if Fox didn’t play well, Andonovski might have had a big predicament on his hands. Luckily for him, 23-year-old Fox showed up. She looked comfortable pushing forward and getting involved in the attack, and she tied O’Hara for successful take-ons. Now, she needs to be tested against better competition: it’s one thing to push up against a team that isn’t threatening anyway, but a better team makes the job far more complicated. She’s earned the chance to get that test.

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Julie Foudy discusses the work that still needs to be done regarding USWNT equal pay and the CBA.

Alana Cook, DF

Let’s be honest: It’s a bit more difficult to get excited about a center-back’s performance compared to attackers who can score goals or beat defenders with flair. It’s even harder against the level of competition the USWNT faced in the SheBelieves Cup — the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Iceland — which failed to really test the U.S. backline.

But 24-year-old Cook proved she deserves another shot with the national team against some stronger opponents. Per Opta, she ranked No. 1 for the USWNT in recoveries, touches on the ball, possessions won and passes completed, and she surprisingly ranked No. 2 in expected assists behind Pugh. To be fair, it’s easier to rack up stats like that when the opposition isn’t really threatening, but she did look steady and dependable, so Andonovski may want to stress-test her against teams that will attack more.

STOCK HOLDING

Trinity Rodman, FW

For those who have been watching Rodman in the NWSL, it would’ve been tempting to hope or expect her big breakout performance in the SheBelieves Cup. But it’s worth remembering that she wasn’t even supposed to be on the roster for the tournament until an injury to defender Abby Dahlkemper.

Andonovski’s reasoning for why Rodman had been excluded initially was clear: “We don’t want to burn her out — we want to give her a chance to slowly adjust herself to the system, to the structure and to absorb information slowly step by step instead of throwing everything at her.”

Rodman featured a total of 64 minutes over the tournament, coming off injured in the second game after a knock to the knee. (Andonovski said the injury wasn’t serious, but he wanted to be careful, and she did not play in the third and final game.) She had chances, taking three shots, but seemed a little too eager to try to force something to happen. Rodman’s time will come, but Andonovski’s initial message of patience should be heeded.

Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, FW

It’s still hard to imagine 32-year-old Alex Morgan losing her spot — at least right now — despite what the young players at the SheBelieves Cup showed. No one has (yet) proven they can match her contributions back-to-goal, along with her ability to race in behind back lines and muscle off defenders. But the other veteran attackers, Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe aren’t the only players who can make magic from the touchlines anymore.

Julie Foudy hit the nail on the head when she wrote that in years past, the USWNT only had one or two of these creative players who can change the game with individual brilliance, but it looks like this next generation has plenty of these magicians-in-the-making. That’s not to say players like Heath and Press (both age 33) won’t retain their spots, but it’s no longer a given just because they can do something other players can’t do.

Certainly, many of the players at the SheBelieves Cup look like they’ve been learning from Heath and Press, and that will create some interesting positional battles that must play out.


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