Securing a spot at next year’s World Cup was the priority. Locking up a spot at the Paris Olympics was a nice bonus.
The real benefit of the Concacaf championship, however, was that the U.S. women’s next generation learned what it takes to win a title. And that could lead to many, many more of them down the road.
“It is very obvious the team is significantly younger than the previous time we played Canada,” U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said after the USWNT beat their neighbors to the north 1-0 on Alex Morgan’s penalty in the 78th minute Monday night to clinch the Concacaf title and a spot in the Paris Olympics.
“We changed five players in the starting lineup. They’re going to be here for at least three, maybe four World Cups,” he added. “So get used to it.”
The glee in Andonovski’s voice as he said that will no doubt carry all the way to Europe.
The story in women’s soccer the last few years has been the rise of the European teams, fueled by federations that are finally putting money into their women’s programs and domestic leagues doing the same. Three of the last four teams playing at the 2019 World Cup were from Europe. ESPN’s list of the top 50 players in the world last month was dominated by European teams, England and Spain in particular.
The suggestion is that the dominance of the USWNT, winners of four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals, if not over, will at least be severely challenged.
But what has made the USWNT so formidable across so many generations is its endless wealth of talent. A Michelle Akers becomes an Abby Wambach who becomes an Alex Morgan. A Briana Scurry makes way for a Hope Solo who makes way for an Alyssa Naeher.
There might be some fits and starts as the newcomers settle in, but the winning continues as it always has.
The challenge this time around is greater, though. Morgan might be in the best form of her career – which is saying something – but many of the other mainstays of the 2015 and 2019 World Cup title runs are either not playing or are playing reduced roles. Which means Andonovski has to figure out a way to integrate this wave of youngsters and do it quickly enough so they’ll be ready for the World Cup that begins a year from Wednesday. And the Paris Olympics the year after that.
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“I’m very happy with the gradual improvement,” Andonovski said. “Even if the results may not seem as convincing … I thought there were moments of the games that we showed improvements. Those are the moments we’re happy about, that give us validation to what we do.
“It means,” he added, “we’re moving in the right direction.”
Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh have had breakout seasons in the NWSL, and it carried over to the Concacaf championship. Smith played all five games in the tournament, scoring two goals. (She could have doubled that tally against Canada.) Only Canada’s Janine Beckie had more than Pugh’s two assists.
Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma, Taylor Kornieck, Alana Cook and Emily Fox all got valuable playing time. All of them are 25 or younger, with Rodman just 20.
If they make the World Cup roster, or are on the Paris Olympics team, they will not be fazed by the pace of the tournament and its ebbs and flows. They will not be discouraged that some games have to be won ugly, and will understand that the final result is the ultimate measuring stick.
They will not get lost in the moment, because they’ve already gotten a taste of it.
“They’re just hungry, they’re lethal,” Morgan said after the game. “These players are making a name for themselves at such a young age. … This experience is going to be huge and it’s going to go a long way for them over the next two years.”
That does not mean there will not still be growing pains or adjustments to make. It was obvious throughout the Concacaf championship that Andonovski was still tinkering with his lineup, trying to identify the best combinations.
There also are a limited number of roster spots, and some of the USWNT’s best players weren’t available for the Concacaf championship because of pregnancy (Crystal Dunn, Julie Ertz) or injury (Catarina Macario, Tierna Davidson and Sam Mewis).
But those are headaches Andonovski will gladly take. Because it will mean the youngsters have proven their worth to a team that, for all that buzz coming from Europe, remains firmly entrenched as No. 1 in the world.
“It just always feels good to be called a champion,” Morgan said.
And it’s a tournament like this that will help put the USWNT’s next generation on the path to being called that again in the future.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.