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SheBelieves Preview: The USWNT's Winding Road to the Olympics

This year’s SheBelieves Cup is brimming with uncertainties. Foremost are those that come with any competition in the midst of a raging global pandemic, which not only affects immediate factors like health and safety, but also puts questions marks over the scope of future match play up to and including this summer’s Olympic Games.

Vlatko Andonovski and his team have to assume that the Olympics will go on as scheduled this year, and they’ll use this SheBelieves Cup to continue assessment and preparation. Most notably, the match play will provide further data points as Vlatko takes on the daunting task of choosing an 18-player Olympic roster. At this point, who Vlatko will choose is anyone’s guess.

Amidst all the uncertainty, there is one thing we can all still be sure of: the USWNT plans to win.

Though the start of Vlatko’s tenure as manager was interrupted by the pandemic, we’re starting to see the nuances of the way he’d like his team to play. He laid the groundwork last year in Olympic qualifying and the 2020 SheBelieves Cup, favoring the high press and working to get comfortable out of possession. One exciting complexity of Vlatko’s style is that while he is a very detail-oriented tactician, he also encourages individual freedom and creativity from his players.

In the USWNT’s last two matches, January friendlies against Colombia, we saw Vlatko’s team working on more aggressive, ruthless defending. The system works under a mindset of attacking without the ball. The US wins the ball higher up the pitch and is already on the attack, a formidable tactic when executed well. Of note in this SheBelieves Cup will be how these tactics work against different opponents and what kinds of adjustments are made over the course of the week.

Vlatko’s 23-player roster, announced not long after the January friendlies, included few surprises.

The SheBelieves Cup will be our first chance to really see Carli Lloyd and Alex Morgan duke it out for the no. 9 spot in the lead up to the Olympics. Rotation will be key with the condensed schedule, but we can certainly be on the lookout for who gets the edge at the end of the week.

Sam Mewis has been a regular starter in the midfield since the 2019 World Cup, so her absence (due to an injury from the last USWNT game in January) makes some room that players on the fringes of that Olympic roster will look to take advantage of. Catarina Macario will likely get her first minutes in the US midfield, playing in the no. 10 role. Kristie Mewis, who has been making a solid case for herself since breaking back into the team in 2020, could get her first start this week. She’s been effective off the bench in her last three appearances, and she’ll be hoping to further cement her role on the team moving forward.

As for the backline, Casey Kruger has a shot to break back in after missing some camps, and Casey Murphy could get her first cap in net as Vlatko continues to explore the vast goalkeeper pool.

And finally, the question on all of our minds: will we get the glorious return of Crystal Dunn and Midge Purce to the front line?

While we consider this SheBelieves Cup, it’s hard not to compare it to last year’s. The team has the same overarching goal to prepare for the Olympics, albeit with some different faces and more solidified tactics. But more than the games played, the story from the 2020 SheBelieves Cup centered on all 23 players arriving to the final match with their training shirts inside out in protest of the federation’s blatant sexism in the equal pay lawsuit.

The sheer power on display that day proved what this team is capable of off the field when they exercise their collective voice.

One year later, the USWNT has a chance to use that power by moving beyond conversations and making a unified statement about racism in America.

The SheBelieves Cup is supposed to be about standing up for and believing in women. How will the white players on this team actively stand up and support their Black teammates?

The time for action is long overdue.