When the U.S. women’s national team won its bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics last month, Vlatko Andonovski was ready to start working on the team’s next chapter right away.
Within a week of returning to the United States, Andonovski texted every player on the roster and scheduled one-on-one phone calls to debrief about how the Olympics went. It was a lot of calls for Andonovski, crammed into just a couple of days, but a crucial step in transitioning to the team’s next multiyear cycle that will include a Women’s World Cup in Australia in 2023 and an Olympics in Paris in 2024.
“It was more of a back-and-forth conversation where we both are providing feedback,” USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn said of her call with Andonovski. “And it was very backwards looking: it was about closing out the Olympics as opposed to looking forward.”
Indeed, the Olympics gave Andonovski and the players a lot to look at because the USWNT’s bronze medal appears better on paper than it did on the field. The players often seemed out of sync, barely resembling the team that steamrolled its way to winning the Women’s World Cup in 2019 despite nearly the entire roster returning.
So now, with the USWNT back together playing a pair of friendlies against Paraguay to open the team’s next era, the process has begun to figure out why that happened and what comes next — and it’s a process that will take some time. Asked by ESPN what the USWNT learned from the Olympics that it will bring into this new cycle, midfielder Rose Lavelle paused for a moment to think.
“Hmm. I don’t know. That’s a great question,” she said. “I think at the Olympics, there wasn’t just one thing we could point to and say, ‘This for sure is the reason behind the way everything’s going.'”
Speaking exclusively to ESPN by phone on Sunday, Sauerbrunn agreed: the answers won’t come all at once.
“I wish I could tell you that we have all the answers now looking back retrospectively,” Sauerbrunn said. “We have a few, but it’s still a process.”
Step one: Rebuilding team chemistry
There are a lot of reasons the 2019 USWNT was so dominant at the World Cup, but one that the players themselves offered up was the players’ chemistry on and off the field. The players joked that they had “22 best friends” in France and told reporters that even after weeks together, they still enjoyed each other’s company outside of scheduled team activities.
By the time the Tokyo Olympics finally happened, however, the pandemic had made closeness and intimacy a liability. The protocols designed to rightly keep the athletes safe also left them feeling isolated. The protocols were necessary, but a challenge nonetheless.
“We tried to do the best we could at the Olympics, but it was really difficult not being able to go outside, or always sitting at the table with the same three people for every meal for 38 days,” striker Alex Morgan said. The players and staff recognize that disconnectedness was at least part of the problem during the Olympics; in fact, Andonovski brought it up in the USWNT’s first meeting back together.
“We know that our performance was not good enough by any means, so with our first meeting that we had back here, it was really addressing the little things we did not do right,” midfielder Catarina Macario said last week. “Becoming more of a team on and off the field is one thing that we really need to do, so I think that will be our main focus going forward.”
For Sauerbrunn, it was apparent during the USWNT’s first game of the Olympics, a 3-0 loss to Sweden that had the Americans looking shellshocked. The players weren’t used to adversity at the time — they arrived in Tokyo on a 44-game unbeaten streak — and they lacked the adequate know-how to help each other navigate it. Now, the players have roughly two years to lay the groundwork that will allow them understand one another on a deeper level. It may seem simple, but amid the ongoing pandemic, it will take some deliberate effort.
“When it comes player-to-player, cultivating relationships off the field, getting to know one another and how we tick, how we respond to stress, it’s being able to say, ‘Hey, you’re acting a little off — are you stressed? What’s going on? How can I help?'” Sauerbrunn said.
“Those are things this team can do and start now to foster those relationships so they get stronger and stronger going into the next world tournament,” she added. “That’s really important to know how one another responds to adversity, and the coping methods to get players back to an equilibrium that is healthy for the entire group. To me, that’s just getting to know one another, and taking the time to get a coffee with somebody or say, ‘Let’s go to dinner,’ and bond over some drinks. That’s something this group recognizes and knows that we need to work on.”
Portland Thorns forward Sophia Smith was not part of the Olympics squad that struggled, and she wasn’t there to experience the problems with cohesion. But she is in camp now to face Paraguay, and she said the renewed focus on chemistry became clear as soon as she arrived.
“What’s stood out to me the most is there’s a lot of emphasis on being a team, not just on the field, but off the field as well,” 21-year-old Smith said Monday. “There’s a big age range on this team, but I don’t think that matters — there’s mutual respect between everyone, every player and the staff.
Yet, it’s not all on the players by themselves. Sauerbrunn, who has been a mainstay on the USWNT since 2010, said coaches have helped in that process by creating a culture of accountability. Asked how the team has built chemistry in the past, she said the coaching staff has to set high expectations for the players and then hold the players to them.
“Then it’s the precedent and players can hold each other accountable a bit easier because it’s already our standard,” she said. “Accountability, being comfortable with one another and having the psychological safety because we know one another, and being able to check one another.”
Changing of the guard
When Lavelle first broke into the USWNT in 2017, it was early in a new cycle, coming after the 2016 Olympics — and after the USWNT’s slate had been wiped clean by then-coach Jill Ellis. The roster spot Lavelle won used to be filled by someone else, but she took it and never let go. Lavelle knows that this time around, there will be more players trying break their way into the team for the first time and take her spot, just like she once did to someone else — and she welcomes it.
“Hopefully we’ll be seeing new faces in camp because I think it’s always good to bring in some players who can push everyone here and push for spots,” Lavelle said on Saturday. “That’s what’s made this team so great and successful, and it’s what makes this environment so hard: there’s always someone knocking on the door, ready to take your spot. There’s a lot of really, really good players performing in the NWSL that will hopefully get brought in.”
Embracing that roster competition from young players has also come with a newer shift in culture, which sees the veterans being quicker to embrace newbies. Historically, the USWNT has been a notoriously insular team that shunned new recruits until they proved they were good enough to compete with the veterans. But Sauerbrunn, who has captained the USWNT on and off since 2016, said the team has been trying to change that.
“Why would we make it unnecessarily more difficult for them and make them feel isolated or like they have to perform well before they’re accepted? That’s just not healthy, so we’ve tried to change that culture so we’re a little more accepting,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Welcome, we’re here for you if you need anything. But when we get on the field, I’m gonna do my best to basically not allow you to have a good day.'”
Young players such as Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh joined the USWNT for the games against Paraguay due to injuries, but they’ve been in camp with the USWNT before. If the start of this cycle is like past ones, however, the next few months should see some brand-new players get their first call-ups or appear on the USWNT radar for the first time.
Some roster spots may free up on their own, too. Carli Lloyd has already announced that, at 39, she will retire after the USWNT’s games in October. Megan Rapinoe and Sauerbrunn, who are both 36, have said they are considering it. Regardless of who stays and who goes, Sauerbrunn and the veterans are trying to prepare the future leaders of the team now to make the transition easier. After all, Sauerbrunn remembers the leadership vacuum that came after the 2015 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, when Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Heather O’Reilly and others all retired.
“What I have wanted to do throughout these last few years is: can we really empower that next tier of leader so that when veteran leadership decides to leave, it’s more of a seamless transition for them because they’re already empowered?” Sauerbrunn said. “Because I feel like a big advantage for this group going forward is having leaders create more leaders — especially if someone has a unique-but-vital leadership quality, empowering them to feel good about leading in their way.”
Changing squads means tactics
While the USWNT’s challenges in the face of the coronavirus pandemic are unusual and the number of veterans retiring after a cycle tends to vary, the process of transitioning from one cycle to the next has some familiar beats every time.
The USWNT generally exists within four-year blocks where the two major tournaments — a World Cup and an Olympics — come at the end, while at the beginning, the slate is wiped clean. That means everything the USWNT did before is susceptible to change from the roster itself to the tactics, even if a certain style of play served as the identity of the team in the previous cycle.
The USWNT has never both won a World Cup and an Olympics in a single cycle, and the Olympics is the last impression of the team before it moves onto its next phase. But no matter how a team does in the major tournaments, there’s always pressure to evolve whenever the USWNT enters a new era.
“I don’t think it matters what the result of that last major tournament is because you can’t rest on your laurels,” Sauerbrunn said. “In 2012, we came off a gold medal in London, but then we had a new coach and that coach doesn’t care about 2012’s gold medal. And in 2016, we didn’t even bring back any silverware, so it’s a restart where we can’t dwell on the past and what we didn’t achieve: we need to learn from it.”
After the 2016 Olympics, Ellis tried a slew of tactical experiments, including a 3-4-3 formation that didn’t quite work out. Her goal was to make the USWNT more capable of breaking down a bunkered defense, which the USWNT often faced. Ultimately, they found a way to do that with a 4-3-3 look.
Andonovski, who took over the USWNT coaching job during the cycle between the World Cup and the Olympics, which is rare, has the opposite problem. The USWNT, now adept at breaking down defensive blocks, needs to get better at handling a high press and counter press, like the one Sweden used to great effect during the Olympics. He isn’t ready to give much away, but he said Monday that the USWNT needs to be able to “solve problems in tighter areas with more precise combinations.”
But the matches against Paraguay, the USWNT’s first since the Olympics, aren’t the time to find out what Andonovski may have up his sleeve. These games are a part contractually-obligated victory tour, part-farewell tour for Lloyd and part-throwaway friendlies against an under-resourced opponent. Andonovski said this camp is too short to implement big changes, so a new-cycle evolution will have to start later.
“There are things from the Olympics that we have to address, and it will not just be this camp,” Andonovski said last week. “It will be a process as we’re moving forward, that we’re hoping to evolve and develop.”