SheBelieves Cup
USWNT heads into SheBelieves Cup in tune-up mode but with plenty to prove
SheBelieves Cup

USWNT heads into SheBelieves Cup in tune-up mode but with plenty to prove

Updated Feb. 14, 2023 1:20 p.m. ET

The U.S. women's national team is five and a half months away from the World Cup, where it hopes to make history by three-peating. The USWNT has already won a record four titles and is planning on winning a fifth, and third in a row, this summer.

This week, the USWNT gets a chance for some tuneup matches against stiff competition in the annual SheBelieves Cup. The U.S. plays Canada at Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida on Feb. 16, Japan at GEODIS Park in Nashville, Tennessee on Feb. 19 and then Brazil at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas on Feb. 22. It's an opportunity for the No. 1-ranked U.S. to play three quality opponents – each has qualified for this summer's tournament and is ranked in the top 11 by FIFA – with a quick turnaround.

"This is an incredibly important tournament because it's kind of the last time that we're gonna get a chance to do three games in a short period of time that sort of replicate in a way, either a group stage or knockout stage or something where you have consecutive games, and you are having to manage travel and the fatigue," U.S. star striker Alex Morgan said.

With that in mind, here are three things to think about while watching the USWNT in the SheBelieves Cup.


What is the team's identity?

The U.S. closed out 2022 by losing three of its final four matches, including three in a row for the first time since 1993 to England, Spain and Germany.

This prompted criticism from former players like Carli Lloyd, who questioned the team's identity.

"The winning culture and mentality that has carried on from generation to generation within the USWNT has been fizzling away," Lloyd, who retired after the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, tweeted in November. "I said it when I retired. I saw it slipping away. Players have to embody that. That's been our DNA since the 80s, but not so much anymore."

She later added: "The rest of the world doesn't fear us anymore. They used to lose the game before it started."

Not to make excuses, but the U.S. was nowhere near full strength during those friendly matches. For one, Morgan, the NWSL's Golden Boot winner, missed the European trip (games against England and Spain) with a minor injury. Mallory Swanson (née Pugh) left camp early to tend to a family matter. The trip also came on the heels of the Yates report being released in full, which was obviously a major emotional distraction for the team.

After a month off, the U.S. convened in January for two friendlies in New Zealand, where it beat the World Cup co-host Football Ferns 4-0 and 5-0. As the SheBelieves Cup approaches against tougher teams – Canada most recently won its first gold medal at the last Olympics – what's the status of the USWNT's identity?

[Canadian women’s national team takes action over cuts ahead of World Cup]

"It is a strong one and is one that we're continuing to build on," Morgan said. "I think we have a really strong mix of younger players and more experienced players, and I think at this point, everyone is jelling as one team. We all hold each other and ourselves accountable every single day in training and in games. We don't shy away from getting into each other if someone is not doing the work they need to be doing or not tracking back. We have to hold each other accountable right now."

Morgan went on to say she thinks the team is moving in the right direction and will peak at the right time this summer.

"I think that [the SheBelieves Cup] is a huge one for us to continue building on what we need to work on and the structure that we need to have both in the attack and defense. Continuing to get these games in front of us and playing against good competition is really important.

"I think we're exactly where we need to be."

Roster updates

Vlatko Andonovski said in January that he has narrowed down the pool of players from 40 to 32. As of right now, he will have to get that roster list down to 23, unless FIFA bumps that number up to 26 like it did for the men's World Cup in Qatar last year. While depth is always a good thing, Andonovski is going to have to make some difficult decisions.

Especially given that the current roster we'll see playing in the SheBelieves Cup isn't even what this group can look like at full strength. That's because it's missing players like Sophia Smith, Catarina Macario, Kelley O'Hara, Tobin Heath and Christen Press. This doesn't include players who will be unavailable for the World Cup, like Sam Mewis (knee) and Julie Ertz (gave birth in August). Mewis and Ertz would have been locks to start.

Andonovski said recently that Smith and Macario are expected to be back in camp soon and should be available for the April window. O'Hara, Heath and Press, all of whom are recovering from past injuries, are in what Andonovski has called "return to play protocol" and could also come back to the team in April.

The return of these players would be a huge coup for the U.S. – the latter three would add past World Cup and Olympics experience, whereas the former two are rising stars who can score goals in high-stakes games.

Seeing which players Andonovski plays during this upcoming tournament will give insight into how the manager is thinking with not much time left to make a final decision.

Three different looks from three different opponents

Make no mistake – the U.S. wants to win the SheBelieves Cup. It's an important tournament for a team that is still building chemistry, and it's critical that the USWNT beat these teams to show that it is the favorite to win the World Cup.

Canada, Japan and Brazil are all ranked in FIFA's top 11 world rankings and all three have qualified for the World Cup. They also present three different styles and challenges for the Americans, as Morgan explained.

"Canada is super structured and organized, Brazil is going to be great in transition, and Japan, they're just so clean on the ball, and they're going to break you down if you have one lapse in judgment defensively," Morgan said. "So they all kind of bring different things."

The USWNT's performance in this tournament will say a lot about their chances in the World Cup. Even if Andonovoski doesn't deploy his exact lineups and even if he is missing some impactful players, the U.S. has to show they still belong at the top as the No. 1 team in the world.

"It's important to do the fine-tuning now, do all the small things right in the games," Morgan said. "I think that was something that Vlatko really thought was important in the last games against New Zealand. Regardless of them not getting three, four or five people in the box on their attack, we were making sure to have our defensive structure set. We're trying to [develop] those good habits.

"We can build on that and these games will be no different. We're going to try to continue [working] on good defensive structure, attacking, transition mentality, and the things that we're really the best at."

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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