2021 Was A Year Of Ups, Downs And Changes For The USWNT, All Setting Up A Big 2022
by Michael Lewis
(L-R) Crystal Dunn, Rose Lavelle, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan celebrate after the women's quarterfinal against the Netherlands at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on July 30, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.
For most national soccer teams, an Olympic bronze medal and a 17-2-5 record would be considered a highly successful year. That’s not necessarily the case for the U.S. women.
Then again, not many teams carry such weighty expectations.
With the USWNT now having wrapped up play for the season with a win and a draw in Australia this past week, here’s a look back at the eventful year that was 2021 and what might be coming in 2022.
Changes In The Pro Game
Changes were afoot in the pro game, both at home and abroad. The past season began with a parade of high-profile U.S. stars announcing moves to European teams, at least for part of the year. Most of the overseas movement involved the Women’s Super League in England. Among the biggest winners for the U.S. were midfielder Sam Mewis and forward Tobin Heath. Mewis, playing for Manchester City, was named to the WSL’s Team of the Year, while Manchester United’s Heath was the November player of the month.
Back at home, the NWSL is looking to regroup after a series of high-profile abuse allegations that resulted in five male coaches being either fired or forced to resign. There is reason for optimism. In November, rising star Trinity Rodman led the Washington Spirit to its first league championship, while the arrival of two high-profile expansion teams in Angel City FC (Los Angeles) and San Diego Wave FC will grow the league’s footprint next season.
Meanwhile, several top players will be on new teams in 2022, with Mewis being traded to the Kansas City Current and Julie Ertz to Angel City, where she’ll be joined by fellow U.S. teammate Christen Press. Defender Abby Dahlkemper, a World Cup and Olympic veteran, highlights San Diego’s roster.
Bittersweet Olympic Bronze
No team has won the Women’s World Cup and then claimed the subsequent Olympic gold medal. Even with an extra year to prepare due to the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, the U.S. women continued that trend.
Fielding an older squad that largely resembled the World Cup-winning team from 2019 — the USWNT’s average age was around 30, and the forward line was 33 — the Americans struggled to find their rhythm in the empty stadiums. That began with a 3-0 drubbing in the opener against longtime nemesis Sweden. A big win over New Zealand and scoreless draw against Australia was enough to send the U.S. on, but the USWNT needed a shootout to oust the Netherlands in the quarterfinals, then fell 1-0 to eventual champions Canada in the semis.
Carli Lloyd waves to fans after her final USWNT game on Oct. 26, 2021 in St. Paul, Minnesota.
The team regained its former luster with a wild 4-3 victory over Australia. Two of the most veteran players, Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe — the Golden Ball winners at the previous two Women’s World Cups — enjoyed a more moment of glory by striking twice apiece.
Amid the celebrations in the coastal city of Kashima, Lloyd talked about the U.S. team needing to get its “mentality” back.
Passing the Torch
Carli Lloyd has long bristled at suggestions that her career might eventually come to an end. In October, it finally did with an emotional send-off game in St. Paul, Minnesota. Just prior to that game, the two-time world player of the year ceremoniously handed off her No. 10 jersey to teammate Lindsey Horan.
Filling Lloyd’s shoes is almost an impossible task — what with her 134 international goals, including the game-winners in the 2008 and 2012 Olympic gold-medal games.
The 27-year-old Horan should be a capable holder of the No. 10, though. The midfielder already has more than 100 caps for the USWNT, with 25 goals and 38 assists. She’s also a two-time Olympian and was a key member of the 2019 World Cup squad. The Colorado native was given the captain’s armband for the first time late in the year.
“I think Carli Lloyd is truly one of the most incredible women’s national team players that has come through the system,” Horan said. “And over the past few years, she’s been such a role model for me and I’ve gotten closer and closer with her and gotten to learn so much from her.”
New Blood Arrives
Lindsey Horan isn’t the only player expected to take on a larger role in the coming year. After sending a veteran team to Japan for the Olympic Games, coach Vlatko Andonovski went increasingly to the other direction late in the year. That was especially true in the team's final two games, a 3-0 win and 1-1 draw on the road against Australia last month.
Among the standouts in the Australia series was Ashley Hatch, the 26-year-old striker and reigning NWSL Golden Boot winner for the Spirit. She scored her first international goal just 24 seconds into the first game, then added another four minutes into the second game. Goalkeeper Casey Murphy, 25, became the seventh U.S. goalkeeper in history to register a clean sheet in her debut. Meanwhile, defender Emily Fox, 23, played an outstanding game in the tie.
Alex Morgan poses with her bronze medal at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Aug. 6, 2021 in Yokohama, Kanagawa, Japan.
Several other players could be in the mix for more playing time in 2022. The list likely will include defenders Alana Cook, 24 , Tierna Davidson, 23, and Imani Dorsey, 25; midfielders Catarina Macario, 22, Ashley Sanchez, 22, and Andi Sullivan, 25; and forwards Bethany Balcer, 24, Mallory Pugh, 23, Midge Purce, 26, Sophia Smith, 21, and Morgan Weaver, 24. Also keep an eye out for 19-year-old forward Trinity Rodman, the daughter of former NBA star Dennis Rodman. A senior national team debut appears imminent for the reigning NWSL Rookie of the Year.
Which Veterans Make It To 2023?
Carli Lloyd might have called it a career, but several veteran U.S. players are forging forward, presumably with the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand in their sights. Among them are forwards Megan Rapinoe, 36, Alex Morgan, 32, and Christen Press, 32; and center back Becky Sauerbrunn, 36.
The next Women’s World Cup is closer than we think. FIFA announced on Wednesday the dates (July 20-Aug. 20) and venues for the event. And qualifying begins only eight months from now at the newly renamed Concacaf W Championship in July 2022.
Reaching Australia and New Zealand might not necessarily be as easy as it sounds. Canada is a formidable foe and the reigning Olympic champion. Meanwhile Mexico has improved, as it demonstrated in its 2-1 win and scoreless draw against the Canadians last week.
The picture for these players and aspiring replacements should start coming into focus at the next training camp in January and the SheBelieves Cup, expected to take place in February. How the Americans fare and how the newcomers, youngsters and veterans perform could give us a good idea of where this team is headed.
Michael Lewis, who covers soccer for Newsday, has written about the sport for four decades and has written six books about soccer. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.