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Change is coming to the USWNT post-Olympics: The large choices that lie forward of 2023 Girls’s World Cup

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Perhaps Megan Rapinoe waited only eight minutes to score the first goal because she knew she was getting older by the second. She started this game exactly a month after her 36th birthday. When age is rushing at you like that, there’s no choice but to act quickly.

Nope, that wasn’t it.

The age of the U.S. women’s national team at the Tokyo Olympics — on average, 31 — always was too convenient an explanation for how poorly they performed on their way to a bronze medal game against Australia, their first entry into the consolation bracket since the sport was introduced to the Games at Atlanta ‘96. And Rapinoe and 39-year-old Carli Lloyd showed how tired that excuse was by splitting the goals in their team’s 4-3 victory.

MORE: What Rapinoe & Lloyd said about their USWNT future

Lloyd played 80 minutes in what might have been her final competitive performance for the USWNT and still was pushing for a hat trick in the moments before she was removed to a standing ovation from the few dozen on hand, mostly team officials and fellow players, at Kashima Stadium.

Those who came to this tournament carrying the youth this team’s many disappointed critics believed was too finite — left back Crystal Dunn (29), midfielders Rose Lavelle (26) and Lindsey Horan (27) and central defenders Abby Dahlkemper (28) and Tierna Davidson (22) — were among the players who struggled most obviously to recapture the fabulous form on exhibition just two years ago in France, at the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

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And that includes their relatively young head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, who made his major championship debut at 44 and, for the first time in USWNT history, fielded a team that was shut out three times in one tournament. He did not attempt to excuse his performance after the bronze was secure.

“I know there are a lot of things I could have done better,” he said in a press conference. “And, hopefully, I don’t make the same mistakes in the next big tournament.”

Many were obvious:

* Choosing not to open the Olympics against Sweden with essential midfielder Julie Ertz in front of the team’s back line — even though she was healthy enough coming off her April knee injury to play every minute of every game after she entered against the Swedes at halftime;

* Accepting Australia’s strategy of securing a mutually beneficial draw in the final group game instead of fighting to grab a victory, debasing the fundamental competitive spirit that has defined the USWNT since they were unleashed on world soccer 30 years ago;

* The extreme player rotation system that featured full “line changes”, similar to hockey, in which the entire attacking line was subbed out against both Netherlands and Canada  — a strategy that led to exactly zero goals.

There were more, most certainly, that would be known only to those inside the locker room. No team declines from the level of performance on display for the past three years —  no defeats in 44 games — to the level of dysfunction apparent for most of the team’s time in Tokyo without structural mistakes.

Andonovski subtly made the point he wants to be the coach to address those, and winning the bronze helped his cause to remain in his position. Since the 1991 World Cup, the U.S. has failed to medal only once in 15 major tournaments.

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To excel two years hence at the 2023 Women’s World Cup in Australia, he will need to make changes not only to the way he operates, but also to the squad he fields. He did not need to alter the basic components of the roster for these Olympics because it did not need to be altered, not when they still were so near to what was the greatest tournament performance in the team’s history, at France 2019. But he will have little choice now.

He must find some striker options. Lloyd has commented multiple times about her desire to to begin living her life outside the sport. It’s not clear what Alex Morgan might do, but she will be 34 by the next World Cup. She has scored only four goals in her past 16 international appearances. Even if she is back to serve in a role similar to Lloyd’s in the past two tournaments, the U.S. needs a center forward who frightens the opposition as Morgan did in 2019, as Abby Wambach did in 2012.

Who should be that player? There are some excellent wings who still are in their prime, including Lynn Williams, who was the hero of the quarterfinal victory over the Netherlands. But the answer at the No. 9 position is not as obvious. Catarina Macario (below) has played there for Lyon and scored at a proficient rate in limited appearances. She also has played for the USWNT as a creative midfielder. Horan has been a striker before. Moving her forward could provide the answer to this issue, and to alleviate the overcrowding among prominent midfielders (herself, Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, Macario).

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Dunn must move to the front. After playing out of position at left back for consecutive tournaments, Dunn should be the replacement for Rapinoe on the front left of the U.S. 4-3-3, presuming Andonovski were to stick with that formation. Either her passion for playing the position or her effectiveness diminished in the Tokyo heat. But she was not the same dazzling player in this tournament. She has spoken previously about the sacrifices she has made and a desire to play where she lines up for her club.

Dunn could add spark to an attack that, as mentioned, was seriously lacking in the Olympics.

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He must do damage control with his defense. Dahlkemper (above) was one of the most consistent U.S. players in 2019, helping to control the box and launching attacks with her pinpoint passing. She played so poorly here she was left out of the 18-player gameday roster for the Canada semifinal. Davidson took her place and gave away the penalty that cost the Americans that game and then committed a silly turnover against Australia that led directly to the Matildas’ first goal.

With Becky Sauerbrunn, 36, an unlikely choice to remain a starter, Davidson and Dahlkemper should be at the heart of the D in 2023. But they’ll need to come back from these performances without their confidence damaged.

There is this and so much more. This is not to say the USWNT is on the precipice of decline, only that it is, once again, confronting substantial change. Andonovski has shown he can win as the team’s coach. The job, of course, is to win big.

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