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Stars Vs. Balance: USWNT Wins The SheBelieves Cup By Overcoming An Ongoing Issue

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Another game between the United States and Canada ended in a successful penalty shootout for the Americans.

On Tuesday, the USWNT emerged victorious in a shootout against Canada for the second time in 34 days, following Canada’s late-game equalization for a 2-2 draw. With the victory, the USWNT won the SheBelieves Cup for the seventh time in nine tournaments.

A trophy is nice, but what mattered most that night was what the Americans learned from their tactical successes and failures as they proceeded through this transition period three months before the Olympics.

The starting lineup that defeated Japan 2-1 three days prior saw four changes on Tuesday, according to USWNT interim coach Twila Kilgore. The changes’ “who” was much less significant than their “how,” and they effectively answered one of the most important questions that incoming head coach Emma Hayes will have to answer when she takes over next month: Will she try to start her best 11 players on the field, or will she be willing to make the necessary sacrifices to assemble her most cohesive squad?

Tuesday’s exhibition of the shortcomings of the previous strategy contrasted sharply with the USWNT’s commanding performance against Japan. Jaedyn Shaw returned to his winger role on Tuesday, having performed admirably in the No. 10 spot against Japan.

Alex Morgan, the striker, was on the left side of her, while Sophia Smith was positioned on the right. Although Lindsey Horan moved up into the No. 10 position, the USWNT was left with a familiar dilemma as a number of players who favor occupying central spaces were forced to provide width.

In the first half, Horan tended to stray toward the right side next to Smith, probably to give Shaw more room to settle in. Ultimately, though, this meant that the US was left without a primary passing option in the spot that a No. 10 would normally hold. Shaw once found the ball by drifting all the way to the right touchline alongside Smith in the latter part of the first half.

After halftime, it was evident that a change was needed. Mallory Swanson, who was probably limited in her playing time due to her injury, took Sam Coffey’s place. This caused Horan to move deeper into midfield and Shaw to move inside to assume the No. 10 position.

The adjustments were successful almost immediately, as Smith equalized five minutes after the break thanks to a Shaw assist. After eighteen minutes, Shaw was the main creator once more, setting up Trinity Rodman, a second-half substitute, to feed Smith a through pass for a second goal.

In the USWNT’s commanding team performance against Japan on Saturday, Shaw served as the impetus for the attack. In that match, Swanson and Rodman covered Morgan’s wings on either side, putting the USWNT’s front four in their ideal and most comfortable positions. With those players switched around, the USWNT appeared disorganized on Tuesday; however, as soon as the halftime adjustments were made, harmony was restored.

That is Hayes’ problem, and it’s a good problem to have.

What would happen to a healthy Rose Lavelle or Catarina Macario if Horan moves more into a No. 8 or double pivot role and Shaw’s performances continue to demand the starting No. 10 role—she made that case against Japan and in the second half against Canada—?

And what happens to the incredibly gifted Smith, the recent NWSL MVP and Golden Boot winner, with Swanson and Rodman most at ease in winger roles and Morgan continuing to stake her claim as the team’s main target? Due in part to this positional conundrum, Smith, who plays a dominant role for the Portland Thorns in the NWSL, has found it difficult to nail down a precise role on the international scene.

She scored both goals in the second half, including her second goal immediately after switching to the No. 9 position, so it’s not a coincidence.

While none of these problems are brand-new, the coach assigned to handle them will now be replaced. Hayes needs to figure out how to make the most of a talented team.

The USWNT’s lackluster performance at the Women’s World Cup last year was a result of individualistic play and a team that lacked chemistry, partly due to its inability to define itself. With Morgan as the striker, Smith was able to fit into a wide role, and the Americans switched up their midfield to find a replacement for the injured and then-recovering Lavelle.

These fixes were implemented too late, as Sweden defeated the USWNT in a penalty shootout during the round of 16.

Hayes has long been critical of the USWNT for lacking technical players, so it is encouraging to see Shaw blossom into a star before her very eyes before she even steps foot on the sidelines.

The USWNT’s lineup matters just as much as the players on the field, as the Tuesday game proved. Despite the difficulties of recent years, there has never been a lack of talent in the pool of American players; rather, there has only ever been a lack of creative solutions and ideas from both coaches and players.

Because U.S. Soccer believes Hayes is the best coach to address those problems, the organization hired her, and it was worth the wait as she wraps up her time at Chelsea. In a tale of two halves, the signs of what is and is not working were once again on display on Tuesday. She will only have a few months to do so before the Olympics.

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