The U.S. women’s national team’s useless 0-0 draw with Colombia on Thursday was, in a way, unsurprising. Las Cafeteras were World Cup quarterfinalists, one round better than the flailing USWNT. They have the players and the structure to stifle an American attack that also stifles itself. A goalless snoozefest, on a cold weeknight in Sandy, Utah, was to be expected.
But it didn’t have to be an utter waste of time.
This was a friendly, a time to experiment, to move forward after the program’s biggest failure.
So it was baffling, infuriating even, to see that three months on from the World Cup, nothing has changed.
It was painfully obvious in the aftermath of a Round of 16 exit that the USWNT must evolve. The evolution will span tactics and development systems, but it must begin, in the immediate term, with a phasing out of veteran players and a phasing in of youngsters, a transition that Vlatko Andonovski, the ousted head coach, failed to engineer.
And yet, the U.S. rolled out a starting lineup Thursday night of 11 World Cup players, nine of whom started the Round of 16 loss to Sweden.
Interim coach Twila Kilgore has invited talented teenagers into the fold. Other prospects overlooked by Andonovski have also been called into September and October training camps. Alyssa Thompson, Mia Fishel, Jaedyn Shaw, Sam Coffey and Olivia Moultrie are all available for valuable USWNT minutes.
And they played a combined four minutes in Thursday’s dull draw. Four.
Shaw, who just turned 19, was the only non-World Cup player under age 28 who saw the field — as an 87th-minute substitute.
That these players are debuting — or sitting on the bench — under an interim coach is a sidebar, a secondary discussion. U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker is leading a patient, time-intensive search for Andonovski’s successor. There are justified gripes with his approach, which seems overly scientific — and very similar to the one that lasted months on the men’s side only to lead back to the incumbent, Gregg Berhalter.
But Crocker is right to not rush; to prioritize the best decision over a quick decision. If a methodical search costs the USWNT a camp or two, that’s fine. Not ideal, but fine. Players drive international soccer anyway. Kilgore seems competent and qualified to guide them for a few months. An interim period of some length seems necessary.
But it doesn’t have to be useless. Just look across the hall, at the USMNT.
The U.S. men endured a seemingly directionless 13 months without a head coach after their biggest failure, the October 2017 loss to Trinidad and Tobago that cost them a ticket to the 2018 World Cup. Bruce Arena resigned in the aftermath. His assistant, Dave Sarachan, took over on an interim basis. Sound familiar?
But Sarachan did something akin to what Kilgore should be doing. He immediately called in Tyler Adams and Weston McKennie. He threw them into the fire one month after the loss in Couva, into the starting lineup for a friendly in Portugal.
By his third real camp in May, he’d introduced seven players, mostly kids, who ultimately became 2022 World Cup starters — in part because they were given keys to the proverbial car, time and leeway to grow in the national team environment.
If not now, when will the likes of Shaw, Fishel and Thompson get that time?
The answer is probably a year from now, next fall, after the 2024 Olympics. But every camp, every appearance, is valuable. The hesitance to jumpstart the player pool’s evolution right now is senseless. Every camp between now and the spring, when the focus can shift to the upcoming Olympics, should gradually discard the old guard and look toward the future.
According to Kilgore, it was Crocker’s “directive” to call in every World Cup holdover who’s healthy. Crocker sort of explained himself in a September statement that read, in part: “Once the new head coach comes in, that individual will assess the player pool and make roster decisions that will be focused on building a team for the future.” The intimation was that the new coach should have a carte blanche, unswayed by an interim’s assessments or opinions.
Which is silly.
Nothing about the current state of the team is worth protecting.
The time for niceties and careful handling of veterans has long since passed.
It shouldn’t take a months-long search to find an individual who can conclude that, ya know, the electric teenager who just propelled the San Diego Wave to the top of the National Women’s Soccer League (Shaw) will probably be part of the USWNT’s future. And perhaps the 22-year-old striker already scoring goals for Chelsea (Fishel) might be integral too.
So play them. Now.
Kilgore even spoke last week about how impactful playing them could be. “Every time we expose younger players to ... this team, but also high-quality international soccer, they learn something,” she said. “That then affects their game, that allows them to continue to go back in their home markets and work. The idea is, basically, we accelerate their development.”
So, uh, what are we waiting for?