Vlatko andonovski, the U.S. women’s national team's bronze medalist at the Tokyo Olympics, was eager to get started on the next chapter of the team's story.
Andonovski contacted every player within a week of his return to the United States and set up one-on-one phone conversations to discuss the Olympics. Although it was a lot of calls, Andonovski managed to squeeze them all into a few days. This was a critical step in the transition to the next multiyear cycle, which will include a Women's World Cup for Australia in 2023, and Olympic Games in Paris in 2024.
Becky Sauerbrunn, USWNT captain, said that it was more of a back and forth conversation in which both parties are giving feedback. "It was very backwards looking. It was about closing out Olympics, rather than looking forward."
The Olympics provided Andonovski and his players with a lot of visuals. The USWNT's bronze medal looks better on paper than on the field. Despite nearly all of the roster returning, the players seemed often out of sync and hardly resembled the team that won the Women's World Cup in 2019.
Now, the USWNT is back together and playing two friendlies against Paraguay in the opening of the new era. It's an ongoing process to find out what happened and what's next. This will take some time. Rose Lavelle, a midfielder, paused to reflect on what the USWNT learned during the Olympics and what it will bring to the new cycle.
"Hmm. "Hmm. She said, "That's a great question." "I believe that at the Olympics there wasn't one thing we could point towards and say, This for certain is the reason why everything's happening'."
Sauerbrunn spoke exclusively to ESPN by telephone on Sunday. He said that the answers will not come all at once.
Sauerbrunn stated, "I wish that I could tell you all the answers now looking back retrospectively." "We have some, but it's still a work in progress."
The U.S. women’s national team's appearance will change over the next Olympic or World Cup cycle. But the starting lineup won't be the only thing that is different. Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images
Step 1: Rebuilding team chemistry
While there are many reasons why the 2019 USWNT was so dominant in the World Cup, one reason that was highlighted by the players was their chemistry off and on the field. Reporters were told by the players that they were "22 best friends" in France. They joked that it was a joke and that they still enjoy each other's company, even after many weeks apart.
The pandemic made intimacy and closeness a liability by the time the Tokyo Olympics were finally held. They felt isolated by the protocols that were meant to keep them safe. Although the protocols were essential, they proved to be a difficult challenge.
Alex Morgan, a striker, stated that while we tried our best at the Olympics, it was difficult to not be able to travel outside or to sit at the same table for 38 days. Players and staff acknowledge that disconnectness was a problem during the Olympics. Andonovski raised it in the USWNT’s first meeting.
Catarina Macario, a midfielder, said that "we know that our performance wasn't good enough". "Becoming a better team is something we need to do. That will be my main focus moving forward."
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It was evident for Sauerbrunn during the USWNT’s first Olympic game, a 3-0 defeat to Sweden, that it had left the Americans feeling shellshocked. They were not used to dealing with adversity and arrived in Tokyo with a 44-game winning streak. The players now have two years to build the foundation that will enable them to understand each other on a deeper level. Although it may sound simple, the effort will be hard in light of the ongoing pandemic.
When it comes to player-to-player relationships, cultivating relationships off-the-field, getting to know each other and how we tick, how to respond to stress, it is being able to say "Hey, you're acting slightly off -- are you stressed?" What is going on? What's the solution? Sauerbrunn said.
She said, "Those are things the team can do and begin now to foster those relationships so that they become stronger and more powerful going into next world tournament." It's important to understand how each other responds to adversity and what coping strategies can be used to bring the group back to a healthy equilibrium. It's about getting to know each other and having a cup of coffee or a conversation with someone to share some drinks. This is something the group understands and needs to improve on.
Sophia Smith, a Portland Thorns forward, was not in the Olympics team that failed and wasn't there for the cohesion problems. She is now in camp to face Paraguay and said that the renewed focus on chemistry was evident as soon as she arrived.
Smith, 21, said Monday that what has stood out most to her was the emphasis placed on teamwork, not only on the field but also off it. Although there is a wide age range in this team, I don't believe it matters. There's mutual respect among all players and staff.
It's not just about the players. Sauerbrunn has been a key player on the USWNT team since 2010. She said that coaches helped to create a culture where everyone is accountable. When asked how they have built chemistry, Sauerbrunn said that the coaches set high expectations and hold players accountable.
She said, "Then it is the precedent and players will be able to hold each other responsible a bit easier since it's already our norm." "Accountability, being comfortable and safe with each other, having psychological safety and being able check one another.
Change of guard
Lavelle was just after the 2016 Olympics, and the USWNT had lost its slate under then-coach Jill Ellis when she first entered the USWNT. Lavelle was the first to take over the roster spot that was once held by another player. Lavelle is aware that there will be more people trying to get into the team this time, and she is happy for it.
Lavelle stated that "hopefully we'll see new faces in camp" because she believes it's good to bring in players who can push all of us and compete for spots. "That's the reason this team has been so successful and great, and it's also what makes this environment so difficult: there's always someone waiting to take your place. The NWSL has a lot of very, really talented players that we hope will be brought in.
A new culture shift has resulted in veterans being more open to accepting young players' roster competition. The USWNT was a historically closed-off team. They would not accept new players until they could compete with the veterans. Sauerbrunn has captained the USWNT since 2016, and he believes that the team is trying to change this.
"Why would they make it more difficult for them, make them feel isolated or make them perform well to be accepted?" This is not healthy so we tried to change the culture so that we are more accepting." she stated. It's like saying, "Welcome, we are here for you whenever you need us." However, when we go on the field, I will do my best not to let you have a bad day.
Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith, both young players, joined the USWNT to play against Paraguay. However, they have been in camp before with the USWNT. If this cycle goes as past, it's likely that some new players will be called up or put on the USWNT radar in the coming months.