USWNT’s Valiant Win Over Japan Made it Seem Like its Old Self

The United States women’s national team’s 2024 SheBelieves Cup opening in Atlanta appeared to be heading straight for disaster in less than thirty-one seconds.

Japan’s Kiko Seike, a midfielder, flew down her team’s right side, in behind the American defense, and skillfully tucked the ball inside the far post to score. It has been 21 years since the USWNT gave up a goal so early in a game.

But after that, the remainder of the match proceeded as though the opening scene from Japan had never occurred. The USWNT adhered to its strategy, maintaining a high line and exerting constant high pressure to thwart Japan’s attempt to play short passes under duress.

Jaedyn Shaw’s equalizer 20 minutes later proved to be the payoff, and the Americans went on to control play in the second half until Lindsey Horan’s penalty shot gave them a 2-1 victory.

Above all, the USWNT’s performance demonstrated the kind of confidence of a global force that controls matches instead of a squad that responds to opponents; it was this kind of confidence that the Americans used to win the World Cup in 2015 and 2019 but has been lacking in recent years.

This was the kind of risk-reward ratio that characterizes a daring Hayes team, even with incoming head coach Emma Hayes still observing from a distance. This was a glimpse of what the United States thinks would be a more productive future.

“We’re always looking to be on the front foot,” stated USWNT interim coach Twila Kilgore. “Yes, there’s times we sit in a block, but part of our DNA is to be on the front foot and make sure that we’re dictating play and influencing how other teams play, and making it difficult to play against us.”

As a former full-back who can play in both high-and-wide roles and, as she did in some of her previous six caps, as a more aggressive third center-back in a three-back system, Jenna Nighswonger embodies the classic Hayes defender. Nighswonger was a microcosm of this system’s contradiction on Saturday as well.

When Japan scored early in the game, she was caught high on the USWNT’s left flank. Japan also targeted the area behind the left full-back on numerous subsequent transitional times. But Nighswonger was purposefully pushed high to join the attack, and the United States was rewarded multiple times as she teamed up with forward Mallory Swanson, both of them placing dangerous crosses into the box.

For extended periods, Nighswonger stayed high on the field while the United States positioned four or five players on Japan’s back line and advanced into their opponent’s penalty area. The strategy required spending the most of the match in Japan’s defensive half, but it also put the American defense line in potentially dangerous positions high up the field, forcing them to make an early substitution in the 18th minute when Abby Dahlkemper replaced an injured Naomi Girma.

Almost all ten of the field players from the United States were often moved into Japan’s defensive half, creating room behind over the top.