Why for long-term gains the USWNT might better lose the winter friendlies in Australia

The United States Women’s National Team does something they traditionally don’t do very often: they travel abroad to play a pair of friendlies against a tough opponent on hostile ground. In this case, it’s Australia, a team that has continued to grow thanks to the talent of players like Samantha Kerr, Caitlin Foord and Ellie Carpenter.

Fresh out of the disappointing Summer Olympics, these games – Friday at 11 p.m. ET, then Tuesday at 4:05 a.m. ET (broadcast the second game LIVE on ESPN) won’t be easy for the USWNT, but that’s the whole point. The Americans want these games in Australia to be tough – and, players probably won’t admit that part, if they lose one or both games, that’s even better. That’s because losing sets the stage for victory, as we’ve seen time and time again with the USWNT.

Consider this: Arriving at the Tokyo Olympics earlier this year, head coach Vlatko Andonovski had never lost a game since taking the helm of the USWNT, and the team were leading a streak of 44 games unbeaten when she arrived in Japan. This, of course, did not work very well.

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In retrospect, is it any wonder that American players looked exhausted in their Olympics opener, when Sweden beat them in a masterful display? American players hadn’t known the pain of loss for too long, and the USWNT’s pre-Olympics farewell games were played on American soil in front of home crowds – something many teams at the Olympics could not appreciate due to the pandemic.

These matches in Australia, open to fans, will be the first time the USWNT has played in front of away fans since the World Cup over two years ago in France, which has seen a large American contingent travel to see matches anyway. The last time the USWNT played an away game against a hostile crowd outside of a major tournament was in Europe in January 2019, including a 3-1 loss to France.

Lindsay Horan remembers that trip to France well, of course. Asked by ESPN what is different when performing in front of fans away from home, she couldn’t help but mention the loss. “It’s different – you come into the game and it’s more difficult to play in an away stadium,” said Horan. “I think the last time I remember doing it was in France before the World Cup and it’s tough when they have a 12th man.”

Former USA coach Jill Ellis directly attributed the loss to helping the USWNT overcome a slow start in Canada and win the 2015 World Cup. The Americans went to Brazil in December 2014 and lost, then in France in February 2015 and lost again. “I wanted them to fight”, Ellis said of their trip to Brazil in an exclusive interview. “It was going to be a challenge. It was hot, unfavorable and difficult, and we lost the game. From there I took them to France and we struggled, we lost.”

“In these trials, we learned more about ourselves,” she added. “I’m going to say that without these struggles and defeats I don’t think we’ll win the World Cup.”

Andonovski couldn’t do much before the Tokyo Olympics due to the COVID-19 pandemic – he had been at work just months before sports and travel were shut down. But now he hopes to broaden the horizons of the USWNT, especially as he brings more young people into the fold. His team in Australia consists of 12 players with 10 or fewer caps, including five uncapped players.

“It’s important that we travel outside the country and face a little bit of adversity and an environment where the opponents have that support,” Andonovski said. “It’s important not only to experience it, but to be in a place or in the country that will host the next big event, the World Cup in 2023. So I hope that in the future , we will be able to do this more often than we have been in the last 18 months or so. It is important, especially for players who have never experienced something like this before. “

While losing might be the best thing for the USWNT in the long run, fans never put up with it very well. In 2017, when the USWNT suffered back-to-back home losses for the first time in 17 years, some fans responded by calling for Ellis to be fired, using the hashtag #FireJillEllis in case that wasn’t clear enough. Never mind that Ellis had won a World Cup for the United States just two years ago: USWNT fans are used to winning, especially at home.

“Everyone is so used to winning everything and, I think if we’re going to win the World Cup things like that have to happen,” Allie Long told me at the time. “I love that the fans are crazy. It shows so much passion.”

His words, of course, ended up ringing true. The USWNT, including Long, made their way through France in 2019 and became the first team to win back-to-back Women’s World Cups. Ellis had repeated the same formula she attributed for winning the World Cup four years earlier: five months before the 2019 World Cup she took the USWNT to Europe for friendlies and they lost – a positive omen, it turned out, and it’s easy to see why the losses help.

If losing is to be an option for a road trip to be worth it, then Australia are as good an opponent as any. The Matildas, as they are called, are already on the rise due to the emergence of raw talent led by Samantha Kerr, who has at times been regarded in recent years as the best striker on the planet. She has a cast of emerging talent that Australian coach Tony Gustavsson is transforming from a direct counterattack team to a collective based on possession and high pressing. It is always together, but there are signs of progress.

Although football is a cruel game where the best team can still lose, nothing can force a reassessment or start a fire under a team like losing. But just playing in an environment different from the party atmosphere of home games in the United States will be good for an American team that seemed way too complacent during the Olympics in Japan.

This trip to Australia is also notable in that it is the USWNT’s first in 21 years. They visited Australia on three separate trips in 2000, including one that was part of a decisive boycott against US Soccer, and the last for the Sydney Olympics. There is no doubt that the Women’s World Cup in 2023, which is set to take place in Australia and New Zealand, is the reason for the trip, but getting out of the United States may be the biggest factor at the moment. Since the start of 2016, only 10 of the 84 non-World Cup, non-Olympic USWNT games have been played outside of the United States. The rest was played at home.

Playing abroad is not the end, of course. The United States traveled to Portugal every year for an invitation called the Algarve Cup, but it was a setting that offered little atmosphere and often undernourished opponents. The American Football Federation has decided to launch its own tournament around the same time each year, called The SheBelieves Cup. Unlike the Algarve Cup, matches are played in three different cities in a competition format identical to the World Cup.

The SheBelieves Cup has become a more valuable test for the real thing, even though the matches are played in the United States. But it’s impossible to replicate a journey underground, in front of Aussie fans hungry for revenge after the USWNT defeated the Matildas in the bronze medal match at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Australian federation said it has sold more than 35,000 tickets for Tuesday’s game in Sydney, which would set a new record as the largest crowd to watch the Matildas in Australia. Horan knows this means a lot of Australians are rooting against Americans – but she loves it, she said. “I think it’s that cool feeling when you’re able to score on them or do something right and silence their fans,” she said with a smirk.

But then again, if the Matilas perform well, that wouldn’t be so bad in the long run either.

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