Christen Press - US women's national team (USWNT) - smiles after goal vs. England

Goals from Christen Press and Carli Lloyd paced the US women’s national team to a 2-0 defeat of England at Orlando City’s Exploria Stadium on Thursday, the opening night of the 2020 SheBelieves Cup. 

This event is a key annual test against top-tier international competition, one that holds particular importance in the leadup to this year’s Summer Olympics. Here’s a few thoughts on the result as the USWNT count down to the start of their quest for gold in Tokyo.

The Press-tige

On this team full of stars, no one is playing better soccer than Christen Press right now.

Fresh off a Golden Ball-winning performance in Concacaf Olympic qualifying a month ago – where she scored five goals in five games – the Utah Royals FC forward conjured up a trademark banger to open the scoring in Orlando:

Press had to wait for years to get an extended run as a starter for the United States, and there are those who feel her skills are still not being utilized to their fullest extent in the attack. Perhaps there’s something about her graceful movement and mellow personality that leads coaches to believe that she’s always got something more to give.

Press is the type of player who’s worn the overused soccer term “mercurial” quite well, capable of producing both anonymous and unstoppable performances over the years. But her recent run of form suggests that she’s the USWNT’s best finisher at present, and that should make her a write-it-in-pen everyday starter for head coach Vlatko Andonovski until further notice.

Rest vs. rust

Thursday was not a classic display from the reigning world champs, not by their own particularly high standards. Scoring chances were missed, passes flew astray and rhythm came and went, especially in a choppy first half. As their team culture demands, the US rallied after intermission and won going away.

Overall the USWNT looked like a team coming out of their offseason, which is more or less what they are, considering that SheBelieves falls awkwardly on the calendar between Olympic qualifying and the start of NWSL preseason camps this month. There’s some inevitable necessity to that, however, given the draining demands of their big-picture schedule.

No Women’s World Cup-winning team has ever gone on to win Olympic gold the following summer, and as ESPN analyst Julie Foudy noted during the broadcast, timing is a big part of that. The year in between those tournaments leaves precious little time for physical or mental breaks.

That puts the onus on Andonovski and his staff to carefully regulate all aspects of their players’ health and fitness from here to Tokyo to keep them from cratering at an inopportune time, which was their undoing in the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.

England have backslid

The Three Lionesses pushed the USWNT as hard as anyone in last summer’s WWC, falling 2-1 in a dramatic semifinal clash where US goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher had to bail her team out with a late penalty-kick save on Steph Houghton.

Most of us thought England were an ascendant powerhouse at the time, yet they’ve looked bereft of luck or inspiration ever since. Phil Neville’s team are now 2-6-1 since that memorable game in Lyon, putting his job security into question and leaving his squad a shadow of their best selves.

They did some things right, like getting stuck in to test the USWNT in physical terms – though Georgia Stanway crossed the line with her second-half tug on Tobin Heath’s ponytail, which might’ve just poked the bear, as the world champs banged home their two goals mere moments later.

But they were sloppy with the ball and absent-minded at key moments, looking far frailer than their No. 6 slot in the FIFA World Rankings would suggest. Perhaps we'll see ex-USWNT boss Jill Ellis' name bandied about in the UK press in the days ahead.