HARRISON, NJ — The United States Women’s National Team ended 2022 on a high with a thrilling win over Germany at Red Bull Arena on Sunday night as the team shifts its focus to the summer World Cup next.
The team snapped a three-game losing streak thanks to a pair of straight goals early in the second period by rising stars Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh. Within two minutes, the attackers put on a show for the 26,317 fans inside the arena – an ode to the electric confidence the team is known for.
The match got off to a hesitant start, after Germany secured an early lead on an effortless goal from midfielder Jule Brand in 18e minute. The lackluster goal, which was met with silence from fans, came after some confusion in front of the net following a deflection from a defender.
Team USA kicked off the game’s second half with a well-deserved jolt, thanks to a critical save from goalie Alyssa Naeher in the 52nd.n/a minute of play, shifting the energy of the team. The save gave the team a quick counter, with Smith soon taking advantage of high pressure, dribbling through five German players inside the box and drilling the ball into the back of the net for a much-needed equaliser.
Two minutes later, Pugh, on a distribution from midfielder Andi Sullivan, broke through two German defenders and cemented the team’s 2-1 lead with a powerful shot from the left past their goalkeeper. She sprinted with her arms raised in celebration, as the stadium roared.
Those goals were as much a celebration of a hard-fought victory as a weight lifted from the shoulders of the team.
For several weeks, the women’s national team struggled to win against strong European opponents, such as Spain and England. Earlier in the week, the United States lost 2-1 to Germany in their first of two exhibition games in four days. That loss in Fort Lauderdale marked the team’s third straight, a streak it hadn’t seen since 1993.
The team were well aware of what was at stake at Red Bull Arena on Sunday. Midfielder Lindsey Horan put it bluntly: “We needed it.”
“You come out of three losses and in the next game you absolutely want to destroy the team that comes your way,” Horan said. “But I think for us it was kind of sticking to who we are. … It’s every game at a time. No matter the match, we want to go out and win.
The American team is the subject of criticism
This recent losing streak has raised alarm bells for fans and former team members alike, amid criticism that this new generation of players may be losing the mental toughness the team is historically known for. New Jersey legends Carli Lloyd and Heather O’Reilly both took to Twitter after last week’s loss to criticize the team’s disappointing performance. They made fun of the team’s lackluster performance.
“The winning culture and mentality that has been carried on from generation to generation within the USWNT has crumbled,” Lloyd said. wrote in a tweet. When she retired last year, Lloyd was a vocal critic of her concern about changing team culture.
Those two early goals on Sunday by Pugh and Smith, however, gave fans and critics a taste of that famous American mentality coming back to life. The young forwards were able to deliver thanks to the high team pressure – but, what’s more, the team managed to stick together for the rest of the game against a strong German attack.
Speaking with reporters afterward, Pugh addressed the conversations surrounding the mentality of the team.
“It was just a big thing in this game,” she said. “I think we kind of lost that in the last game, and I think this team, that’s one thing you never lose – that mentality. Ever since I was 12 and playing with the youth teams, it was just something that I knew, it’s the American mentality.
“I’m glad everyone caught fire, we caught it again,” she continued. “We were able to dig deep and sometimes that’s what this game is about – it’s just dig deep and do it.”
Although the US national team heads into this game on a losing streak, fans showed up in full force to support the defending World Cup champions. The atmosphere in Harrison was electric as ever. Every time an American player had a breakaway to the German’s defensive end, the crowd erupted. Both goals drew deafening cheers from the fans.
Sunday night’s game also marked a milestone for striker Alex Morgan, who turned 200e cap for the team, punctuating an already impressive career for the 33-year-old striker. Morgan is one of the longtime members of the national team, being one of the team leaders who grew up between two generations of some of the best players the United States has ever produced. When asked how to navigate that balance, she said it’s about “demanding the maximum from each other and holding each other accountable.”
On the way to the 2023 World Cup
The team is now focused on next summer’s World Cup in Australia and New Zealand. This is the first women’s tournament with an expanded 32-team format, with the United States competing as the two-time defending champions. The team qualified for their ninth World Cup and the 2022 Summer Olympics after winning the 2022 Concacaf Women’s Championship in July.
Although the team has no games scheduled for the remainder of the calendar year, each player is preparing for what it will take to prepare for the biggest tournament of their lives. The squad certainly has a host of talented young stars ready to take over. Smith, who scored the equalizer on Sunday, is a prime example.
The forward was named the National Women’s Soccer League Most Valuable Player last year, becoming the youngest player to earn the regular season honor in the league’s 10 years. The 2022 season ended last month with the Portland Thorns lifting the Championship Cup, thanks in part to an early goal from Smith in the title game.
The 22-year-old now leads the national side with 11 goals in 2022 and is on course to become the youngest player to lead the national side by scoring in a calendar year since Mia Hamm in 1993.
On Sunday, Smith said she was confident about the team’s position.
“It’s a newer band, you know. There’s not the chemistry of many years of playing together, so building that chemistry – in every game we play, we have the chance to do that,” Smith said. “We’re happy with this result, but we still have a long way to go and we know we can be so much better, and I think that’s exciting.
“Because we don’t want to peak right now. We want to reach our peak when the World Cup arrives.