3 things learned from USWNT’s back-to-back wins vs. New Zealand

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Three days after routing New Zealand 4-0 in its first match of the year, the United States women’s national team routed the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup co-hosts by the by an even more lopsided score line on Friday.

The Americans got goals from Ashley Hatch, Mallory Swanson, Taylor Kornieck and two from Rose Lavelle — who served as captain with fellow veterans Becky Sauerbrunn and Alex Morgan on the bench — to win in the second of their two pre-tournament tune-ups Down Under 5-0.

Here are three thoughts on the USWNT’s latest victory, the trip overall, and what comes next.

Questions remain despite another big win

As expected, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski rotated his starting lineup heavily after Tuesday’s triumph, making five changes from what was presumably his first-choice group. In goal, Casey Murphy came in for Alyssa Naeher. In defense, Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta replaced Sauerbrunn and Emily Fox. Midfielders Andi Sullivan and Ashley Sanchez spelled Kornieck and Lindsey Horan, who returned to her French club Lyon before the rematch, and Hatch took Morgan’s spot after the striker pulled up lame in warmups.

Some of the changes were surely planned ahead of time, but Andonovski also rewarded his subs for their contributions off the bench following a drab, scoreless first half in Wellington. Sanchez was excellent in the first game, as was Trinity Rodman, who notched two assists off the bench. The pair promptly set up Hatch’s opener for the Americans Friday, a strike highlighted by Rodman curling, perfectly weighted cross:

It was also interesting that Sauerbrunn, the USWNT’s 37-year-old captain, was the center back who made way, with youngster Naomi Girma staying in the coach’s 11. What does it mean? Six months out from the World Cup, and against — no offense to the Football Ferns — vastly inferior competition, it’s hard to draw too many conclusions.

Hatch took full advantage of her opportunity, but that doesn’t mean she’s locked down the job as Morgan’s understudy at center forward just yet. Rodman and Sanchez both upped their stock, but the former will likely be competing for World Cup minutes with injured trio Cat Macario, Sophia Smith and Megan Rapinoe. Meantime, central midfielder is still behind Horan and Lavelle, who was perhaps the sharpest American in both exhibitions.

Let’s not get carried away by the performance, though. Friday marked the sixth straight time the U.S. has beaten New Zealand by four or more goals. They now lead the all-time series 19-1-1. This was a good preseason exercise for the Americans. It was good to start a hugely important year with two clean sheets, and on Friday the U.S. even snapped its four game first-half scoring drought. Still, as it relates to the World Cup, the truth is these two games probably didn’t reveal all that much.

Off the field, an invaluable trip for the U.S.

This month’s trip wasn’t just about preparing the Americans for what will happen on the field later this year, of course. It was as much — or maybe more— about understanding what sort of environment be in off the field during the World Cup.

Friday’s contest was played at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand’s national stadium and the venue for the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup opener against Vietnam, plus the first round finale versus either Cameroon, Portugal or Thailand. Tuesday’s win over these same Football Ferns took place at Sky Stadium in Wellington, the site of the Americans’ hotly anticipated second group stage match against the Netherlands — a rematch of the 2019 World Cup final.

In addition to the facilities, the U.S. stayed at the same Auckland hotel and trained on the same practice fields it will use again this summer. Not everything will be the same — the Americans didn’t visit Australia this month, and the temperature at kickoff Friday was just below 80 degrees; in July, winter in the Southern Hemisphere, the highs top out in the 50s — but it was invaluable experience, even if the resistance provided by FIFA’s 24th-ranked nation left a lot to be desired.

A much stiffer test awaits the Americans in February

Competition won’t be an issue when the USWNT returns home to host the annual SheBelieves Cup next month. Brazil, Canada and Japan are the opponents for this winter’s tournament, which runs Feb. 16-22 in Orlando, Nashville and Dallas.

All three does are capable of making a deep run at Australia/New Zealand 2023, if not winning it all: Brazil is a former World Cup runner-up, Canada is the reigning Olympic gold medalist and Japan the 2011 champion (and the losing finalist four years later).

All three will test the U.S. in ways the Kiwis were unable to, and all three will have access to their full compliment of players because the competition takes place during a designated FIFA window for international games.

Just like at the main event, defenses will be tight and mistakes will be ruthlessly punished the next time Andonovski’s squad convenes. That will be a welcome challenge for a U.S. team that needs it — one that is very much still looking for answers with the World Cup approaching fast.

Doug McIntyre is a soccer writer for FOX Sports. Before joining FOX Sports in 2021, he was a staff writer with ESPN and Yahoo Sports and he has covered United States men’s and women’s national teams at multiple FIFA World Cups. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.

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