As friendlies go, Friday’s matchup between the U.S. women’s national team and England is about as enticing as they get.
Fresh off winning the 2022 Euros, the Lionesses will be eager to keep manager Sarina Wiegman’s incredible unbeaten streak going against the reigning World Cup champions. The U.S., meanwhile, might have won the biggest trophy in the sport in 2019, but they’ve since been going through something of a transition under manager Vlatko Andonovski.
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These two sides have history, of course: Who can forget the USWNT’s win over England in the World Cup semifinals in France — and Alex Morgan’s goal celebration in which she mimed drinking tea, much to the chagrin of British fans. But mostly, this matchup is about looking ahead: the World Cup is next summer in Australia and New Zealand, and big friendlies like this are vital in the run-up to that next global tournament.
As such, we’ve assembled ESPN experts Sophie Lawson, Jeff Kassouf, Tom Hamilton and Mark Ogden to break down the storylines ahead of the match and make some predictions.
Does this result matter, and would winning (or losing) mean anything for either side?
Lawson: I think when it comes to football in general, we all get bogged down in results being paramount, but for coaches — especially in friendlies — it’s performances they’re looking at. Both Wiegman and Andonovski will be looking at and assessing individual players as well as what is and isn’t working overall, but unbeaten runs and bragging rights won’t be the concern of those in the dugouts.
Kassouf: Sophie is absolutely correct that we too often view results in a vacuum. The hard truth of this game is that it’s a chance for each team to see who fits, who doesn’t and what isn’t working.
Let’s look at the past two World Cup cycles: the U.S. started the tournament calendar year each time by getting cooked in France. The specific goal of those games in 2015 and 2019 was to go on the road (which the U.S. doesn’t do enough) and start a couple of depth players to see how they respond. The U.S. lost both times, and public panic ensued. They went on to win both of those World Cups.
“The timing of playing these opponents is perfect for us because I still believe we’ll have enough time to go over and iron up anything that may come up as a flaw,” Andonovski said Thursday.
Hamilton: I think this match matters more to England than it does to the USWNT from a confidence point of view. England are on this remarkable unbeaten run under Wiegman, and they’ll want to keep that going. They’re also playing in front of a packed, sold-out Wembley and will hope to continue riding the wave of euphoria off the back of their Euros success in the summer.
But as Jeff and Sophie say, this is more a shadow-boxing bout ahead of the main event next year. From a player’s perspective, it’s a match in which World Cup places will most likely be lost rather than secured.
Ogden: I’m with Tom on this. Yes, it’s a friendly with nothing more than pride and ego at stake, but momentum is crucial in football, as it is in all sports, and beating the USWNT would be a huge psychological marker for England and Wiegman going into the World Cup.
England can build momentum on the back of winning Euro 2022, but also show they are a real force that the U.S. must reckon with. If the U.S. win at Wembley, it will be the equivalent of an older sibling patting their younger relative on the head and saying, “Better luck next time.”
We’ve got two reigning champions: the 2019 World Cup champs vs. the 2022 Euros champs. Going into the World Cup, which team will everyone fear more: the USWNT or the Lionesses?
Lawson: Players love to say that they don’t fear anyone and instead focus on themselves, yet it’s hard to overlook the USA’s dominance at the World Cup and their back-to-back titles. What’s more likely is the confidence we usually see from the USWNT and their unwavering belief in themselves is what could set off subconscious alarm bells for their opposition in Australia and New Zealand next year. The Lionesses just don’t have that aura around them.
Kassouf: I agree that historically there has been a fear of the United States, but at this moment, I don’t think it exists.
This is a young U.S. team that is very talented, but not yet fully developed and clicking (there’s still time for that, though: see above). I think there have been enough growing pains and the Tokyo Olympics featured enough struggles that top rivals will see the U.S. as more beatable than they have been in the past. This new generation of U.S. players carries that burden of setting a new tone while maintaining a historical standard, and that’s a tough prospect.
If the World Cup started today and I’m a top-five team in a knockout game, I’m more worried about England’s form, though there’s plenty of time for that to change for both teams.
Hamilton: I’m with Sophie here. I think the USWNT have slightly more of an “aura” around them than England, but the Lionesses do have the fear factor within their management team.
England’s future opponents would have seen the scenes that followed their Euro triumph and the role Wiegman played in those remarkable four weeks. I think the Wiegman factor is enough to concern potential opponents in the World Cup. She is a world-class manager, a proven winner and badly wants to add a World Cup to her collection of two Euros titles.
Unless this match is a complete blowout, I don’t see it having much of a bearing on their fear factor heading into next year’s competition, but it will be closely dissected by the other teams.
Ogden: The USWNT are the team to beat and will continue to be so at the World Cup, regardless of what happens at Wembley. Their dominance of the women’s game is similar to that of a peak Tiger Woods in that they might not win all the time, but when it matters most, they step up a gear and do what it takes. Just like Tiger had everyone waiting for the surge, the USWNT have a track record of getting the job done, and all of their rivals know and fear that. England are nowhere near that level yet.
Is England-USA a rivalry yet? Could it become the next great rivalry in international women’s football?
Lawson: Ahead of the 2020 She Believes Cup, previous England coach Phil Neville spoke about wanting England vs. USA to be just that rivalry, but rivalries aren’t forged over friendly matches and just because the two have played each other a lot over the past 5-10 years, it hasn’t organically grown to that point yet. The two need to clash in more major tournament knockout stages, and there needs to be pain and agony on both sides of the tie before we can really start to talk about rivalries.
Kassouf: It could become a rivalry, yes, though I don’t think we’re far from it. The U.S. has so many deeper historical rivalries, however. Some of those (like with Norway) have faded, but the frequency with which the U.S. and Sweden meet in major tournaments put that duel, among others, ahead of this matchup. USA-Canada will always have more meaning. As big as the event will feel at Wembley, a friendly won’t instantly change that, even with the World Cup semifinal in mind.
Hamilton: The reaction to the celebration from Alex Morgan after her goal in Lyon in the World Cup semifinals was a storm in a teacup, but I think some of those England players will still be smarting from that defeat.
However, you need consistently brilliant, high-octane matches with tonnes hanging on them to generate some momentum behind a rivalry. So while Friday’s game will be a lovely additional chapter to the tale of the two sides, they really need to meet in next year’s World Cup for talk of a rivalry to be stoked.
Ogden: I think it becomes a rivalry on the back of two things — success and resources. The U.S. has the success, but England now has a taste of it following the Euros and bouncing into the World Cup with the ambition of doing a double will automatically intensify the rivalry with the U.S.
But there is also the reality that the English FA is backing the Lionesses with financial and sporting resource that only the U.S. can match, so any return on that investment will be measured against the biggest and most powerful, which the U.S. represents. In turn, the U.S. will want to ensure they stay ahead, so it will become a rivalry on and off the pitch.
What is the biggest question that must be answered in this game?
Lawson: The USA potentially have far more question marks around them than England. For Andonovski, you’re looking more at the personnel and shape and whether the coach is getting the best from who he had available. For England, now they’ve “arrived,” the question is what happens when teams make them uncomfortable, as we’re expecting the U.S. to do.
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Kassouf: Injury news for the United States makes this a two-parter. Firstly, the No. 9 position is once again a question. Alex Morgan won’t make the trip because of a knee injury, and Catarina Macario is still out long term following a torn ACL. Ashley Hatch has been next in line, but Andonovski suggested he could play Sophia Smith centrally against either England or Spain. Smith has been fantastic as the No. 9 in the NWSL this season but has played as a winger for the U.S.
Who is the No. 9 without Macario and Morgan, and how will they handle it?
From a starting perspective, and to the point of battle testing players: those aforementioned games against France both focused on finding a left full-back. We’re likely to see Sofia Huerta and Emily Fox as the U.S. full-backs in their biggest international games to date, and they’ll have to deal with Rachel Daly and Lucy Bronze overlapping and overloading. How they handle that will inform a lot about the World Cup.
Hamilton: Injuries have disrupted England’s build-up with Alessia Russo absent, and doubts over captain Leah Williamson’s forthcoming availability.
Russo was the favourite to start up front Friday following Ellen White’s retirement, but she has been forced to withdraw because of injury, so Wiegman may rejig the forwards to make room for the in-form Lauren James. If Williamson fails to recover from a training injury, then England will need a new captain.
The original squad showed signs of evolution with the additions of Jess Park and Lucy Parker. Parker could be the long-term successor to Lucy Bronze, but an untimely injury has seen her ruled out. Park will provide competition up front, while Esme Morgan is another option in defence. The opportunity is there for Nikita Parris and Lotte Wubben-Moy, who were originally left out of the squad but have since been recalled. So for England, the biggest question marks are over how they transition from one tournament to the next, and who the players will be to gatecrash next year’s squad.
Ogden: It’s a psychological challenge for England and how they deal with it. Winning can instantly inject teams with the belief, confidence and desire to do it again, but some teams react to success by switching off to enjoy the moment and reflect on what they have done. If England do the latter, you can forget about winning the World Cup. But if they stride onto the Wembley pitch feeling 10 feet tall about the Euros, they will be a better team and a genuine threat to the Americans’ dominance.
The World Cup is the next tournament on the calendar: which player has the most to gain or lose from a big friendly like this?
Lawson: It all depends on who actually gets onto the pitch, as both coaches have called up players who give them multiple options. This means we’re heading into assumption territory. For the U.S., if Andi Sullivan can get a good look in, as she offers something different in midfield, she could potentially upset the balance.
For England, if Daly is given a run out in attack, she could change her role in the team, but it’s more likely that James will see more time in the attack than Daly. If James is allowed to play her game against the USA, Wiegman won’t be left with a choice despite the healthy depth of her attacking options.
Kassouf: I touched on the striker and full-back roles already. Let’s talk about 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson. Is there any greater value add for a first call-up than to have it come on a road trip to face two of the top-10 teams in the world? To talk about the 2023 World Cup for Thompson right now would seem a stretch, but even if she does not get game minutes in October, she stands to gain immense experience on this trip that she can take with her if and when she becomes a regular with the senior team.
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Hamilton: I think England’s James. She made a high-profile transfer from Manchester United to Chelsea in July 2021, but her match time was carefully managed last season by Emma Hayes, who said when James signed that they were going to take time to “build Lauren James to last.”
James played just 200 or so minutes last season. She was frustrated at times, but is reaping the benefits this season. Having been unleashed this term, she has already been one of the standout players in the WSL and made her England debut off the bench in their 2-0 win over Austria. An impressive performance against the USWNT will do wonders for her confidence and her standing in Wiegman’s squad.
Ogden: Park has started the season really well for Everton and has earned her call-up to the senior squad, so what a game to potentially make her England debut. A wonder goal in the Merseyside derby against Liverpool recently sealed her call-up, but although she is surrounded by strong competition, this game gives her the chance to claim a place in the World Cup squad, so she has everything to gain.
Prediction time: Who wins?
Lawson: I’m going to be bold (or just hopeful that we get to see loads of very tasty goals) and say it’s going to be a bonkers 3-2 to the USA after both teams have turned on the style in attack.
Kassouf: England, 2-1. The U.S. will be without Alex Morgan and most likely embarking on some level of experimentation within the game. The Americans might not say it outright, but they’ll take the lessons over the result.
Hamilton: I think this finishes with a neat 2-2… and further tea-cup-drinking antics.
Ogden: When two winners meet in a big game like this, I always go for the one that has done it consistently over a long period. England are a rising force, but the U.S. still rule the roost and will be determined to show it — 2-1 USA.