CLEVELAND — The US Women's National Soccer Team (USWNT) will play its first match since winning the bronze medal at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics in Cleveland tonight, and the overarching message they are sending is that they are ready to move forward.
When Team USA returns to the pitch for its International Friendly exhibition match against Paraguay at FirstEnergy Stadium, head coach Vlatko Andonovski and players Alex Morgan (forward) and Catarina Macario (midfielder) say they will be looking toward the World Cup in 2023.
"These games are going to be really good for us, because it's just good to get the team together a month after the Olympics ended," Morgan told reporters during a press conference held over Zoom on Wednesday. "We need to close that chapter and move forward."
Macario agreed, saying: "We're setting our goals for the World Cup that's in two years, and we just have to learn enough from the Olympics. We know that our performance was not good enough by any means."
As for Andonovski, he said yes, the Olympics chapter is closed, but its lessons will be important moving forward in the march to the next World Cup, which the USWNT will be hoping to embark on without veteran Carli Lloyd (forward), who has announced she'll retire from women's soccer at the end of October.
"After the Olympics, I was able to visit with every player on the team, individually, all the staff members and debrief with everyone," Andonovski said. "That chapter is closed, but obviously there are things from there that we have to address... and it will be a process moving forward."
Macario has an idea about where they can start. "Becoming more of a team, on and off the field, is one thing we really need to do and I think that will be our main focus going forward," she said.
Andonovoski also noted: "What we need at this point in time is a little bit more energy and more enthusiasm to kick us off for preparation for World Cup qualifiers."
When it comes to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it was a less than satisfying experience for the USWNT, for a lot of reasons.
The USWNT secured the bronze medal at the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics with a 4-3 win against Australia on August 5, 2021, but obviously, the team was hoping to bring home gold.
"Mentally, it was very exhausting, "Morgan said. "It was a different Olympics than ever before, and not in a great way. Not only because of the finish."
Morgan brought up the restrictions players faced due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and how it added to the stress of the event.
"I think we tried to do the best we could at the Olympics, but it was really difficult not being able to go outside, always sitting at the same table with the same three people for every meal for 38 days," Morgan said, while acknowledging she is still processing the result and the emotions.
Looking ahead to tonight, the friendly match against Paraguay will present a new experience for the USWNT.
"We've never played [Paraguay] when I've been on the team," Morgan said.
As a Brazilian American, Macario said she's shocked that it hasn't happened before. "I'm very excited that we'll get to play Paraguay for the first time," she said. "More exposure to South American countries is a good thing."
Macario shared that while playing for the USWNT has been different than her time playing in France, she's loved both experiences.
"These women [on the USWNT] are very intense at all times," Macario said. "You just try to do your best."
One thing she's happy about is not being "the new kid any more," even though she doesn't exactly feel like a seasoned veteran, just yet.
"I still feel relatively new to this team, but I do know some of them a little bit better now," Macario said, adding that the better they get to know each other, the more she feels the team will be able to build confidence in playing with together.
"We are all very excited for this year ahead and we're hoping to win some titles this year," she said.
They'll be doing that with a younger squad, as Lloyd will leave the team in just four matches. She'll finish her historic run with US Women's Soccer following two matches against Paraguay this month, and matches against Korea Republic in October.
Lloyd is currently the second-most capped player in world soccer history with 312 games played for USA. Her 128 international goals land her fourth in USWNT history. Lloyd needs just two goals in her final four matches to tie flank midfielder Kristine Lilly for third all-time in international scoring.
While celebrating Lloyd for all of her accomplishments, Andonovski said he is excited about the younger players making camp, specifically mentioning forwards Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith, along with midfielder Andi Sullivan.
"What makes us excited is the fact that they're in very good form, they're doing very well in the league, they're making an impact for their teams and helping their teams be successful," he said.
Along with a focus on the 2023 World Cup qualifying matches, and Lloyd's retirement, this year also brings with it the reality that the US Women's Soccer's Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) is up at the end of this year.
On Wednesday, Morgan briefly addressed the ongoing issues with pay surrounding men's and women's soccer in the United States.
On Tuesday, US Soccer released a statement that it would offer identical CBAs to both men's and women's teams, according to Sports Illustrated.
Morgan said the Players Association (PA) hadn't yet had time to process that information.
"As a PA we still need to chat about the statement given by US Soccer. We need to look line by line about what they're actually providing," she said.
"We will continue to work with US Soccer moving forward, looking towards equal and fair payment and treatment... What we really want to do is see what we can do at the negotiation table, and see those statements put into action."
Morgan added that she's hopeful about the current negotiations, saying, "I think we are moving in the right direction."
Team USA hopes to get going back in the right direction on the pitch in tonight's exhibition match against Paraguay in the heart of downtown Cleveland, with a start time scheduled at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets to the match start at $25 and can be purchased through USSoccer.com.
In accordance with the local health authorities, and in cooperation with FirstEnergy stadium, as well as the U.S. Soccer medical team, tickets for the match will be available at near full capacity.
For fans near or willing to travel to southern Ohio, Team USA will take on Paraguay again in a second International Friendy at TQL Stadium in Cincinnati on September 21.