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Shorthanded USWNT loses again, showing depth in World Cup contenders

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Robbie Earle and Tim Howard discuss an emotional day on the South Coast, as Tottenham followed Antonio Conte's formula to perfection to earn a win days after the death of fitness coach Gian Piero Ventrone.

The United States women’s national team lost a pair of high-profile friendlies this week, dropping a 2-1 decision to England at Wembley Stadium before falling 2-0 to Spain on Tuesday.

There will be some anxiety coming from USWNT fandom after the losses, but more of uncertainty than worry. After all, the losses are both the first consecutive setbacks for the USWNT in more than a half-decade and the first losses of 2022. And there are still big friendlies against Germany in the United States next month.

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So, looking ahead to the World Cup “down under,” is the cup half-empty or half-full?

Truth be told the friendly at Wembley against the beloved EURO champions was always going to be a huge ask for an understaffed team. Spain was just as shorthanded as the USWNT, and both sides were dealing with massive controversy. Spain’s team has been torn by accusations of rampant misogyny in their country’s football, while the USWNT has been waylaid by the Yates Report into “systemic abuse” in women’s soccer.

The starting front six was unchanged in personnel between the England and Spain games, while Alana Cook was the only repeat starter behind them. Spain’s goals were an unholy scrum off a corner kick to make it 1-0 and a beautiful bit of business to double the lead.

What should expectations be for the USWNT at the 2023 World Cup?

The USWNT is still the No. 1 team according to the FIFA rankings and the two-time defending World Cup champions.

And the Yanks were without NWSL leading scorer / program living legend Alex Morgan in addition to Kelley O’Hara, Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Mewis, Tierna Davidson, Mallory Pugh, Tobin Heath, Emily Fox, and Catarina Macario.

Fox started 11 games for the Yanks in their previously unbeaten 2022, while Macario scored five times. Mal Pugh has six goals and seven assists in 868 minutes this year, and Sullivan boasts 859 minutes across 11 starts.

While it’s alarming that the side is still trotting out Megan Rapinoe to start back-to-back games at age 37, there’s also an element of depth. The classics are still churning out big numbers in the NWSL, and the league’s young producers are turning out for Andonovski.

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Rapinoe is tied for the OL Reign lead in goals and her team tops the table. Morgan has the most goals in the league and USWNT youngster Sophia Smith is second. Mallory Pugh, Ashley Sanchez and Carson Pickett have become mainstays and are 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in the NWSL in assists.

The champions have already bucked the odds by winning the last two World Cups as Europe has stepped up its development game, especially in England. The strengthening of the Women’s Super League undoubtedly aided England’s Lionesses en route to the EURO. Barca and Real Madrid have played in front of 91,553 fans. Olympique Lyon Feminin in France is the best club in the world.

This summer’s World Cup is going to be the best exhibition of women’s football in history... until the next one. Early adopters like the USWNT and Germany are now getting tested well before the semifinals of tournaments, and regional competition is now stronger in Europe when it comes to iron sharpening iron.

Look at the top-four spots at the first five Women’s World Cups and you’ll find a total of seven nations occupying those 20 spots. In the last three? Seven countries in 12. Progress.

This summer’s going to be fun. Hopefully the USWNT is one of the prime reasons for it, because for the first time ever, arguments can be made for the highest number of reasonable possible winners in the history of the tournament.

Follow @NicholasMendola