Mallory Swanson's brilliance overrides another worrying USWNT performance

NASHVILLE, TN - FEBRUARY 19: Mallory Swanson #9 of the United States scores a goal and celebrates during the SheBelieves Cup game between Japan and USWNT at GEODIS Park on February 19, 2023 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Mallory Swanson needed only five touches to write the overriding story of the U.S. women's national team's Sunday showdown with Japan in Nashville.

Alex Morgan had popped the ball into space behind the Japanese defense. Shiori Miyake approached it for a routine clearance, one of several in a first half domineered by the visitors — until, in a terrifying instant, Miyake recognized that the USWNT's hottest forward had turned on jets. Swanson (née Pugh) pounced and, in a blaze of brilliance, four seconds later, the ball was in the back of the net.

It was the only goal of the USWNT's 1-0 win, which was its fifth straight and second of the SheBelieves Cup, a preparatory tournament that the U.S. is now in position to win. And on the surface, all is well. The World Cup is five months away. International soccer's most dominant program is doing what it always does, seemingly kicking into gear at just the right time.

Beneath the surface, though, there are concerns — and if not for Swanson, Sunday's performance would have amplified them.

For 44 minutes, it was actually quite alarming. Japan, ranked outside FIFA's top 10, was tactically and technically superior. It was sharp while the U.S. was sloppy. The difference in speed of thought between the two sides was stark. The U.S. looked hopeless trying to play through Japan's smart and aggressive press, while the Japanese were coordinated and confident in possession.

"There were moments in the game that we got exposed," U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski admitted.

It all reeked of the same old issues that have plagued the USWNT under Andonovski — until, in the 45th minute, Swanson swooped in to save the day.

"She certainly makes my life a little easier," Andonovski said.

Whereas many U.S. players were shaky on the ball, each of Swanson's five touches was impeccable. The first allowed her to evade Miyake. The second, out of the air, allowed her to explode past Miyake, and the next two took Swanson into the clear, all without breaking stride. They were touches of a woman in faultless form, and the reason this USWNT remains a World Cup contender.

But the Americans were incredibly fortunate to keep a clean sheet. They were out-shot 15-5. They never once had control of the match. Japan faltered in front of goal, as the former Asian champs have all too often recently, but there are European powers who won't. There are foes whom the U.S. will meet this summer Down Under who will blend Japan's tactical and technical ability with superior physicality and ruthlessness — and the U.S., on current evidence, will struggle to cope.

There are ready-made excuses. Yes, this is essentially preseason for U.S. players. And yes, there were regular starters resting or injured. And yes, individuals like Swanson — and Sophia Smith, and Rose Lavelle, and others — can win you World Cup games on their own.

But no, with a half-dozen games to go before the World Cup's July 20 kickoff, the USWNT hasn't figured things out.