Jaedyn Shaw never got to be a senior in high school in her native Frisco, Texas. You see, unlike many teenagers from the North Texas metroplex, she turned pro at 17 and signed a contract with the San Diego Wave in the NWSL.
Sure enough though, Shaw made it to homecoming eventually. Although, there was no tiara to crown this queen, and no balloons filling the gymnasium while upper-classmen danced the night away.
This time, there was a 19-year-old emphatically striking home the winning goal for her country in a 2-1 come-from-behind win over China at Toyota Stadium in Frisco.
“She has a lot, a lot of talent”
The goal wasn’t even as easy as Shaw made it look. There’s an awkwardness to the move as a whole, with a reset coming on the second ball after the free-kick. Bodies are moving, angles are shifting. Sophia Smith knocked down the ball with her head into a crowded box. And then, that’s exactly when Shaw’s technique shines.
There’s a funny bounce, a crooked spin of the ball, but Shaw had picked her spot before she made the connection. And once the teenager’s right foot connected, the hit was perfect.
Shaw has now scored two goals for the USA in just four appearances. Tonight was her first-ever start for the USA but there’s a growing chorus that she deserves many more. And perhaps could even be the USA’s lynchpin when it comes to creating goals and driving the team forward in 2024.
Speaking to the media after the match, interim head coach Twila Kilgore didn’t want to get too carried away (just yet) with the notion that the keys to the USWNT should be handed over to the young phenomenon.
“I just think something that we talk a lot about is just doing the next right thing and so I’m not I’m not projecting into the future,” said Kilgore. “The next step [for Shaw] is going to be go home, get some rest and recovery, regroup. Get prepared for the next NWSL season, get prepared to rejoin with us.
“She has a lot, a lot of talent and she’s capable of doing a lot of different things. She’s a very diverse player and can play multiple positions and it’s just the time now for her to go back to taking care of herself.”
Having the ability to be deployed almost anywhere in the frontline and the midfield makes Shaw a dangerous weapon. And only a few caps into her USA career, it’s as clear as the Frisco sky that her influence on this team is growing.
Aubrey Kingsbury’s set piece to forget
The USA managed to dig themselves into a first-half hole thanks to a troubling sequence right before the interval. China’s 1-0 lead came via a Shen Mengyu tap-in from a couple of yards out, after Siqian Wang had headed a free-kick back across the face of the USA goal.
Aubrey Kingsbury rushed off her line to try and intercept the cross but instead was left flapping. The space that she vacated, to leave the goal wide open, was made even more nightmarish by the fact there were seven USA players in the box and somehow none of them were able to get tight to either Mengyu or Wang. The unmarked duo made the moment count, much to the USA’s chagrin.
The error was far below the standard that we are used to seeing from Kingsbury, who has been one of the best goalkeepers in the NWSL for many years now. With so few opportunities to impress in a USA jersey, it’s a bitter pill to swallow for the Washington Spirit shot-stopper on just her second-ever appearance for the national team.
Mengyu’s goal was the only shot on target China had in the entire match. Which left Kingsbury making zero saves on the night. That statistic punctuates what has, overall, been a very impressive defensive showing for the USA backline.
China’s goal was just the third the USA has conceded in 18 matches during 2023. With an average of 0.17 goals against per 90 minutes, it is the best defensive record in a single-calendar year in the history of the USWNT. Despite making changes to the goalkeeper and across the backline, Naomi Girma and company continue to show resolve. Tonight’s blip might be the exception.
USA number one keeper Alyssa Naeher was spotted at the match as a spectator, clutching a beer. Knowing how the goalkeeper’s union works, she will no doubt be hurting as much as Kingsbury over tonight’s error. And perhaps will even be the first to console her teammate later on tonight.
Nighswonger’s a natural
Despite being named in a USWNT starting XI for the first time in her career tonight – just three days after getting her first-ever cap no less – Jenna Nighswonger appears to be a natural for the national team.
In the first half against China she was at the heart of all of the USWNT’s best attacking moments. Deployed in her now-usual left back role, the NJ/NY Gotham player was given a lot of freedom to invert and help out in central midfield or overlap and become an attacking wide option on the left flank.
It was hard to find a player on the pitch tonight who looked more comfortable in possession than Nighswonger, and her crossing ability might just be the most reliable on the roster right now. She was unlucky not to have an assist after several choice deliveries created good chances in the box.
In the second half, the 2023 NWSL Rookie of the Year’s served up a stinging shot from just outside the box almost which forced a good save from China goalkeeper Xu Huan. These were buoyant get-out-of-your-seat moments, which helped wake up the USA from a humdrum opening.
Despite her lack of experience, Nighswonger also was elected to take set pieces. Kilgore commented on her commendable service saying that the USA “left a lot on the table” by not converting more dead-ball chances into goals. However, both of the USA’s goals did come from broken set pieces.
Sam Coffey’s gorgeous curling strike, her first for the USA, resulted from a second chance recovered by Emily Sonnett on a Nighswonger corner kick. Then, Shaw’s eventual winner came off a Nighswonger free kick that was deflected back into play.
Most importantly though, there’s a fearlessness to Nighswonger’s play. She’s arrived in the supposedly intimidating USWNT environment and looks right at home. Kilgore has repeatedly asked for her players to be brave on the ball and play with tempo, and it has been Nighswonger and other young players, without many caps at all, who have delivered in these two matches.
“I think they’re eager and hungry for an opportunity. And they know that these opportunities don’t come around very often and they want to seize those opportunities. I think they feel very, very well prepared. And that’s important to take to step in and do the job that’s asked. I think they have a lot of clarity on what they’re being asked to do. They’re excited about their role. They understand the role in the team, their role within the team, their individual role, and they’re just eager and I think that says a lot about them,” Kilgore said about the young players.
Throughout the USA’s disintegration under former head coach Vlatko Andonovski, a lot has been made of the importance of the midfield. If the versatile Nighswonger can seamlessly flit between defense and attack, then Kilgore may have stumbled upon another solution to inject fluidity and control into the heart of the pitch.