Mal Swanson is starting to look like her old self, and that’s just what the USWNT needs

Mallory Swanson‘s goal for the Chicago Red Stars on Friday — the equalizer in a 1-1 draw against the Orlando Pride — was her first time scoring in a competitive match in 370 days. The relief was palpable in her celebration as she looked up to the sky and put her hands up in the air, and the goal may be indicative of what’s to come for club and country.

Swanson ruptured her left patella tendon in a U.S. women’s national team tuneup friendly before the 2023 Women’s World Cup. She not only missed almost the entire National Women’s Soccer League season last year as a result, but she lost her spot for the World Cup just as she had become the focal point of the attack for the U.S. team.

Almost exactly a year from her injury and three games into the new NWSL season, Swanson is still finding her way back to being the dominant player she was before. Achieving that will take time, everyone agrees, but the successful early stages of Swanson’s return offer a reminder of how high the soon-to-be-26-year-old’s ceiling is — and how the Red Stars and the USWNT could benefit once again.

“I think what I’ve learned the past three games is it takes time,” Swanson said after Friday’s match. “I think I needed to give myself a little bit more grace with where I was at and honestly just take a deep breath and shoot the ball.”

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This week, Swanson returns to her first official USWNT camp in nearly a year after training with the team in February. She is likely to play in one of the two games at the abbreviated SheBelieves Cup, which begins on Saturday when the U.S. plays Japan.

While Swanson’s return to her scoring ways and to the national team fold may be a relief for her, the same is true of the USWNT, which desperately needed a goal-scorer like Swanson at last summer’s World Cup. After facing an underpowered Vietnam in the tournament opener, the USWNT found just one more goal the rest of the tournament before a worst-ever round-of-16 exit.

Swanson was in the form of her life prior to her injury, scoring seven goals in the USWNT’s first five games of 2023. She had reached a stage of her career where she could single-handedly change a game with the type of breathtaking individual skill possessed by the world’s elite.

She had been doing the same for her club, controlling games for an otherwise average Red Stars team in 2022, registering 11 goals and six assists in only 16 games and leading the NWSL in goals + assists per 90 (1.23). At one point late in the season, Swanson dribbled from just outside her own penalty box into the opponent’s box to score.

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USWNT’s Kilgore ‘very excited’ to welcome back Macario & Swanson

Interim head coach Twila Kilgore speaks about naming Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson on the latest USWNT roster.

Chicago, marred by previous ownership’s mismanagement prompting major departures for two consecutive offseasons, finished last in 2023 with Swanson sidelined. However, the Red Stars are a club in transition — there is a newness within the team now, and it is to Swanson’s benefit.

Laura Ricketts, of the Ricketts family that owns the Chicago Cubs, purchased the Red Stars in September for $35.5 million, and promised to spend another $25.5 million in immediate investments and improvements. Lorne Donaldson, who coached Swanson as a youth player in Colorado and guided Jamaica to a best-ever round of 16 at the 2023 World Cup, was hired as Chicago’s new coach in January. Swanson then committed to a new five-year deal worth over $2 million, making her one of the highest-paid players in the NWSL.

Now comes Swanson’s next act, another restart in a promising career that has featured several setbacks. She was traded to new NWSL clubs twice in 2020 and dropped from the U.S. team ahead of the Olympics in 2021. Swanson has long shouldered the burden of expectation, from her debut as a 17-year-old in 2016 to the expectation that she would play a leading role for the USWNT at the 2019 World Cup, which didn’t quite pan out. Her confidence waned and her form dipped during those difficult years.

This comeback, from a gruesome injury that saw her kneecap fall out of place, will require her to regain that individual dominance she has long possessed. The evolution of her game, however, is such that she now brings players around her into a match.

“Not everybody can play the piano but there [are] people who want to carry the piano, so maybe she’s playing it and we’re carrying it and moving [it] around,” Donaldson said recently. “And hopefully we can get more piano players within the group.”

In Swanson, Donaldson has his Beethoven, the type of generational talent who defines a craft, and the coach’s early-season task is to figure out how to get the most out of Swanson and those around her to help the Red Stars succeed. It has worked thus far: Chicago is unbeaten through three games and became the first team in NWSL history to win its first two games of the season after finishing last the year prior.

Swanson is playing slightly deeper than she has in previous seasons. She’s occupying the space underneath striker Aly Schlegel so the team can build through her rather than as a pure forward or winger left on an island as a release from pressure. Swanson’s goal on Friday illustrated this subtle tweak as she made an overlapping run from a deep area to receive the ball for the finish:

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Mallory Swanson’s goal ties the score for the Red Stars

Mallory Swanson’s goal ties the score for the Red Stars

The Olympics begin in less than four months, and expectations will be high again for a healthy Swanson. She is most likely to play as a winger for the Americans, but U.S. interim head coach Twila Kilgore recently praised Swanson’s versatility, pointing to the player’s ability to line up as a traditional or inverted winger, as a second striker, or between the lines in midfield spaces.

“I would say that everything that we’ve layered in so far, which is just the beginning, is a nod to how to get certain players on the ball in areas that they’re most comfortable with — and Mal would definitely be one of them,” Kilgore said.

Wherever Swanson plays, the USWNT is going to need her, especially if she continues on her current path of getting back to her pre-injury form.

The 2023 World Cup was supposed to be Swanson’s true, albeit slightly delayed, breakout at a major global tournament. She has not picked up exactly where she left in early 2023 — nor should that be expected this early in her comeback — but Swanson looks primed for another big year.

This post was originally published on ESPN

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