Mallory Swanson -- who else? -- claimed the game's only goal on a breakaway late in the first half after being released by Alex Morgan. And while the U.S. was made to sweat at times in the face of Japan's technical ability, the defense held firm to secure the win.
Brazil plays Canada later Sunday, and that result will determine what kind of result the USWNT needs to win the tournament for the fourth time in a row in their last game of the tournament Wednesday. However, winning the SheBelieves Cup is secondary to preparation for the World Cup, which begins in five months.
1. USWNT wins a different kind of game
The USWNT's tournament-opening 2-0 win over Canada saw the U.S. start fast and furious, creating numerous turnovers off its press on its way to a two-goal lead by halftime. Sunday's match against Japan was completely different and the Americans were pushed way out of their comfort zone at times.
While the U.S. had the edge in possession during the first half (55%-45%), the match seemed to be played on the Nadeshiko's terms. Japan forced numerous turnovers, and made the U.S. look disjointed in attack.
Then, in one swift move, the U.S. took the lead. Sofia Huerta hit a long ball to Alex Morgan in the center circle, and she immediately played forward to Swanson. At first it looked like Japan defender Shiori Miyake had the angle to get to the ball first. But Swanson's speed proved decisive and she soon got herself in the clear and delivered a cool finish past Japan goalkeeper Ayaka Yamashita. Swanson's five-game scoring streak is the longest by a USWNT player since Christen Press scored in six straight from November 2019 to February 2020, per ESPN Stats & Information.
The U.S. looked a little sharper to start the second half, but Japan finished the match with flurry, and the USWNT had goalkeeper Casey Murphy to thank for preserving the win. Fuka Nagano went close in the 79th minute with a drive that went just over the bar. Yui Hasegawa then forced a sharp save from Murphy two minutes later. June Endo had another opportunity in second half stoppage time, but Murphy was on hand again to make the save.
Overall, this will be precisely the kind of challenge that U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski wanted for his players in one of their final matches before the Women's World Cup in July. But he'll have some questions to ponder as he goes deeper in his pre-World Cup preparations, especially with regard to his midfield.
2. Finishing makes the difference for USWNT as Japan can't do it
Japan has long played an aesthetically pleasing style, adept at keeping the ball while staying organized in the back. It is on the back of these traits that the Nadeshiko have been among the best teams in the world, including their triumph at the 2011 World Cup.
But finding a high-scoring forward has historically been a challenge. The since-retired Homare Sawa was primarily a midfielder, and remains Japan's all-time leading scorer with 83 goals in 205 appearances.
The SheBelieves Cup has highlighted once again Japan's lack of cutting edge from its forward line. Against Brazil the Nadeshiko had the edge in expected goals 1.40-1.19. In Sunday's match against the U.S., Japan again had the edge in xG, or expected goals, (0.94-0.70) as well as more shots (15-5), but it couldn't convert, despite some stellar chances late.
Compare that with what the U.S. is experiencing at the moment, where Swanson simply cannot stop scoring. Afterward, Swanson spoke to reporters about refocusing her approach last year to make sure she could finish the easy chances she should. And even if Swanson's form drops off at some point, the U.S. has the kind of depth that teams would give just about anything to have.
This result showed once again that while midfielder play is important, games are often won and lost in the respective penalty areas.
3. The USWNT should be worried about the midfield
After hailing the performance of his midfield against Canada, Andonovski went with a different look against Japan. Kristie Mewis was deployed as the No. 6 in her first start in nearly a year, with Ashley Sanchez as the No. 10 and Lindsey Horan positioned further forward than she was against Canada.
While Mewis did her bit in terms of helping out the back line, the trio seemed less than the sum of its parts.
Horan in particular looked out of sorts, losing the ball nine times in her own half during her time on the field. Sanchez had no influence on the game and was deservedly taken off after 65 minutes. While generating chances is a team-wide responsibility, the fact that the U.S. attempted five shots Sunday -- its fewest in a game since Aug. 6, 2016, vs. France in the Rio Olympics -- it's clear the midfield didn't function as it should.
So what does Andonovski do now?
He mentioned after the Canada game that his midfield alignment oftentimes changes from game-to-game depending on the opponent. But the U.S. seems more solid when Horan drops down to form a double pivot.
What the U.S. manager does against Brazil will provide another data point as to his preferred approach as the World Cup beckons.
Best and worst performers
Best: Mallory Swanson, USWNT
What else is there to say at this point? Swanson is in the kind of form that forwards dream about, and doesn't seem like giving up her spot in the starting XI anytime soon.
Best: Casey Murphy, USWNT
There have been plenty of questions about the goalkeeper spot behind presumed starter Alyssa Naeher. But Murphy delivered some sharp saves late to preserve the win for the USWNT.
Best: Fuka Nagano, Japan
The Japanese midfielder was at the heart of the Nadeshiko's best moves, was tidy on the ball and did plenty to put the U.S. midfield off its game.
Worst: Shiori Miyake, Japan
Yes, Swanson's speed is a nightmare to deal with, but Miyake needed to do better in her duel that led to the game's only goal.
Worst: Lindsey Horan, USWNT
Horan just didn't look herself, as she lost the ball in uncharacteristically bad spots. Can she rebound against Brazil?
Worst: Ashley Sanchez, USWNT
Needed to get on the ball more than the 28 touches she had in 65 minutes.
Highlights and notable moments
It was a relatively lackluster first half for the USWNT as their press, which coach Vlatko Andonovski said beforehand he wanted to reach a higher level in this game, wasn't pinning Japan back as hoped.
But then the USWNT did some old-fashioned direct soccer, getting the ball upfield quickly for Mallory Swanson, who finished it well one-on-one with the goalkeeper.
Japan had one of their better chances on goal in the 81st minute, but USWNT goalkeeper Casey Murphy made the block.
After the match: What the players and manager said
USWNT forward Mallory Swanson on takeaways from this game: "So, I feel like this game wasn't the best performance, but it's going to be like that sometimes. Japan's a very good team, very technical, they move off the ball very well, so it's good that we were able to play them and see that we need to be more disciplined in our defending, be patient. Also, we need to figure out, when we're on the field, what can we do to break them down? I think we could've probably played a couple more balls in behind into seam three to stretch them, but I think overall it was a good test for us. Sometimes, games are just going to be like this, you're going to have to grind them out."
Swanson on why she's in such good form: "Honestly, this offseason I kind of reevaluated my game, and one thing was that I wasn't finishing easy chances all of last calendar now. I just wanted to come into this year and finish easy chances and put them away."
USWNT defender Naomi Girma on why Mallory Swanson keeps scoring when needed: "I think she's just anticipating us winning the ball, making the run, and we're giving her good balls in behind and when she's out in front of a back line, we always know she's going to finish that."
USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski on the result: "We knew that we were gonna see different challenges and there were moments in the game that we got exposed and we were forced -- not necessarily forced, but we made some changes and or adjust our system a little bit. The players had to adjust on the fly. And I think that was a very good, learning opportunity, a very good moment for us because we were able to solve some problems. I'm sure there's still more that we need to solve. And we're going to look at the videos and figure out how to do that as well."
Andonovski on the midfield and Kristie Mewis starting there in a new role: "It was a tough, tough game for the midfielders because they had to solve problems consistently, and every time we solve a problem, there was a different challenge, a different problem, and I think that Japan's national team, they were superb. They're such a good team, and they're so organized and so fluid, fluent in the way they interchange positions and find the areas. So for, for Kristie to come in this game and constantly solve problems really good for us to see how she's gonna adjust in those moments, but also in possession. I thought she was really good, clean, good touch on the ball, she connected very well with the players around and did bring a little calm on the team, which I thought was very important at different times of the game."
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
Mallory Swanson (née Pugh) scored her team-leading sixth goal of the 2023 calendar year. It's also Swanson's fifth straight match with a goal, and her first time scoring in five straight games for the USWNT in her career.
Swanson's five-game scoring streak is the longest by a USWNT player since Christen Press scored in six straight from November 2019 to February 2020.
The USWNT attempted five shots in this game, the team's fewest in a game since Aug. 6, 2016, vs. France in the Rio Olympics (also a 1-0 win). By comparison, Japan had 15 shots.
The expected goals, or xG, for this game, which is a measure of the quality of scoring games each team created: USA 0.70 xG, JPN 0.94 xG.
Kristie Mewis made her first start for the USWNT since last year's SheBelieves Cup on Feb. 23, 2022, against Iceland. She started as a No. 6 defensive midfielder with Lindsey Horan and Ashley Sanchez in the central midfield, the trio's first time ever starting a match together.
United States: The USWNT continues the SheBelieves Cup when the Americans face Brazil on Wednesday at 7 p.m. ET.
Japan: The Japan WNT continues the SheBelieves Cup on Wednesday when it faces Canada at 4 p.m. ET.