When the 2023 FIFA Women's World Cup kicks off in Australia and New Zealand this summer, 24-year-old Mallory Swanson will find herself in pursuit of a second world title with the United States women's national team. The forward is off to a blazing start this year with seven goals scored for the national team in five games. Now, after navigating international duty as a teenager, a knee injury, and an omission from the Tokyo Olympic roster, the stars are finally aligning for Swanson in a crucial moment.
While she continues to shut the padlock for a spot on the final World Cup roster, Swanson is currently preparing for the upcoming NWSL season with her club team Chicago Red Stars. She joined the club in 2021 after brief stints with Washington Spirit and NJ/NY Gotham FC. In her short time in Chicago, Swanson has consecutive MVP finalist nominations.
Consistent club play has been a key factor for her getting back into the national team mix and has led her to be more vocal on the pitch in communicating with her teammates.
"When I first came to Chicago, I was new. I was not in a good place. I was hurt. So, this team really helped me just evolve my game and find my game again. Not even 'again', just a whole new part of me," Swanson said of her recent vocal leadership.
The expectations for success began in her teenage years, making her senior national team debut at just 17 years old. She made the 2016 Rio Olympic roster and scored against Colombia, setting a record for the youngest U.S. player to score in the tournament. She suffered a PCL sprain in 2018 during the build-up to the 2019 World Cu, but returned to play and earned a spot on the final roster.
During the 2019 tournament, she was the second youngest player on the roster at 21 years old, just behind 20-year-old Tierna Davidson, now her Red Stars teammate.
"I feel like I could talk about before," Davidson said on Swanson's evolution. "I've seen her play. I've watched her play, I've played with her [and] against her since we were, like, 18. To see her go through so many different phases, not only the athlete journey but also [a] personal journey, to be able to like watch the triumphs, watch the struggles, and see how she's grown through them has been really incredible.
You can see it on the field, that she's in a really good place. She's producing for us. She's helping us in leadership roles. She's helping us [create], she's helping organize our team, but you can also tell off the field that she's in a good place as well. I think ultimately people often forget athletes are people too, and it requires kind of a full life piece in order to really get the upper echelon of your game unlocked, and I think that's what's happening here."
The launch pad for Swanson's current hot streak can be traced back to 2021, perhaps due to her omission from the Olympic roster. It was her first season with the Red Stars and she scored four goals and provided four assists in 23 appearances for the team. She was runner-up in MVP voting. The playing streak got her back into national team camps post-Olympics and made her first NWSL Championship appearance. She followed up the MVP-caliber performance with another and racked up 11 goals and six assists in 2022.
"I feel like I'm kind of just going with the flow," said Swanson. "Sometimes as athletes, like you think of a certain goal, slide tackle, whatever, that you make. But I think for me, it was like kind of just overcoming the adversity that came in 2021. I looked back and I'm like 'Okay, I can do it and I can keep going,' and so just having that little bit has just helped me. I'm just going with the flow, and whatever comes my way, just take it as it is, and continue just to be me."
The winger credits her teammates for providing strong examples of how she wants to be on the field. Her evolution as a leader on the pitch and current game form are things she says came from finally being healthy, having a reasonable work-life balance, and renewed freedom. Each is a key factor that enables her to focus on being a good soccer player and person due to the different relationships in her life.
"I've learned throughout my career, I feel like earlier on...there was a lot of pressure put on me. So me being able to just be me, and play on the field, I feel like you get that like kind of leadership out of me. Being able to just be me and not really have all the pressure on me, having so many players that are so good [surrounding] me just takes that pressure off. Being able to go out and ultimately have fun, sounds so cheesy to say it, but it's so true. That's kind of how you get the best of me, and you get that leadership out of me, is when I'm surrounded by other leaders and people who can take some [of that] pressure."
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Club play has been the path back to form for Swanson, but the return to another World Cup is different for her compared to the previous cycle. She specifically considers the 2022 Concacaf W Championship as a key focal point in her build-up to the 2023 tournament. Over-communicating and taking every moment to prepare are the angles that she's striving to maintain for the upcoming international competition.
"I feel like the build-up started last summer during qualifying, and once you kind of like secure that and know that the team is going to the World Cup -- I think that's when the build-up starts," Swanson said.
Ever since then, I've been just trying to make every single decision based off of that. I think last World Cup, you learn a lot -- the emotional toll -- and just how much it takes it out of you. So, hopefully going into this World Cup, if I make the roster, I think just continuing to grow, and continuing to be as prepared as I can. With preparation, you are able to play your best. And that's kind of what I learned last World Cup so hopefully [I'll be] able to take that into the next one."
Swanson and the Red Stars will kick off their regular season on Saturday, March 25. They'll be on the road to face San Diego Wave FC at Snapdragon Stadium in a rematch of last year's quarterfinal. Fans can watch all the action on CBS Sports Network at 10 p.m. ET