The Gustavsson conundrum: Matildas coach, USWNT target at a crossroads

Gustavsson to USWNT? 'He's on a good wicket with Matildas' (2:17)

Joey Lynch and Ben Smith weigh the factors that could draw Tony Gustavsson to the USWNT, as well as the strong position he's in with the Matildas. (2:17)

Three wins from three, 13 goals scored and none conceded, and progression to the next stage of qualifying for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games secured. The Matildas travelled to Perth this week and professionally went about defeating IR Iran, the Philippines, and Chinese Taipei while selling out every stadium along the way.

A home-and-away playoff against Uzbekistan in February now awaits, probably the most favourable draw that Tony Gustavsson's side could possibly have received. And that's not to be disrespectful to the Uzbeks: It's just that they are the least credentialled when other options were Japan, arguably the strongest team in Asia, or North Korea, who emerged from literally four years of competitive absence to top a group featuring World Cup participants South Korea and China.

This international window started with several questions for the Matildas, as well as Gustavsson. Now, as the squad boards flights back to clubs across Australia, Europe, and North America, the focus can turn to what was learned from the past week, and what it could mean for the future -- especially in the face of continued noise surrounding the future of Gustavsson. Progression to the next phase of Olympic qualifying was a base expectation, but there's a bigger picture at play here.

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The coach occupied a peculiar position coming out of the Women's World Cup, wherein he was widely lauded around the world for getting Australia to the semifinals but questioned domestically for the manner in which he did. Sources have told ESPN that his work with Australia has resulted in the Swede being tapped as one of three preferred candidates for the vacant United States job alongside Australian-born Juventus boss Joe Montemurro and OL Reign mentor Laura Harvey. A two-time World Cup-winning assistant under Jill Ellis, Gustavsson has clear ties to the United States and was endorsed as a "strong candidate" for the role by Ellis even before the official jettisoning of former USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski.

That two coaches with significant Australian ties are amongst the reported front runners for the biggest job in women's football clearly speaks to the growth of the sport Down Under and the esteem in which Antipodean figures are held within this space. Sources have previously told ESPN that the USWNT had an interest in interviewing Montemurro for the coaching position following the departure of Ellis following the 2019 Women's World Cup, only to be blocked by his then-employers Arsenal.

Much of the domestic criticism of Gustavsson that contrasted with the international adulation post-World Cup centred upon his squad management at the tournament, on how a lack of rotations led to his preferred XI running out of gas against England in the semifinal and then Sweden in the third-place game. Gustavsson's in-game adjustments against the best sides in the world came under the microscope, especially in the aftermath of the defeat to the Lionesses in which England boss Sarina Weigman thoroughly snookered him.

More broadly, questions lingered about how the team functioned. How this group of highly talented players, drawn from some of the biggest teams in the world, could largely have their results predicted by the shape of the game: If they were able to play as the reactive side without the ball (that boded well), or as the proactive side in possession (that didn't).

It was also asked if the Matildas were too reliant on a never-say-die, backs-against-the-wall, underdog mentality and if they needed to evolve to become a side that revelled in the favourites tag and comfortably put other teams to the sword. The Matildas' most devastating win of the World Cup -- a 4-0 thrashing of Canada in a must-win group-stage clash in which they had 39% of the ball -- only carried the stakes it did because the side had fallen as favourites to a 3-2 defeat with 65% possession against Nigeria the preceding matchday.

At the core of the matter, really, was: Yes, a semifinal was great, but could it have been even better with this group of players, with this home-field advantage, with so many other contenders falling by the wayside?

But if one is going to criticise the 50-year-old for these perceived shortcomings, it's just as important, and fair, to give him his flowers when he looks to address them and guide the team on the next phase of its evolution. Because the Matildas showed clear signs of growth over the past week.

Well aware that they were going to have to face opponents that would sit deep and defend in a low block, the Matildas displayed a consistent commitment to trying to play through them, to unlocking their opponents through combinations and movement rather than just devolving into the cross-spamming tactics that had consistently reared its head in previous frustrating games. Admittedly, there were growing pains. When an experimental and unheralded XI played against Iran sitting so deep they were in danger of falling between the couch cushions, it got frustrating. The 2-0 scoreline was significantly below what would have been expected from the two sides based on résumés. Occasionally there were a few speculative crosses or long-range efforts hammered in. But those bad instincts were fought.

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Then against the Philippines, who perhaps, in hindsight, erred in not retreating completely into a shell as the Iranians and Chinese Taipei did, Australia's first-choice XI sliced and diced. A front-two pairing of Sam Kerr and Caitlin Foord demonstrated their lethal potential -- a 4-2-2-2 system, as teasingly shown before the World Cup, arguably Australia's best way to utilise its current talent -- and the move to shift Mary Fowler out wide (while still giving her licence to cut inside) proved devastating. The ability of the 20-year-old to move and interchange with Foord, in particular, and combine in possession with her and Kerr augurs a frightening potential triumvirate for opponents.

Indeed, in hindsight, it's remarkable to reflect that just a few months ago Cortnee Vine was preferred in that position, with Fowler instead seen as more of a central option. Prior to Kerr's injury ahead of the opening World Cup game against the Republic of Ireland, Fowler was likely set for an off-the-bench role. That won't be happening for a while yet.

And then on Wednesday, against Chinese Taipei's iron tortoise -- the game in which some semblance of frustration and potential reversion was hinted at -- the Australians instead regathered themselves at from a 0-0 scoreline at half-time and maintained their focus on trying to get something going. Eventually, it was Fowler who found the key, or more accurately a battering ram, to open up the defence with a darting run inside from the left and a world-class strike beyond Cheng Ssu-yu and inside the far post. Six minutes later Kerr pounced on a loose ball after Foord had taken advantage of a one-on-one situation with isolated Kai-ching Wu to get to the byline and whip the ball in. The damage was done.

Sure, there were other points of nitpicking contention. The timing of runs and presenting of options into the penalty area were sometimes off. Kyra Cooney-Cross probably could have been given more licence to roam forward. But on the whole, even accounting for the lesser-heralded opposition, there was a course being charted here.

"Last time we played them it was 0-0 at half-time and it took a corner to open them up. This time we opened them up in a completely different way," Gustavsson said after the Philippines game.

"I think it was a little bit of a crossroad moment for this team to be honest, in terms of what we want to be about now. We want to be a top team in the world, to be able to play like favourites and to be able to play parked buses. We proved today that we have taken massive steps."

Indeed, the next steps look clear. There's a certain level of grim humour to the Matildas seemingly appearing on the verge of finding something approaching an optimal deployment under Gustavsson -- three years into his tenure when he's been given a longer rope than any coach in national team history -- at the same time as the USWNT, still the world's best women's program, ramps up its interest.

A fortnight ago, there probably wouldn't have been that many tears shed among the Australian commentariat had he made the move. But after this week, it's not so simple. There was enough shown in this window to get observers excited. Shortcomings were worked upon. Improvements were made. It could all fall over again next month in two friendlies against Canada, but you at least want to see if it does.

But does Gustavsson even want it?

"I love this team. And we have unfinished business to do," he said after Wednesday's win.

That's not a definitive yes. But given that it wasn't couched in a demand for more resources, as other recent answers on the topic have been, it's as close as we've got thus far.