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The USWNT World Cup Roster Doesn’t Answer All My Questions

4:21 PM EDT on June 22, 2023

CARSON, CA - FEBRUARY 20: United States players celebrate a second own goal in their favor during a match between New Zealand and United States as part of SheBelieves Cup 2022 at Dignity Health Sports Park on February 20, 2022 in Carson, California. (Photo by Omar Vega/Getty Images)
Omar Vega/Getty Images

When Vlatko Andonovski took over the U.S. Women's National Team in 2019, he sought to rebuild the squad from the bottom up. Considering he was taking over a team that had won two straight World Cups, this was brave. It was also necessary. Time stops for no team, not even the ones who win, and if he was going to have a shot at a fifth star, he would have to reimagine what the team could be. Now, four years into his tenure, Andonovski has given the clearest indication yet of his vision: the 2023 World Cup roster. What was once a hill in the distance is now a mountain at his feet, and the players he’s chosen to climb it with are an intriguing swirl of newcomers and veterans. 

Defense

How It’s Supposed To Work

Filling the gaping Becky Sauerbrunn–shaped hole, after a foot injury suffered in April, will be near impossible for this team. Her composure and experience are unmatched, especially on the back line. In the face of this reality, Andonovski seemed to air on the side of flexibility in his defensive choices. 

There are two starting positions which appear to be a foregone conclusion: Crystal Dunn at left back and Naomi Girma in the center. Alana Cook is the next most obvious center back, and I suspect we’ll see her as Girma’s most frequent partner. A couple curveballs we might see in the middle are Emily Sonnett and Julie Ertz. Sonnet typically plays as a right back for the national team, and she’s been slotting in at defensive midfield and center back for the Reign. Ertz used to play on defense for the national team—and was a breakout star in that role in 2015—but has since moved to defensive midfield. Andonovski said that the coaches “will be exploring that option” to have Ertz rejoin the back line. 

Sofia Huerta is a reliable right back, and Emily Fox plays well on either side. I bet that these two, along with Sonnett and the oft-injured Kelley O’Hara, will rotate within the right fullback position (and left back, if Dunn needs a break) as needed. The starting lineup for the team’s send-off match against Wales will be a big hint as to what the coaches have settled on as their default back line. 

Why It Might Not

For me, the most puzzling cuts of the roster were here. I find it ludicrous to put Crystal Dunn, a world-class midfielder who consistently puts balls in the back of the net for the Portland Thorns, on defense, and then fail to bring world-class wingback Casey Krueger to the tournament at all. In recent weeks Dunn has spoken about how she feels about not playing her best position for the national team. “I feel like my most authentic version of myself when I play in the midfield, or at least higher up the pitch,” she told Diaspora United. “My skill set is really about being creative, being fluid, being able to break lines, being able to connect with people around me. And I feel like as an outside back I don’t really get to do that.”

Dunn is undeniably a menace anywhere on the field, and at the very least, I’d rather have her on defense than on the bench. She agrees. In the roster-release press conference, she said, “It’s a joy, to obviously play in the midfield, but I think the reality is I’m ready for my new role when I take the field for the national team.” But looking at Krueger’s recent form for both club and country, I wonder whether it’s me or Andonovski who needs glasses. 

Another notable omission is Tierna Davidson, another Chicago Red Stars player. She was a breakout star in the 2015 tourney and appeared as if she would anchor the back line long after Becky Sauerbrunn retired. She has since worked back from an ACL tear and rejoined the struggling Red Stars. How surreal it is that Sauerbrunn is off the team for injury and Davidson is just, well, off. Regarding Davidson, Andonovski said that “there are other players that fit better in the needs that we may have."

O’Hara’s inclusion comes as another surprise. She seems to be perpetually injured; in 2023, she has played a full 90 minutes just three times. This will be her fourth World Cup, so her experience is valuable. The thing is, doesn’t the defense already have that in Dunn? I am immensely happy for O’Hara, but I can’t help but wonder if her spot could have gone to a player who will be more reliable on the field. 

Despite all the uncertainty on her back line, Dunn seems pretty excited about heading to the World Cup, as she absolutely should be:

Midfield

How It’s Supposed To Work

Andonovski’s ideal midfield, if everyone was at peak form, probably consists of his veterans: Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle, and Lindsey Horan. At defensive midfield, Ertz provides an imposing obstacle for opposing teams before they even hit the back line. Andonovski has historically been partial to Horan, valuing her steady playmaking and technical prowess. And Lavelle’s advantages are obvious: There’s no one who can make defenders dizzy quite like she can.

Savannah DeMelo, Ashley Sanchez, Andi Sullivan and Kristie Mewis are the World Cup newbies on this line. Syncing a roster's ebbs and flows to peak at the right time is half the battle here, and all of them are in fantastic club form. DeMelo has never played a match for the national team, but she has been a revelation for Racing Louisville. She and Sanchez are Lavelle’s most obvious replacements, which will be especially important considering Lavelle is currently working back from an injury, and her coaches tend to treat her like a precious baby bird who can break at any moment.

Sullivan is the captain for the Washington Spirit and to me has always felt similar to Sauerbrunn, in terms of her positive, calming energy and the respect and adoration of her teammates. It appears that Andonovski will be relying on Mewis to be a second-half sub. “When she is on the field, if it’s 15 minutes, then we know that we’re going to get the best 15-minute player in the world,” he said. “She knows that, she understands that, and she executes it very well.” In a tournament where games go long and momentum is only as real as your next run, this role will be pivotal. 

Why It Might Not 

Lavelle is a beast, but she is not 100 percent right now. She has appeared in only six matches for club and country this year, and has been benched for the Reign since April. So I will say it again: Put Crystal Dunn in the midfield!

Ertz is coming back from over a year off due to injury and pregnancy. To be fair, I don’t think she has to be in the form of her life to be worth starting; she’s just that good. But she hasn’t been in a regular playing rhythm for quite a while, so I can’t imagine that adjusting yet again to the relentless pace of a World Cup will be easy. Plus, if Andonovski is serious about having her play center defense, that leaves an already tenuous midfield without another key piece. 

The midfield has always seemed to be Andonovki’s kryptonite with the USWNT, and he really hasn’t played a consistent group of starters in his tenure. I hope he can settle on a go-to group, find a system that works, and implement it. It’s now or never. 

Offense

How It’s Supposed To Work

Put Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan, and Lynn Williams on the same team, and what happens? You score. I think that’s the plan, and if it's not a complex one, it's probably an effective one. All these forwards—Trinity Rodman, Alyssa Thompson, and Megan Rapinoe included—are monstrously talented, and almost any configuration of them could dominate. “We are very comfortable with all the forwards,” Andonovski explained Wednesday. “They’re all playing in really good form, and we’re comfortable with their abilities and what they can provide on the field.” 

It seems like he also leaned into some flexibility with this bunch. He views Morgan as a true nine, and she's really the only one here, so he will be relying on most of the others to fill in when necessary. Otherwise, everyone is a talented winger, so expect to see some absurd combinations and crosses. Andonovski noted, “We’re not worried about having someone to step in and do well if needed,” and I agree. The hardest question for the offense will ultimately be who not to play.  

Why It Might Not

Uhhh ... a meteorite strike? Sorry, I'm reaching here: Out of all the lines, I have the most confidence in the offense. Each one of them is an absolute weapon, and I trust will be producing memorable moments for the highlight reel with some frequency. Despite the stacked lineup, however, Mallory Swanson will be sorely missed. She was in the form of her life and had World Cup experience. Now, the forwards are either in especially fantastic form (Thompson, Rodman, Smith, and Williams) or have World Cup experience (Morgan and Rapinoe). Connecting these two elements—the physicality and the mentality—will be the front line’s biggest challenge. As this profile of Sophia Smith suggests, I think they’re up for it. 

If I have to nitpick, Alyssa Thompson is a question mark to me. She’s been playing quite well for Angel City, but with so little national team experience and the other forwards being who they are, I hope she’s up to the challenge of competing for a spot within the squad and, if she earns minutes, in matches. It would be a shame if a really exciting young player was brought to the World Cup and did more for the team’s publicity than for its chances. 

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