With fewer than 100 days before the Tokyo Olympics, Vlatko Andonovski, the new head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT), faces a dilemma every coach dreams of: selecting an 18-player roster from one of the deepest talent pools ever. But with that abundance of talent, putting together the limited roster is a hefty and critical task, especially after the team’s surprisingly early exit in the Rio 2016 Olympic quarterfinals.
To avoid the same errors that caused that early exit five years ago, Andonovski has emphasized versatility above all when it comes to building this year’s roster. That means he’ll have to make good use of his limited resources, since he only has three substitutes to work with per game. With the fast turnaround in the Olympics, most players should accordingly be ready to play a full 90 minutes and still have fresh legs for the later, more competitive rounds. In other words, to craft a winning 18-player roster, Andonovski must balance aging veterans who may still have something special to contribute, superstars at the peak of their game, stars working to recover from injury and young players brimming with potential but lacking international experience.
This March, 11 U.S. players made ESPN’s list of the 50 best players in the game right now, enough to field a full team by themselves. In the mid-April friendlies against Sweden and France, ranked number 5 and 4, respectively, the U.S. brought 23 players, with 18 suiting up for each game. After a 1-1 draw against Sweden exposed the vulnerability of the number one ranked USWNT against a composed defensive line, it’s easy to see just how important choosing the right combination of players is.
So where does the roster stand after these matches as players fight to represent their country?
Goalkeepers (two spots):
In the conversation: Jane Campbell, Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher
Chicago Red Star goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher appears locked into the starting goalkeeper spot. She started every 2019 World Cup match and has played the most international minutes of any U.S. keeper in the past couple of years.
The larger question is who will fill the number two spot. In 2019, Orlando Pride goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris played second fiddle to Naeher, but she was left off the past two U.S. training camp rosters. Harris still has a solid case, with extensive international experience including two World Cups and an alternate spot on the 2016 Olympic roster.
Instead, over the past year, Andonovski has often turned to Houston Dash goalkeeper Jane Campbell. Called up for the November 2020 friendly against the Netherlands, Campbell has made the roster for every training camp since, and started one game in the SheBelieves Cup against Argentina. At only 26, Campbell is poised to be the future of the USWNT’s dominant defense.
Who will make the cut? My prediction: Alyssa Naeher and Jane Campbell.
Defenders (six spots):
In the conversation: Alana Cook, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Ali Krieger, Casey Krueger, Kelley O’Hara, Midge Purce, Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Sonnett
The four players that anchored the U.S. defense in the 2019 World Cup — captain Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn — seem set to remain the same in the Olympics. Leading up to the pivotal 2019 World Cup Quarterfinal and Semifinal against France and England respectively, this defensive line faced intense scrutiny, particularly O’Hara and Dunn, who both started their playing careers as forwards. The foursome proved themselves more than capable of shutting down top offenses and generating attacking play from the back, with the fullbacks frequently entering the attacking box. Sauerbrunn, Dahlkemper and Dunn all made ESPN’s top 50 players list.
With these four players locked in, two more defensive spots appear up for grabs. Tierna Davidson started on the April 10 game against Sweden at left center-back, filling in for an injured Dahlkemper. Davidson brings versatility (she can play both center and outside back), experience (she played in the 2019 World Cup) and youth (at 22, she can serve as the defense’s future backbone). Emily Sonnett is the leading candidate for the final defensive spot, as she has served as the main backup at outside back in the past few years. Bringing Sonnett to the Olympics can allow for a slightly injured O’Hara to take some time off the pitch.
Alana Cook and Emily Fox are both recent college graduates and up-and-coming defensive stars, but they lack the national team experience to manage the short turnaround and intense Olympic atmosphere. Midge Purce and Casey Krueger are further into their careers, but neither has a lot of international experience or looked particularly sharp in the SheBelieves Cup. Andonovski did not select any of the four of them to suit up against France in the last week, and only Cook dressed for the game against Sweden.
While Ali Krieger has been a mainstay on the USWNT since the 2011 World Cup, it appears that she will not grab a roster spot this summer, since Andonovski has not called Krieger into the last two camps. While some speculated that this decision was based on the fact that she and her wife, goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, recently adopted a baby, Andonovski made it clear that it was a soccer decision, explaining that he feels comfortable in his assessment of both Krieger and Harris without a call-up. They are the only two healthy players who he did not call up in April, though he stated are still in contention for the Olympic roster. The fact that they have missed these vital camps — which might have proved that they could still fit with this group of players — does not bode well for Harris and Krieger.
Who will make the cut? My prediction: Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O’Hara, Crystal Dunn, Emily Sonnett and Tierna Davidson.
Midfielders (five spots):
In the conversation: Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Jaelin Howell, Rose Lavelle, Catarina Macario Kristie Mewis and Samantha Mewis
Possibly the most locked-in roster spot right now belongs to defensive center-midfielder Julie Ertz. Ertz cleans up the game all over the field and plays a central role in possession, defense and shot-creation. The bigger question is what would happen to the U.S. if she suffered an injury.
Another lock to make the midfielder roster is Sam Mewis, who recently claimed U.S. soccer player of the year and was named the best footballer in the world right now by ESPN FC. While Mewis missed the SheBelieves Cup due to an injured ankle, she returned to her dominant form for her club, Manchester City, and her presence on the pitch against Sweden and France made the U.S. look like a different team.
Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle continue to fight for the third starting midfield spot in Andonovski’s 4-3-3 lineup. Against France, Andonovski tried putting Lavelle in the wide forward position as opposed to her usual spot as a true ‘10’ — an attacking midfielder — and was happy with her performance. While Lavelle is a master of angles and breaking down opponents’ defenses with her quick feet, Horan is a box-to-box player capable of passing, defending and keeping the ball under pressure all over the pitch. With four amazing midfielders and three starting spots, it will be interesting to see if Andonovski continues to use Lavelle as a forward in an already competitive attacking line.
The final midfield spot seems to be a toss-up between Kristie Mewis, older sister of Sam, and young star Caterina Macario, with a slight edge towards Mewis.
Kristie Mewis faded out of the international conversation after an ACL tear in 2018, which makes her comeback since 2020 all the more remarkable. Andonovski drafted Mewis into the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) in 2013, when he was the head coach of FC Kansas City, and called her up in November 2020 after a stellar season in the Challenge Cup and Fall Series. She has continued to perform well on the international stage, scoring against the Netherlands, Colombia and Argentina and often serving as a spark off the bench.
While Mewis worked for years on the outside to get back into the conversation, at only 21 years old, Macario came into the team with sky-high expectations. She plays with a confidence that outpaces her age and experience, and is clearly a superstar in the making with a killer instinct for the back of the net. Unfortunately, Macario could not join the team in April due to a Covid outbreak at her club side, Olympique Lyon. Andonovski explained, “We would have loved to have her here and see her a bit more, especially with the limited opportunities that we have before the Olympics.” With only three caps to her name and limited time in training camp, it appears that Mewis will edge her out.
Then, there is Jaelin Howell who currently plays for Florida State University. Howell is a solid center defensive midfielder, which seems to set her up as a natural fit to take over Julie Ertz’s spot when she retires. Andonovski called in Howell to replace Horan when she had Covid last fall, and she has battled her way into additional camps, but does not look ready quite yet to make the ultra-competitive roster.
Who will make the cut? My prediction: Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Samantha Mewis, Kristie Mewis.
Forwards (five spots):
In the conversation: Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith and Lynn Williams
Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press, who all made the top 50 footballers list, looked strong on the forward line against France last week. Morgan in particular showed Andonovski her true self for the first time in two years against France. After coming back from a knee injury, giving birth and fighting Covid-19, she showed up against France, drawing a PK and scoring a quality goal.
After the game, Andonovski shared, “In the last couple of practices it was almost like she bumped it up a notch, or was just a little more focused, a little more concentrated and as a staff we were talking about how she got her killer instinct back.”
Rapinoe sat out of the 2020 season due to Covid-19 concerns, choosing to rest after her Golden Ball and Boot wins at the 2019 World Cup. But she has come back with a bang. She leads the team with eight goals in 2021, and it is clear that she can follow through in the biggest moments. The moral and vocal leader of the team, the USWNT depends on Rapinoe both on and off the field. She is a set-piece magician, and the U.S. relies on her to create opportunities in the final third, including serving as their go-to penalty kick taker.
In 2020, Press transitioned from a star coming off the bench to one of the teams most dynamic scorers. While she opted out of the NWSL Challenge Cup, Press signed abroad with Manchester United, and continues to show her offensive potency for both club and country.
Tobin Heath remains a big question mark after suffering an ankle injury on Jan. 17 playing for her club, Manchester United. Coming in at number 13 in the best 50 players in the game right now list, Heath is a special talent who can take anyone on the dribble, send in a perfect cross on demand, and master angles all over the field. At the time of her injury, doctors ruled her out for 12 weeks, but Andonovski felt confident she would be healthy for the Olympics and that she would make the roster, saying, “She’s been in a situation like this before where she’s coming back from injury and needs to recover quick.” However, in her recovery process, she picked up a knee injury, setting her return back even further. Heath returned to the U.S. for rehab and to focus on getting ready for the Olympics. If she cannot play in June’s Tournament of Nations, it is unlikely she will make the roster. Andonovski might be hesitant to bring along an ailing player, especially when many blamed Jill Ellis for relying too much on an injured Rapinoe, contributing to the U.S.’ early exit in 2016. With Rose Lavelle as an option on the wing, it appears unlikely that Heath will snag a coveted roster spot.
Heath’s injuries may create an opportunity for a player many expected to be left off the roster: two-time FIFA Player of the Year Carli Lloyd. Lloyd will be 39 for the Olympics and took 2020 off to recover from a left knee injury. Andonovski explained that she is rested and in the best shape of her life. She earned her 300th cap against Sweden, and leaving her off the roster would shake up the soccer world. While she has not reached her top-level of play in 2021, Lloyd has a proven track record of executing in big moments and bringing a spark off the bench.
Lynn Williams and Sophia Smith remain question marks. With her extreme speed and dominant play in the NWSL, including earning MVP honors, Williams has willed her way into the USWNT conversation. At just 20 years old, Smith is an offensive machine who glides across the pitch and possesses soccer instincts on par with the world’s best players. She is exactly the young talent teams want to bring to major tournaments to create future stars.
Andonovski speaks highly of Williams, especially her pressing ability. He has given her consistent playing time even though she struggles to realize her scoring opportunities. After a poor showing against Sweden, she did not dress against France — perhaps an indicator that Andonovski has lost some confidence in her. On the other hand, Smith’s stock went up in the SheBelieves Cup and last week against France, playing center and wing forward and earning praise from Alex Morgan: “She’s been super open to learning from some of the older players. She’s brought a really positive energy.” While it still feels like it is not yet Smith’s time to shine, if she shows out in the Tournament of Nations, she might snag the final roster spot. Macario might also be able to snag the final spot because of her versatility playing both forward and midfield.
Who will make the cut? My prediction: Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd and Lynn Williams.
Andonovski has said he will name his 18-player roster in mid-June after the team plays three matches in the Tournament of Nations. He will also evaluate the players when they return to their home markets. Andonovski explained, “Everything that we do in camp, in training, in games, everything that they’re going to do in games with clubs is going to be important as well, because ultimately it may come down to the certain form a player is in if both players are equal.” For soccer fans, that means we can look forward to a lot of top-quality soccer as players fight for roster spots.