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USWNT Big Board: Williams, Sanchez become locks, but still hope for Press?


A new year often brings clarity, and for the U.S. women’s national team, it was affirmation of what was hiding in plain sight: the core of the 2023 World Cup roster.

U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski made it clear throughout the past year that he was developing a new-look squad for the 2023 World Cup, which included scouting new players who might be able to handle the tournament, and giving reps to players he planned to bring. Adding uncertainty, however, was the significant number of major injuries to U.S. players — nearly a starting XI worth in 2022. That cast significant doubt on how the final World Cup roster could take shape.

Now, however, there is much more clarity. Over the past week, Andonovski confirmed two big absences in the midfield this summer: Sam Mewis will miss the World Cup after undergoing another knee surgery, and Julie Ertz is all but certainly ruled out. The void left by Ertz remains the biggest question facing the U.S. midfield, but her absence over the past 18 months forced the team to find solutions. Mewis has also not played for the U.S. since the Americans won the Olympic bronze medal in August 2021, although there had been hope she might return.

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Meanwhile, forward Lynn Williams returned to the team last month after a 10-month layoff due to a hamstring injury, and there is now a definitive timetable for the return of forward Catarina Macario, who tore an ACL in June. She will absolutely be part of World Cup plans once healthy.

USWNT players have only two more international windows to solidify their World Cup spots: the SheBelieves Cup later this month, which includes tough games against Brazil, Canada and Japan, and then the April international window, which will be the last before Andonovski will select his World Cup roster. Last month, he told reporters that his pool for the World Cup roster is down to 32 players.

FIFA confirmed recently that rosters will be 23 players, not 26, like for the 2022 men’s World Cup, so let’s discern who fits where.


How we’re doing this

This isn’t our first Big Board, and the approach has not changed: Who are the 23 players going to the World Cup as of right now?

Ongoing injuries mean that there will be changes to this list as the World Cup gets closer, but for now, those yet to return from long-term injuries are in a category of their own, outside of our 23. We’re treating this as if the team is getting on the plane tomorrow, because everything else is hypothetical until players return.

That said, we are refining our usual categories from previous Big Boards to account for the urgent timing. Andonovski is down to 32 players, so there are players who were previously on the bubble who can now be safely ruled out of the picture barring extreme, unforeseen circumstances. Within each position, we’ve made tiers of players to add nuance to where things stand. There are more clear locks now than there were before as the bubble thins out. The categories:

  • Tier 1: Roster locks. Clear starters or players pushing to be starters, and as of today, would be on the roster.

  • Tier 2: The bubble. Players on both the right and wrong side of it, because if you aren’t a lock, you are part of the bubble, where nothing is certain.

  • Tier 3: Outside looking in. Players who have had a passing look, players performing well for their clubs but haven’t gotten a look, or players who were once integral but no longer seem part of the plan.

  • Tier 4: Wait and see. Former locks racing against time. This is a category to account for injuries — players who were once locks, but now need to regain their status to make the World Cup squad. An injured starter can’t be Tier 1 right now, but we expect they should have a clear path to return to that tier — if they get back to 100% in time, that is.

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Goalkeepers

  • Roster locks: Alyssa Naeher, Casey Murphy

  • The bubble: Adrianna Franch, Aubrey Kingsbury

  • Outside looking in: Jane Campbell, Bella Bixby

  • Wait and see: None

Alyssa Naeher and Casey Murphy split the pair of January games in New Zealand, and neither saw a lot of action against a Football Ferns side depleted of its best players. Murphy did not face a shot, while Naeher dealt with only one shot on frame. Barring injuries, these two are going to the World Cup, almost certainly with 2019 World Cup-winner Naeher as the No. 1 and Murphy in reserve.

Andonovski spoke frequently last year about making sure the backup goalkeeper has enough real minutes to handle the moment in a pinch, a lesson he learned when Adrianna Franch was thrown into an Olympic semifinal with only six prior appearances under her belt. Murphy is now up to 12 caps, including World Cup qualifiers. Franch returned to the U.S. picture in late 2022 after a stellar season in goal for the Kansas City Current, and she looks like the clear No. 3 now, having made the trip to New Zealand — which the team used to simulate the second and third World Cup group-stage matches — and now the SheBelieves Cup.

Aubrey Kingsbury is and has been the main competitor for that third spot at the World Cup. There is plenty of talent in the National Women’s Soccer League, but for now, those goalkeepers look like they will have to fight for inclusion at future tournaments.

On the plane right now: Naeher, Murphy, Franch


Full-backs

  • Roster locks: Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Sofia Huerta

  • The bubble: Hailie Mace, Carson Pickett

  • Outside looking in: None

  • Wait and see: Kelley O’Hara, Casey Krueger

Simply put, the full-backs on the SheBelieves Cup roster — same as the January roster for the New Zealand games — are all locks. The big question is what that means for Kelley O’Hara, a two-time World Cup champion who is still recovering from a hip injury that sidelined her for the final months of 2022.

O’Hara is “very close” to returning, according to Andonovski. O’Hara said recently that she is “taking it day by day” and looking forward to a full NWSL preseason with her new team, NJ/NY Gotham FC. In reality, O’Hara is the most likely addition to the roster, more so than bubble players Hailie Mace or Carson Pickett. For now, however, O’Hara needs to get back to full health. Then come some tough decisions in the overall defender pool.

On the plane right now: Dunn, Fox, Huerta


Center-backs

  • Roster locks: Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma

  • The bubble: Emily Sonnett

  • Outside looking in: None

  • Wait and see: Tierna Davidson

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Emily Sonnett, who returned to play in January from a six-month layoff due to a foot injury, moves from full-back on previous Big Boards to the still-too-thin center-back category.

Sonnett played 45 minutes at center-back in the second game against New Zealand last month, an opportunity that provided more of a look at how she can help the team build in possession than it was a chance to further test her defensive skills. Sonnett is a 2019 World Cup winner, and her greatest asset in the roster conversation is her versatility. She has been deployed often as a full-back under Andonovski, but she has spent much of her club career at center-back, a position that continues to lack depth.

Abby Dahlkemper, a 2019 World Cup starter, had fallen out of favor since the 2021 Olympics and made previous Big Boards in the “outside looking in” category. She underwent back surgery at the end of 2022 and is still relatively early in the rehab process, meaning the World Cup is almost certainly out of the question.

Sonnett’s move to the center-back pool on this Big Board is mostly semantics, but her versatility is key. The major news this international window is the return of Tierna Davidson to U.S. training camp. Davidson still is not fit to play, so she will not feature at the SheBelieves Cup and thus stays in our “Wait and see” category, but a full-strength Davidson is a necessary addition to this U.S. team. She also possesses versatility, provides center-back depth and adds a natural left foot to the equation.

As of now, Sonnett goes to the World Cup. Looming, however, could be a scenario in which Sonnett, Davidson and O’Hara are all healthy, and that will make for a surplus of defenders.

On the plane right now: Sauerbrunn, Cook, Girma, Sonnett


Midfielders

  • Roster locks: Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Andi Sullivan, Ashley Sanchez

  • The bubble: Kristie Mewis, Taylor Kornieck, Sam Coffey

  • Outside looking in: Savannah DeMelo, Jaelin Howell

  • Wait and see: None

The biggest changes here are the updates on Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz, who are now out of World Cup contention. (Officially, Andonovski ruled out Mewis and said “time is running out” for Ertz.) Those are major losses, but ones the U.S. planned for over the past year.

Ashley Sanchez also moves up from the bubble category to a lock in this Big Board as a clear second option to Rose Lavelle in the No. 10 playmaker role. Quality of opponent aside, the Americans’ performance against New Zealand in the second game — in which Sanchez, Lavelle and Andi Sullivan started in midfield — was one of the best game-plan executions from the team in a while. Sanchez is too creative and dynamic to leave at home.

After that, things get interesting. Sullivan is clearly Andonovski’s choice in the No. 6 defensive midfielder role, but who joins her is unclear. In September, Andonovski said he’d ideally have “two and a half” defensive midfielders, alluding to a versatile option who could play multiple roles. There’s an argument that several players sort of provide that halfway role, but who even is the other full-on No. 6?

Taylor Kornieck started the year in the position, which she had not played at the international level, and a disjointed 45 minutes followed before Sullivan came in at halftime and things got on track. That’s not a knock on Kornieck: She was thrown into the role.

Sam Coffey appeared to be emerging as an obvious backup choice after her NWSL championship-winning season with the Portland Thorns. Andonovski said at one point last year that he thought Coffey should be an MVP candidate as a rookie for mastering a position she had not previously played. Coffey, however, did not play a single minute in New Zealand and is not on the SheBelieves Cup roster.

Racing Louisville midfielders Savannah DeMelo and Jaelin Howell, each coming off their rookie NWSL seasons, remain as outside options, but the window is almost closed for them. Andonovski seems to like the versatility that Kristie Mewis can bring, and in the 6-foot-1 Kornieck he has the tallest field player in U.S. women’s national team history. As silly as that sounds, it is an asset come tournament time. Remember the 2011 World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil, when Abby Wambach headed in a desperate long ball from Megan Rapinoe? Sometimes, you just need a tall target in the box. Proving the point, Kornieck scored a headed goal on a corner kick late in the second game in January.

On the plane right now: Lavelle, Horan, Sullivan, Sanchez, Kristie Mewis, Kornieck


Wingers

  • Roster locks: Sophia Smith, Mallory Swanson, Megan Rapinoe, Lynn Williams

  • The bubble: Trinity Rodman, Margaret “Midge” Purce

  • Outside looking in: Christen Press, Tobin Heath

  • Wait and see: None

Lynn Williams is back, and there really is not a world in which Andonovski does not take a healthy Williams to the World Cup. Williams is the team’s best defensive forward, an important characteristic in the U.S.’s pressing schemes. In New Zealand, she scored seven minutes into her return from a long layoff (hamstring injury).

Trinity Rodman also looks increasingly assured to be heading to the World Cup. She impressed on the wings against New Zealand and quietly made defensive contributions. Already, Rodman’s ability to read both sides of the game is drastically improved from her professional debut two years ago.

Sophia Smith missed the January camp and this SheBelieves camp with what we believe is a minor foot injury and is already training with the Portland Thorns. The 2022 NWSL MVP and championship game MVP is a bona fide starter for the U.S. on the wing opposite Mallory Swanson (née Pugh). If the World Cup started today, she’d be on the plane with the hope that she’s ready for the knockout stage. Andonovski framed Smith’s absence from the SheBelieves as a precaution.

“We felt like this was the time that we wanted to fix it and not have any problems going forward,” Andonovski said last week.

The name to watch here will be Christen Press. She tore an ACL last June right as she attempted to get back into the national team picture. Andonovski revealed in the days following that Press was not going to be called up for World Cup qualifying even before the injury, but the two-time World Cup winner has a creative spark that could be needed late in games. Smith and Swanson are the clear starters, so everyone after that needs to be a game-changing substitute. A healthy Press can offer that and then some, but her biggest battle is time, with the NWSL season — her chance to prove she needs a call-up — not starting until March 25.

On the plane right now: Smith, Swanson, Rapinoe, Williams, Rodman


Strikers

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Little has changed here as everyone awaits the return of Catarina Macario, who Andonovski said could return from injury for Lyon in March.

Alex Morgan is the clear No. 1 at striker, as she has been in some capacity and in various tactical systems for the past decade. Ashley Hatch remains as the backup, and she added a vote of confidence in New Zealand when she stepped into the starting role abruptly after Morgan experienced muscle tightness in warmups and was scratched from the lineup. Hatch then scored the opening goal in the 22nd minute, finishing off a beautiful, 13-pass buildup.

Hatch’s main competition come World Cup time will be Macario. Versatility is also a question mark. Morgan is a pure No. 9, and while Smith plays on the wing for the U.S., she plays the striker role for Portland and is best used more centrally. Macario is best suited as a withdrawn No. 9, too, and when healthy, the conversation is really Morgan vs. Macario or, perhaps, how to get Macario on the field alongside Lavelle. Hatch, however, is a cut-and-dry No. 9, and that could hurt her come World Cup selection time.

If Macario’s recovery goes to plan, she’ll be eligible for the U.S. national team’s April camp, the final time the team will assemble before the World Cup roster is selected.

On the plane right now: Morgan, Hatch



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