Editor’s Note: To close out the year, we are recognizing our best stories of 2022. This is the second in that series, originally published on April 9. The first featured the NWSL’s journey to a historic CBA.

When NWSL No. 1 draft pick Naomi Girma isn’t on the soccer pitch or finishing her Masters in Management Science and Engineering, she’s watching sunsets, trying coffee shops or eating the best Mexican food she’s ever had at La Perla.

A bubbly, giggly San Jose, Calif. native who likes to be friends with everyone, she often recruits her San Diego Wave FC teammates to join in on the adventures.

“Naomi’s kind of the social chair for our team, so she plans all the team bonding,” said Girma’s roommate and teammate, Kelsey Turnbow.

Girma, 21, has always been a natural leader. Off the field, she’s the social glue. On the field, she quietly sets the example that others strive to match. The former Cardinal is known to always do the right thing and carry such wisdom that people stop and listen every time she speaks.

It’s why those who know her are confident that someday she’ll be one of the top players in the NWSL and a key contributor to the United States women’s national team.

“When she steps on the field, everyone wants to play a little harder and be a little sharper because they care so much about her and they know how much she cares and how much she values the relationships she’s creating with everyone, so it’s really contagious,” said Stanford head coach Paul Ratcliffe.

Leadership was the first trait San Diego head coach Casey Stoney cited when asked why the club selected Girma at No. 1.

The center back helped the Wave to their first-ever victory last Saturday in front of 456,000 viewers on CBS, one of the largest audiences in NWSL history. Girma has been an important part of San Diego’s starting lineup, recording an 83.3 percent success rate in duels, 70 percent in aerial duels and 81.3 percent in passing accuracy. More than half of her passes have made it into the opponents’ half of the field, which has been critical to San Diego’s long-ball strategy.

“I think her ceiling is very high, and I’ve been so impressed with her as a character and her as a player,” Stoney said.

A former defender for the English national team, Stoney was a big attraction for Girma at San Diego. Stoney’s film analysis and backline tactics have helped prepare Girma for opportunities with the senior U.S. national team.

For the first time since October 2020, Girma was called back into USWNT camp in January before being named to the April roster for two friendlies against Uzbekistan this Saturday and Tuesday. USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has been watching her closely in the NWSL, impressed with the progress she’s made since 2020.

“Very happy for her,” he said. “She has a very bright future and we’re excited to see her now in the NWSL environment.”

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Since she started training with the Wave in preseason, Girma has learned the most from fellow center back Abby Dahlkemper and goalkeeper Kailen Sheridan. They’ve spent a lot of time together over the past couple of months getting used to each other’s individual tendencies and how they can weave them together to perform as a unit. Stoney sees the three of them as an important foundation for the Wave in their first year.

Back in the fall, when Stoney was consulting college coaches on the top prospects in the 2022 draft, most highlighted Girma. Even at the pro level, Girma is exceedingly calm and composed for a rookie. Through her first three games with the Wave, she showcased her masterful one-v-one defending, quality on the ball and distribution skills, while making few mistakes.

“I think that is just so important as a defender,” Dahlkemper said. “She has this quiet leadership role already.”

Playing for CV Crossfire, De Anza Force and CA Thorns Academy in the early years, Girma developed her drive and consistency from a young age. Her former coach, Mark Carr, now the head women’s soccer coach at the University of Oklahoma, recognized those qualities in her at youth national identification camps when Girma was just 15 years old.

“I think [leadership] starts with talent,” said Carr. “What I always knew was that she had a special talent in terms of her athleticism, her technical ability, her ability to read the game. That was kind of the starting point.”

Turnbow took part in those youth identification camps with Girma. One of the first things she noticed about the defender was the high standard she held herself to at the center back position. At that age, national players only get the occasional opportunity to showcase their talents. To succeed, they need to make their mark right away.

“I think in terms of first impression, leadership is huge, especially whenever you’re playing in the youth national team system,” said Turnbow. “Also she has an infectious smile and humor and laughs at everything and people just feel comfortable being around her.”

Girma’s teammates and coaches respected her leadership qualities so much that she was named a captain entering her sophomore year. That 2019 season was the height of Girma’s college career. She was fearless in the Final Four of the College Cup, dominating bigger and older players to lead the Cardinal to the national title. She also learned to be more decisive, communicative and demanding of her teammates as a leader.

The NCAA championship in 2019 was the last match Girma played before tearing her ACL in training the following season. The COVID-19 pandemic made her recovery period even more challenging, as the Pac-12’s strict protocols prevented players from passing a ball with more than one teammate.

“Finding ways that I could still inspire the group and keep a positive mindset was like the biggest challenge,” said Girma.

Every day, she focused on the small wins, like being able to lift her leg. And while she was watching her teammates from the sideline, she stayed positive.

“She showed her real character coming back from that injury,” Ratcliffe said.

At Stanford, Girma learned that even when positions and roles change, the way you treat others doesn’t.

She’s carried that over into her rookie season with San Diego, where many relationships had to be built from scratch because few players knew each other on the first day of preseason.

While tactics and systems on the field have also required time to develop, Stoney has been intentional about getting everyone on the same page and building the club from the ground up in all aspects, including players’ self-care. That support was important when, just a month into Girma’s professional career, she lost her best friend and former Stanford teammate, Katie Meyer, to suicide.

As co-captains, Girma and Meyer complemented each other’s personalities and grew together in their leadership. While Girma led quietly by example, Meyer rallied her teammates with energized pep talks and helped Girma think more decisively.

Meyer’s impact lives on in Girma and Turnbow’s new apartment in San Diego, where she helped them decide on their color scheme of white and mauve with a touch of silver. Every week, Girma and Turnbow go to Trader Joe’s for a bouquet of flowers to brighten their place just a little bit more.

“Everything looks so cohesive and nice in here. It’s gorgeous. We get compliments all the time on it,” Turnbow said.

Girma says living in SoCal is quite a contrast to NorCal, where she’s spent her whole life. The weather and beaches are different, and the cross-state rivalry is more intense.

“It feels weird because people down here hate on NorCal and I’m like, ‘Oh,” she says with a laugh. “But still, deep down, that’s my roots.”

Girma admitted, though, that San Diego is the place to visit in California. The soccer energy is unmatched. Her goal for her first year in the NWSL is to give SoCal more reason to rally around the 2022 expansion team.

“I’m excited to, hopefully, go out and try to win the first trophy ever for San Diego Wave,” she said.

As the Wave set out to build a women’s soccer community in San Diego, Girma, the ultimate connector, is just the person to lead the way.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

The WNBA All-Star Game is returning to Las Vegas, the Chicago Sun-Times reported Thursday night.

The game is scheduled for July 15 and will be announced by the league after details are finalized.

This will be the third year the Las Vegas Aces play host to the contest after also doing so in 2019 and 2021. The reigning champions will sit just one behind the Connecticut Sun, who have hosted the most of any WNBA franchise with four (2005, 2009, 2013 and 2015).

The Aces and the Chicago Sky, who hosted their first All-Star Game in 2022, were the final two teams the WNBA was considering for the 2023 event, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.

Last year’s All-Star Weekend in Chicago featured several issues. For example, the All-Star skills competition was not open to the public, which could only watch the event a viewing party outside or on ESPNU.

The WNBA acknowledged that the weekend fell short of some fans’ expectations, with commissioner Cathy Engelbert admitting the league had to  “cobble together” elements of the event in part due to a scheduling conflict at the Sky’s Wintrust Arena for part of the weekend.

FIFA plans to introduce a Women’s Club World Cup, which will join the men’s equivalent that has existed since 2000.

Gianni Infantino, president of FIFA, made the announcement to reporters Friday ahead of Sunday’s men’s World Cup final between France and Argentina. Details for the women’s tournament are still to come, including a launch date, but the match calendar will remain unchanged until 2025.

The annual men’s Club World Cup features seven teams in its current iteration but will expand to 32 teams starting with the 2025 tournament. FIFA will consult with “relevant stakeholders” in the coming months on plans for both the men’s and women’s tournaments.

FIFA also has endorsed women’s Olympic soccer to expand from 12 to 16 teams, Infantino confirmed. And the international governing body for soccer has approved a new Futsal Women’s World Cup.

Vivianne Miedema recently spoke out about the already packed match calendar and the strain it places on players’ health, even before the announcement of the Club World Cup.

Amid the crammed schedules, many players have sustained season-ending injuries this year, including Christen Press, Alexia Putellas, Marta and Beth Mead, who likely will miss the 2023 World Cup.

“I see a worrying pattern,” she wrote in a column for Dutch newspaper AD. “The playing calendar for both the women and the men is simply too full. Actually, it’s just a shame. We are in a world that goes on and on and there are few players who say anything about it. I do. We go completely crazy with the tax on football players and football players.

“I can already envisage some of the reactions to this column, you know. ‘We have the best profession in the world, we earn a lot of money and we don’t have to complain. Just play football.’”

Infantino insisted while speaking to reporters in Qatar that “players’ health and well-being” was a “primary goal” when planning for both Club World Cup tournaments.

Still, the global union for professional football players (FIFPRO) criticized the additions.

“FIFPRO took note with surprise of today’s decisions by the FIFA Council concerning the international match calendars for men’s and women’s football that could have serious consequences for and aggravate pressure on the welfare and employment of players,” the organization said in a statement.

“Despite an understanding FIFPRO reached with FIFA last week that a joint negotiation of the international match calendar would take place before the FIFA Congress in March 2023, these decisions were taken unilaterally without seriously consulting, let alone agreeing, with the players.”

Former Washington Spirit player Kaiya McCullough wrote in a tweet on Thursday that the NWSL and NWSL Players Association joint investigation on coaching abuse in the league has brought her “peace.”

Selected 32nd overall out of UCLA in the 2020 draft, McCullough left the NWSL that same year in September after experiencing what she later said was racism and verbal abuse from former Spirit head coach Richie Burke.

She reported Burke’s behavior to the Washington Post in 2021. The Spirit suspended Burke and then fired him in September of that year, following the completion of an investigation into his misconduct.

McCullough added to the tweet on Thursday that she had been gaslit, told she was lying and blamed for being “just mad” she wasn’t getting playing time.

“I had to heal publicly for TWO YEARS,” she added. “the weight of that is just sinking in. damn.”

NWSL Players Association executive director Meghann Burke responded to McCullough’s tweet, saying, “This is my why.”

The NWSL and NWSLPA released their 14-month joint investigation Wednesday into widespread misconduct in the league, which substantiated allegations of abuse against Burke and other former coaches in the league. The NWSL report followed U.S. Soccer’s Sally Yates report, which was published in October and detailed a culture of systemic abuse.

Since leaving soccer, McCullough has become a Harvard Law candidate. She is chairwoman of the Anti Racist Soccer Club and an Athlete Ally ambassador.

The NWSL has whittled its search down to three cities for the league’s 14th expansion team, according to a Sportico report published Friday.

Groups from Boston, Tampa and the Bay Area are the three finalists, with the highest initial bid well over $40 million. Just two years ago, the price tag for an expansion team didn’t exceed $5 million.

The Bay Area bid is led by global investment firm Sixth Street and former U.S. women’s national team players Brandi Chastain and Aly Wagner. It has not yet been confirmed out of which city the club would play.

Tampa Bay Rays owner Stuart Sternberg backs the Tampa group. The Boston bid is led by a group of women investors, including Anna Palmer of Flybridge, a venture capital firm, and Linda Henry, co-owner of the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC. Henry was a part of the WNBA’s $75 million venture capital raise earlier this year.

The chosen city will be one of two newcomers joining the NWSL, which had 12 clubs this past year. Salt Lake City is expected to be named the 13th expansion team, as first reported by ESPN.

Expansion clubs Angel City FC and San Diego Wave FC began play in the NWSL this past season, with the Wave becoming the first expansion team to make the playoffs in their inaugural season.

Two other NWSL club will be changing hands, after Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson and Chicago Red Stars owner Arnim Whisler announced their intentions to sell following the release of the Sally Yates report on systemic abuse in the league.

In the summer NWSL Commissioner Jessica Berman said the NWSL would consider reproductive rights when looking at locations for expansion teams. A month prior, the U.S. Supreme Court removed constitutional protections for abortion. If Tampa is selected as the 14th NWSL club, both 2024 expansion teams will be located in states with banned or restricted access to abortion.

Sam Coffey was sitting in front of a blank, white wall in the little house she had moved into in Portland last month after leaving the Thorns’ team housing. She was reflecting back on January, when she had no idea what to expect for her rookie NWSL season with the club.

The 2021 No. 12 overall draft pick admits that if she had been told at the beginning of 2022 that the next 11 months would go the way they did — including an NWSL championship, a league Best XI honor, her first cap with the U.S. women’s national team and a Concacaf W title that secured the USWNT’s spot in the 2023 World Cup — she would have laughed.

Coffey had arguably the most exciting year of any professional soccer player in the United States. One of the biggest reasons for that is a picture that hangs on her mirror.

Hardly anything is organized yet in her new house, she says, besides a photo of a young, grinning Sam with shin pads that were as big as her love was for soccer. A small kid from Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., Coffey used to spend her spare time practicing volleys in school yards or going down to her basement to work on first touches.

Nowadays, Coffey peeks at that picture before she heads off to practices and games.

“Looking at that photo of myself, I’m like, you’re the same kid,” she says. “You have the same love for it, you have the same joy for it. Don’t lose that … I think a lot of people lose that love as they go higher and higher in levels of soccer with more pressure.

“I can’t ever let that become a reason that I don’t love it or don’t do it every day.”

Before arriving at Thorns preseason in February, Coffey made a commitment that she would bring a fun spirit and the best of herself to training every day, taking in each moment as an exciting adventure. The way she’s preserved her joy for the game is what her father, Wayne Coffey, says he and Sam’s mother are most grateful for.

“It’s so easy to lose that, and she never has,” he says. “She loves the game more today at age 23 than she did when she was in first grade.”

Coffey earned her first four caps with the USWNT in 2022 and impressed coach Vlatko Andonovski. (Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Besides her personal goal, Coffey went into the first preseason of her pro career with no expectations. The former Boston College and Penn State midfielder was joining one of the best women’s soccer teams in the world and wasn’t anticipating much playing time at all. The club was stacked with legends, like World Cup champions Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg and Crystal Dunn, and Olympic gold medalist Christine Sinclair.

True to her word, Coffey kept showing up, soaking up every little bit of knowledge and applying it to her game. The team captain noticed. After one of the Thorns’ preseason scrimmages, Sinclair, the world’s all-time leading goal scorer, walked up to Coffey and told her, “You’re f–king good.”

At the time, Coffey wasn’t even playing a position she was comfortable with. Right after Coffey’s fifth college season ended with the Nittany Lions, one in which she thrived as an attacking midfielder, then-Thorns head coach Rhian Wilkinson called her to tell her she was going to play at the six or the eight in the NWSL.

Coffey had stepped in at the six before, when a college teammate was injured, but she preferred to be in a position where she could create and attack opposing defenses. Defensive midfield felt like dirty work.

She wasn’t about to express that to her first pro coach, though. In fact, she didn’t hesitate at all. Whatever the team needed, she was ready to embrace. Coffey would have inflated balls and set up cones if that’s what they’d asked her to do.

It was the same when she was asked to play defensive midfield at Penn State. She went into her coach’s office with a notepad, seeking game film that would help her prepare. She knows every teammate and coach in her path has something to offer, and so she wants to learn it.

Penn State coach Erica Dambach instills that growth mindset into her players, and especially those who have the potential to continue their soccer careers beyond college.

“Those players that come in wanting to learn, wanting to get better, knowing that you never stop learning — you just saw them continue to grow and invest in themselves and build their own house,” she says.

Watching those game clips, Coffey found ways to have fun even when she messed up. She’d notice a mistake, laugh at herself and say, “What am I doing? Why am I doing that?” But she could also acknowledge when she did something well.

Coffey’s passion for learning has carried into her pro career, where she adjusted to the quick pace of the NWSL and started to make plays in two touches instead of trying to dribble around her opponents, just as her college coaches had warned her.

By the second month of her first NWSL regular season, Coffey’s contributions at the six earned her the league’s June Rookie of the Month honor. That same month, she received her first call-up to the USWNT, where she also played as a defensive midfielder.

It was shocking to her when she realized how much she had grown to love the position. She didn’t know if it was because she was getting more acclimated to it or because she enjoyed a new challenge. All Coffey knew was that she was fully coming into her own as a player. Wilkinson said all season that she wanted Coffey to get a doctorate in the six, and Coffey fully embraced the challenge. (Wilkinson resigned as Thorns coach on Dec. 2 following an investigation into personal communications with a player.)

“I felt like I could help be the quarterback of the team,” Coffey says. “I could help instill rhythm into the team. I could slow the game down if that’s what we needed. I could speed it up if that’s what we needed.”

By the end of the year, she had four caps with the national team and was an NWSL Rookie of the Year finalist, averaging an 82.4 passing success rate and 20 starts in 21 games played for the Thorns.

“It was like she was meant to play that position,” Wayne says.

Coffey was one of three nominees for 2022 NWSL Rookie of the Year. (Craig Mitchelldyer/USA TODAY Sports)

After her banner rookie year, which included a contract extension with the Thorns through 2025, the bar is much higher entering 2023. Coffey still plans to start the new year the same way she did 2022: no expectations, no complacency.

“[Last year] was wonderful,” she says, sitting in front of that blank, white wall. “But this is a new year, a new adventure. Success is earned, not given. I’m not riding the high of past successes. Those were great things and I’m so grateful for them, but they’re done now.”

Coffey’s new home is primed to be decorated and furnished, just like the rest of her soccer career. “Build your own house,” as Dambach says.

“You’d better invest in yourself,” she tells her players. “You’d better recognize that it’s way more than just playing matches if you’re going to achieve your goals.”

Coffey knows the root of success will always come from inside herself.

Outside her window is a school yard, like the ones she used to practice her volleys on at home in New York, wearing a wide grin and oversized shin pads.

“Watching these kids outside play, like I love watching little kids’ soccer games,” Coffey says, pointing to the window. “This is it, this is the reason you play. That was you. That was literally you.

“I don’t want to lose sight of the joy, I don’t want to lose sight of the fun. I don’t want to not bring the best of myself. … I want to do that fully and authentically and even better than I did last year.”

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

UCLA head coach Margueritte Aozasa was in her office with her assistants on Nov. 8 when she saw that her player, sophomore Lilly Reale, was named the Pac-12 Defender of the Year. Half an hour later, Aozasa received the news through social media that she had won Coach of the Year.

The first rookie coach to win the honor, Aozasa has led the Bruins to a 17-2 record in the regular season and the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. And on Monday, they will compete in the College Cup final.

“It’s humbling,” she said of the award. “While I’m honored that this is an individual recognition, I really need to start a petition for it to be called ‘Staff of the Year’ because I’m just so thankful for my assistants and all our support staff. They really make my job possible.”

Aozasa is in her first year, but she’s familiar with what it takes to run a successful program. Having coached since she was 19 years old, Aozasa was an assistant at Stanford for seven years, guiding the team to two NCAA titles in 2017 and 2019 along with five Pac-12 titles from 2015-19.

She took over the Bruins program from Amanda Cromwell, who left to become head coach of the NWSL’s Orlando Pride but was placed on administrative leave less than two months into the season. A joint investigation between the NWSL and NWSL Players Association later substantiated claims of retaliatory behavior, leading to Cromwell’s termination.

Aozasa, a two-time captain and four-year starting defender for Santa Clara, wanted to turn UCLA into as much of a defensive powerhouse as an attacking engine. Her goal was to make the Bruins one of the best defensive teams in the country, and that’s exactly what they became. UCLA registered 12 shutouts in 19 games, their goals-against average of .474 tied for fourth in the nation, and Reale was named UCLA’s second-ever Pac-12 Defender of the Year.

Reale’s honor, especially, was a testament to the defensive strides UCLA made this year.

“She’s an incredible person and just very steady for us,” Aozasa said. “I think as a defender, it’s sometimes hard to gain recognition, especially on a good team.”

Off the field, the ingredients to UCLA’s recipe for success have been honesty and trust.

“I think transparency is really an expression of respect in a lot of ways,” Aozasa said. “And we try to be accessible and compassionate. I think those are really values of our staff, and so we’ve created a very strong, supportive, empowering environment for our players to play within it.”

After she was hired in the last week of 2021, Aozasa started out by meeting with every single player, sometimes for an hour. The chats were free-flowing. She wanted to know everything so she could assess how best to move forward.

“What’s your previous experience?”

“What do you want to get out of this?”

“What type of player are you?”

“What are your tendencies?”

She’d then explain her own goals, the changes she wanted to make to the team’s system and the identity she wanted the program to have.

“Everything we’ve done thus far starts with those relationships,” Aozasa said.

The trust the Bruins built during the preseason is reflected in their chemistry on the field, where they play without fear of making mistakes. A fun-loving group that laughs and dances through pressure-filled situations, the players embraced the staff from day one, which allowed Aozasa to introduce her plans quickly.

They also got closer through hard times. Just two months after Aozasa joined UCLA, she received the news that her former goalkeeper, Stanford’s Katie Meyer, had died by suicide.

“When she passed, the news was just … I hit the floor,” Aozasa said. “It just was so shocking. It was so upsetting.

“But in a weird way, her death and the conversations we had stemming from that as a team really accelerated the process of our team, building that trust between our staff and players.”

One of Aozasa’s goals has been to create an environment where mental health is a high priority. Meyer’s death not only opened conversations about mental health and challenges that student-athletes were facing, but it also brought Aozasa’s own mental well-being into sharp focus. And her players and the athletic department were there to help.

Two days after Meyer passed, one of UCLA’s older players called Aozasa.

“Margueritte,” the player said, “we talked as a team. You need to know that if you need to go there, we’re OK.”

“I was like, ‘Wow. Like, wow,’” recalled Aozasa. “I had not been there that long. I was so struck by the team’s support as I went through that loss personally.”

There were times Aozasa missed training to go to Stanford because that’s what she needed in those moments.

When UCLA kicked off its season in mid-August, the Bruins were closer than ever and ready to play for each other. In just their fourth and fifth games, they beat the top two teams in the nation, Duke followed by North Carolina and 21-time national champion coach Anson Dorrance.

Aozasa and Reale had six other Bruins join them on the Pac-12 awards list. Also named to the first team were forward Reilyn Turner — Nike’s first student-athlete signed to an NIL deal — and defender Quincy McMahon, while goalkeeper Lauren Brzykcy and midfielder Sunshine Fontes received second-team honors. Forward Ally Cook, freshman midfielder Ally Lemos and midfielder Maricarmen Reyes were named to the third team. Lemos and midfielder Sofia Cook made the Pac-12 All-Freshman Team.

UCLA kicked off the NCAA tournament with a 4-1 win against Northern Arizona, then advanced on penalties against Central Florida. They beat Northwestern, Virginia and Alabama in succession to reach the championship match at 6 p.m. ET Monday.

“Try not to let it get bigger than it is, so that it doesn’t distract from what we’re really trying to do,” Aozasa said. “Can we play how we know we can play and bring some joy in the game, even though it is kind of a pressure-filled situation?”

Last year, UCLA lost to UC Irvine in the first round after winning 16 games in the regular season. On Monday night, all eyes will be on the No. 1 Bruins to see if they can not just flip the script but clinch the NCAA title, with the 2022 Pac-12 Coach of the Year leading the way.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

The U.S. women’s national team has eight months until the 2023 FIFA World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, where they’ll face the toughest opponents on the world’s biggest stage.

As women’s soccer grows rapidly across the globe with increased investment and attendance, the upcoming tournament, which begins at the end of July, will arguably be the most competitive Women’s World Cup to date.

Since the first World Cup in 1991, the U.S. has won four titles, the most of any nation. This year, however, other teams proved they’ve caught up to the level of dominance of the reigning champions. After some wrinkles in the USWNT’s play this year and three consecutive losses for the first time since 1993, a fifth title for the U.S. is no guarantee.

The USWNT is in Group E, which includes No. 8 Netherlands, No. 34 Vietnam and one of Cameroon, Portugal or Thailand. If they make it out of the group stage, they play one of the top two teams from Group G: No. 2 Sweden or No. 14 Italy. In the quarterfinals, the U.S. would face a squad from Group A or C.

As the USWNT puts a wrap on the 2022 schedule and looks ahead to the new year, here are seven top-ranked teams they should keep in mind as they ramp up preparations for the World Cup. If the U.S. wants to be a top-four squad, these are the most-likely opponents — based on the FIFA rankings — they’ll have to beat in the group stage, Round of 16 and quarterfinals. From there, the competition will likely get even tougher.

Group stage


Current FIFA World Ranking: 8
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Runner-up (2019)
Record vs. USA: 1-1-8

The second-best team in Group E behind the U.S., the Dutch are likely to be the USWNT’s biggest obstacle in the group stage. To have a chance at clinching the first seed in their group and playing the runners-up from Group G in the Round of 16, the U.S. will have to beat the Netherlands in their second 2023 World Cup game on July 27. If the USWNT finishes second in Group E, they’ll play the first-place team from Group G.

Both teams will be looking for a more definitive scoreline than the 2-2 regulation draw in their last meeting, the quarterfinals of the Tokyo Olympics last summer. The U.S. won that game in penalty kicks.

The Dutch had a quiet year in 2022, going 11-4-2, not far off the USWNT’s 14-3-1. Even with a deep bench, they lost 5-1 to England in a friendly over the summer and were bounced from the Euros in the quarterfinals, after which the club parted ways with coach Mark Parsons. The Netherlands ended 2022 struggling to create chances, even though they controlled possession in most of their games. Lately, they’ve been starting a lot of their attacks through the midfield, an area of the pitch the U.S. has to focus on cleaning up in the new year.

Round of 16


Current FIFA World Ranking: 2
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: 3rd (1991, 2011, 2019)
Record vs. USA: 7-23-12

The top two teams in the USWNT’s Group E face the top two from Group G in the Round of 16. Currently, Sweden is projected to be the best team in Group G with their No. 2 FIFA ranking.

The USWNT’s last game against Sweden, in their opening match at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, appeared to spark the era of concern for the U.S. Sweden won 3-0, handing the U.S. their first loss in two years and their first game without a goal since 2017. It was also the team’s first defeat under head coach Vlatko Andonovski.

For Sweden, their rise continued after placing third at the 2019 World Cup and going on to win silver at the Tokyo Olympics. A deep run at the 2023 World Cup could be next. One of seven teams to have qualified for every World Cup, the Swedes are a well-rounded side that is dangerous on set pieces and counter attacks.


Current FIFA World Ranking: 14
World Cup Appearances: 3 (1991, 1999, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Quarterfinals (1991, 2019)
Record vs. USA: 4-10-1

The second-best team in Group G behind Sweden, Italy is also a likely opponent for the USWNT in the Round of 16. But the two sides might as well be strangers to one another, having not met since November 2010.

The Italians didn’t end 2022 on a great note, losing three consecutive games to No. 49 Northern Ireland, No. 19 Austria and No. 9 Brazil. They struggled to create quality chances on offense, and on defense they weren’t always on the same page as opponents took advantage of the open space they conceded. On the attack, Italy’s strength comes on crosses, which the U.S. will have to review. Opponents’ runs down the flanks cost the USWNT goals against both Spain and England in October.



Current FIFA World Ranking: 6
World Cup Appearances: 2 (2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16 (2019)
Record vs. USA: 1-3-0

The USWNT has a chance to face a team from Group C if they make the quarterfinals. Currently, Spain is the best-ranked team in the group at No. 6. The Spaniards handed the U.S. a 2-0 defeat in October, as the USWNT dropped two consecutive games for the first time since March 17.

Spain showcased its roster depth against the USWNT in October when 15 of their players made themselves unavailable for roster selection due to a public dispute with the federation over concerns about coach Jorge Vilda. Even before all the roster changes that came with that, Spain has strived to be a possession-based team, forcing opponents to play them with patience. Opportunities could come from pouncing on Spain’s mistakes in their final third, where they struggle to finish at times.


Current FIFA World Ranking: 11
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Champions (2011)
Record vs. USA: 1-29-8

Playing in Group C, Japan could also meet the U.S. in the quarterfinals. The USWNT’s most recent game against Japan was a 3-1 win at the SheBelieves Cup in 2020, when Japan finished with more accurate passes and shots on goal but still fell.

Similar to the U.S., they lost to both England and Spain this fall. Experimenting with a couple of new formations, they’ve seemed to find the most success in 3-4-3 variations. This could pose a problem for the USWNT’s 4-3-3 if they don’t set it up in a way that offers additional support to the midfield. When Japan is feeling good, it’s difficult to disrupt their pinpoint possession-style attack.


Current FIFA World Ranking: 12
World Cup Appearances: 8 (1991, 1995, 1999, 2003, 2007, 2011, 2015, 2019)
Best World Cup finish: Champions (1995)
Record vs. USA: 19-29-2

The team with the best FIFA ranking in Group A, the second group that could cross paths with the U.S. in the quarterfinals, is Norway. The last match between the two sides dates back to 2017, when the Americans narrowly escaped with a 1-0 victory thanks to a Christen Press goal.

Norway isn’t particularly strong in possession. In a lot of ways, they’re like the U.S. in that they focus more on making quick attacks happen. They won’t be the most threatening opponent in 2023 after losing 8-0 to England this year. If the USWNT can start strong and take control of the match right away, they shouldn’t have a hard time defeating Norway in a World Cup game.


Current FIFA World Ranking: 21
World Cup Appearances: 1 (2015)
Best World Cup finish: Round of 16
Record vs. USA: 0-4-0

Switzerland, in Group A with Norway, is the fourth team with the best chance of playing a quarterfinal against the USWNT. They last faced the U.S. in October 2016, when the Americans dominated their two-game friendly series, 5-1 and 4-0.

This year, Switzerland has thrived at forcing turnovers in the midfield, drawing players in on the dribble and putting numbers in front of the net, where they execute tedious combination plays in tight spaces. Despite their crafty efforts, they ended the year with a 2-1 loss to Denmark to go 3-7-3 in 2022. Of the teams on this list, they played the Netherlands, Italy and Sweden in 2022 and lost all three matches.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

The U.S. women’s national team closed out its 18-match 2022 campaign with two friendlies against Germany this past week.

That final friendly series — a 2-1 loss followed by a 2-1 win against the third-ranked team in the world — was symbolic of the USWNT’s year that consisted of both highs and lows. After winning the Concacaf W Championship in the summer and qualifying for the 2023 World Cup, they traveled to play friendlies against some of the world’s best and lost three straight games for the first time since 1993.

It was a year of many takeaways as the USWNT prepares for the World Cup that starts in July. Here’s what was learned about the team in 2022.

Starting forwards seem decided

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has yet to solidify his lineups in the midfield, defense and goal as he waits for the opportunity to evaluate veterans returning from injury. The three starting forwards, however, are more clear.

The wingers have remained consistent all year, with the Colorado duo of Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh starting the majority of the games. Andonovski said earlier this year that other players would have to do “something incredible” to take their starting roles. Smith, the 2022 NWSL MVP, was the USWNT’s leading scorer with 11 of the team’s 56 goals this year. Coming into 2022 with 10 caps, she went on to start all 17 games that she appeared in. Pugh was the second-leading scorer with seven goals and a team-high seven assists.

Center forward Catarina Macario was a centerpiece of the USWNT attack before she tore her ACL in June and is unlikely to lose her starting position when she returns to the field. Scoring five goals in the five games she played, she also helped connect the team’s midfield and the frontline, something the U.S. has been lacking since she went down.

Macario, Smith and Pugh were Andonovski's preferred starting attacking trio before Macario's injury. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Andonovski needs to adapt

Through the successes and disappointments of 2022, Andonovski has been loyal to the same starting lineup in a 4-3-3 formation. While it’s worked in some instances, no opponent is the same and players are susceptible to bad games.

In one example, the USWNT’s starting backline in the October friendly against England and in the first November game against Germany consisted lower-capped players, when Becky Sauerbrunn’s veteran leadership could have benefited the squad against two of the top five teams in the world. In the midfield, the trio of Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan need to prove they can be more consistent, which could come from some variation of a 4-4-2 when going up against a strong midfield like Germany’s.

Andonovski will lead the USWNT into his first World Cup as coach next year. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Rookies or veterans, the USWNT is dominant

The USWNT’s player pool runs so deep that even with over 10 key veterans injured, the team has kept its No. 1 FIFA ranking all year. Most of the players Andonovski brought in at the beginning of the year to evaluate became long-term contributors out of necessity. Whether the roster evolves back into what it looked like at the Tokyo Olympics last summer, or stays the same as it’s been in 2022, the USWNT is in good shape to be a top-four team in the 2023 World Cup. The three straight losses stand out, but the USWNT went 14-3-1 this year compared to 17-2-5 last year.

But… a third straight World Cup title is no guarantee

Sure, the USWNT remains one of the best teams in the world, but that doesn’t mean they’re a safe bet to win the World Cup title. This year, the U.S. not only lost to powerhouses England, Spain and Germany, but they showed much room for improvement in the process. In the Concacaf W final, the USWNT beat Canada only on a penalty kick. The rest of the world is catching up to the dominance of the five-time World Cup champions, and although the U.S. has the talent to be a semifinal team, the World Cup title — as things stand now — is up for grabs.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.

The U.S. women’s national team was staring down a possible four-game losing streak when they faced Germany on Sunday for the second time in four days. With second-half goals from Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh, the USWNT won 2-1, snapping their first three-game losing streak since 1993 and salvaging a historically bad skid.

A game-winning goal from Pugh was nothing new, but the reason the team was able to build up to that goal in the first place certainly was.

Under head coach Vlatko Andonovski, the U.S. has implemented a 4-3-3 formation in which Andi Sullivan plays as the lone six and Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle push higher up in the midfield. The structure has left the USWNT vulnerable to breakdowns in defending and controlling the play while they await the return of Julie Ertz, the team’s longtime staple at holding midfield.

On Sunday, however, Horan dropped lower into the midfield in the second half, allowing Sullivan to be more involved in the play and try for more tackles.

“At that point, we started taking the game over,” head coach Vlatko Andonovski said of the change.

Pugh’s goal was a direct result of that adjustment. A minute after Smith scored in the 54th minute, Sullivan controlled the ball in the midfield while Horan covered the space to her left. Sullivan then sent a long ball to the top of Germany’s 18-yard box, where Pugh ran onto it, blasted by two players and put the U.S. up 2-1.

The play before that, Sullivan had missed a tackle and Pugh didn’t hesitate to let her know.

“That woke me up, and I was like, ‘I need to do better, I need to make the tackle,’” Sullivan said.

The team had talked at halftime about needing to force more turnovers as a unit.

“I think we did a good job at looking at each other and demanding more from each other,” Sullivan added.

The USWNT came alive in the second half, and the midfield began to play more consistently than it had in recent losses to England, Spain and Germany on Thursday.

Despite a head-on collision in the 21st minute that kept Sullivan down for nearly four minutes and resulted in a bloody nose, the 26-year-old served as the defensive anchor through all 83 minutes she played.

“I think what’s been building for us is a little bit more fluidity and being able to rotate and me feeling more confident in stepping out, whether that’s to get on the ball, or defensively trusting that they’re going to fill in behind me, or vice versa,” Sullivan said. “I think we have a really good relationship.”

Andonovski wouldn’t say whether he would experiment with playing two midfielders defensively in future games, but he recognized the immediate return they saw from the change.

“Obviously we are going to do our analysis and see why that worked and what was the response on the opponent,” the coach said.

The USWNT won’t return to the field until January, when they travel to New Zealand for a pair of friendlies and expect several reinforcements to work their way back into the lineup.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.