Every once in a while, the CBS broadcast will cut to a spectator that somehow found his way into Zions Bank Stadium for the NWSL Challenge Cup. On closer inspection, it’s former Reign head coach and current USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski.
Often, Andonovski is seen writing in his notebook. While he may be journaling about the playground, sunset or the farm, it is much more likely that he is taking notes as he evaluates a roster for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics.
Before the Olympics were postponed, the likelihood of roster turnover was low given the one year gap between the World Cup and Tokyo. Teams can only carry 18 players at the Olympics, and it was widely expected that those 18 would be chosen among the 23 who won in France.
The postponement of the Olympics has changed all that. Players for whom the Olympics would have likely been their last tournament with the national team are now another year older. Their spots are less secure. Someone like Alex Morgan, on the other hand, would seem to be a shoo-in; originally it was unclear whether she’d be able to come back in time after just giving birth in May.
The extra year of preparation also gives the Challenge Cup added significance, as it may be the only opportunity for many national team hopefuls to play competitive games this calendar year.
Be like Vlatko. Wear a mask ???? pic.twitter.com/uW8gto54cp— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) July 6, 2020
Be like Vlatko. Wear a mask ???? pic.twitter.com/uW8gto54cp
Heading into the tournament, the opportunity seemed perfect for someone like Mallory Pugh, an immensely talented player, still young, who looked to have apparently been left off the initial Olympic roster. Traded to a new team in Sky Blue FC and playing with a chip on her shoulder, there was a chance she could have played herself back into contention. Instead, an injury has forced her to miss out on the tournament.
Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Morgan all opted out of the tournament, but their spots are all but assured. Ali Krieger, Emily Sonnett and Ashlyn Harris likewise won’t have it held against them that Orlando was unable to play. And while Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn and Carli Lloyd have either been limited or unable to play due to injuries, they can feel confident about heading to Tokyo, even if Lloyd will be 38. Tierna Davidson, on the other hand, has struggled with injuries since her final (junior) year at Stanford and could have used a strong showing to cement herself as the future of the defense.
As Andonovski looks towards the future, my bet is he’s currently feeling a bit overwhelmed with the number of world-class goalkeepers he’s seen performing at the Challenge Cup.
So far, Aubrey Bledsoe, who has brought into Andonovski’s first camp for friendlies against Sweden and Costa Rica, has been a brick wall for the Washington Spirit. Jane Campbell of the Houston Dash has also looked strong after being invited to a January camp alongside the three keepers who went to France.
What about the surprise of the tournament, Bella Bixby? Bixby leads the Cup in saves and has allowed one goal per game. She has also allowed 2.03 fewer goals than expected according to American Soccer Analysis, which is second in the league.
Honestly this save is just rude. This MASSIVE stop from @bellageist is worth another look. #BAONDX pic.twitter.com/5CqSE3Wpwr— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) July 6, 2020
Honestly this save is just rude. This MASSIVE stop from @bellageist is worth another look. #BAONDX pic.twitter.com/5CqSE3Wpwr
Andonovski is familiar with Casey Murphy from her time with the Reign and brought her in for December camp last year. There has probably not been much added to her page in the notebook, but she did keep a clean sheet against Sky Blue and has four saves across two games.
Of course, this all comes with the caveat that Alyssa Naeher still looks the part of the best goalkeeper in the world.
On the other side of the pitch, Lynn Williams is making a very convincing case that she should be on the Olympic roster. She had three goals during Olympic qualifying and has carried that form over to the Challenge Cup. She has three goals in three games and leads everyone in both shots and shots on goal. Her goals added score according to American Soccer Analysis, which measures the goal value a player adds compared to an average player at their position is 1.25. The next closest player is Julie Ertz with 0.50.
LYNN WILLIAMS. That's the tweet. @lynnraenie #NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/aMtUn4R8PR— Just Women’s Sports (@justwsports) July 2, 2020
LYNN WILLIAMS. That's the tweet. @lynnraenie #NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/aMtUn4R8PR
Andi Sullivan was also on that Olympic qualifying roster and seems poised to be a feature on the national team squad for many years to come. She is tied for fourth in the league with six tackles won, and her six interceptions is tied for second.
Teammate Ashley Sanchez has excelled on the dribble. Andonovski has certainly made note of her five successful dribbles, second most in the league behind Debinha, out of 12 attempts. The rookie has not shied away from the opportunity and that confidence will serve her well. Finally, her creativity and reflexes on Sam Staab’s tying goal against Portland will not soon be forgotten.
Back heel flick from @ashleynsanchezz ✅Equalizer from @SamStaab_ ✅pic.twitter.com/jPXSsTeQIu— Washington Spirit (@WashSpirit) July 6, 2020
Back heel flick from @ashleynsanchezz ✅Equalizer from @SamStaab_ ✅pic.twitter.com/jPXSsTeQIu
Although Chicago fans would have liked her to learn how to go down in the box, Kealia Watt has otherwise had a solid tournament. Her seven shots are tied for fourth and her 10 crosses are tied for the team lead. The advanced statistics say she is tied for eighth in the league with 0.39 goals added. Like Sanchez, she has also been effective on the dribble with 4-of-7 successful dribble attempts.
Since coming to the Houston Dash, Shea Groom has as many goals (2) as shots and games played. No one has more than her 1.13 goals per 90 minutes. The two brilliant goals showcased her full range of ability, one a soaring header and the other a screaming shot. She also has an assist and has been a focus of the revitalized Dash, with the team up four goals when she is on the pitch. She is also on the leaderboards with four drawn fouls. Back in 2016, she was called in for two friendlies with the national team, but was not capped. Even if the Olympics is not the venue, she should get a chance soon enough.
???????????? Shea Groom has been cleared for take-off. #NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/5Ol0bsqHu7— Meg Linehan (@itsmeglinehan) July 5, 2020
???????????? Shea Groom has been cleared for take-off. #NWSLChallengeCup pic.twitter.com/5Ol0bsqHu7
Groom has partnered well with Kristie Mewis, who has a goal and an assist of her own. Since receiving 15 caps in 2013-14, Mewis has been left off the national team roster, until Andonovski showed renewed interest and invited her to the December camp. In this cup, her 10 crosses are tied for sixth and her five fouls drawn is second. Her younger sister Sam is a sure bet for the national team, but Kristie Mewis has shown she still has a lot left.
Another player who was shown that she is still capable is Amy Rodriguez. While the Utah forward is probably not going to get a chance to return to the international stage, she is making the most of the stage. Through two games, she has a goal, an assist, and six shots. The pace that set her apart when she was a World Cup champion remains an asset.
Savannah McCaskill has six caps at the senior level and her upside is on full display. Coming on in the 64th minute against North Carolina, McCaskill’s entrance put Chicago on the front foot. She has nine crosses, tied for tenth in the Cup, despite coming off the bench in two games. It is this playmaking ability that is appreciated by her coach and makes her appealing for the national team.
“If I’m being honest, I thought outside of Sav [McCaskill], when the other players came off the bench, the game fell off completely,” Chicago coach Rory Dames said after the last game.
Andonovksi’s notebook of attackers, to the disappointment of some, does not contain Sky Blue’s Midge Purce. So far, she has been used exclusively at right back. While she does make up a significant portion of the team’s touches, 11.7% or the tenth highest rate in the league, she is completing just 66.4% of passes and seems buried. It seems that Purce, who has one cap, thinks that her best chance at the senior level comes in defense.
“I think every player who plays in the United States, we all know Vlatko is here,” she said in a postgame interview. “He’s hard to miss; he’s kinda tall. Yeah, absolutely, I want to be that outside back. I want to be on the national team.”
Still, the competition at outside back is steep. In addition to the current stalwarts, Casey Short has been brought in for past camps and is tied for fourth in the tournament with six tackles won.
Washington Spirit’s left back Tegan McGrady has also impressed. She passes with 79% accuracy and her 1.65 passes completed over expected is eighth in the league, one spot behind Abby Dahlkemper. She debuted with the national team in 2018, and in the constant search for elite wing backs, has a potential path to the roster.
In the center, Alana Cook is at 87.5% pass accuracy with an average of 25 yards per pass. Playing in front of an American audience for the first time as a professional on loan from PSG, Cook has shown the same poise that allowed her to step in as a freshman at Stanford and start every game over her four year college career. The former captain of the United States U23s in 2019 looked much more comfortable next to Lauren Barnes than Amber Brooks, who also played her first game as the Reign center back in match two.
It is not hard to imagine that Andonovski has made some notes on Bethany Balcer’s sophomore campaign. While she has yet to have the same impact as she managed during her rookie year, much of that may be attributed to the lack of a game plan for OL Reign. On Wednesday, she broke the team’s scoring drought.
.@bethanybalcer the hero! ????♀️@OLReign get their first goal at the #NWSLChallengeCup and their first win.0-1 | #UTAvRGNTune in now on @CBSAllAccess and @Twitch. pic.twitter.com/5AFh69fQwn— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) July 8, 2020
.@bethanybalcer the hero! ????♀️@OLReign get their first goal at the #NWSLChallengeCup and their first win.0-1 | #UTAvRGNTune in now on @CBSAllAccess and @Twitch. pic.twitter.com/5AFh69fQwn
Ashley Hatch has 0.28 fewer goals than expected goals, which is the most of any player who has scored this tournament. Her pace is elite, but her finishing leaves something to be desired.
Second overall pick Morgan Weaver has generated chances with the Portland Thorns, but the team is still reliant on Lindsey Horan’s creativity.
Of course, Andonovski is there so he can evaluate everyone. There will be players that were not on his radar as Reign head coach but now pique his interest as coach of the World Cup champions. There will be surprises and disappointments.
This tournament has been of such high quality that any attempt to recreate Andonovski’s notebook is bound to come up short. We’ll simply have to wait until Tokyo to see what the one fan in the stands has been scribbling all this time.