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Five NWSL stars playing their way into World Cup consideration

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Racing Louisville midfielder Savannah DeMelo is one of the uncapped players making a case for the World Cup. (EM Dash/USA TODAY Sports)

The U.S. women’s national team is in a unique position going into this year’s World Cup roster release. With the NWSL still in the swing of the regular season, USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has the benefit of watching league games every week — but few chances for head-to-head comparisons before the team convenes for camp in June.

A number of U.S. mainstays, including Rose Lavelle, are still dealing with lingering injuries, while others, such as Catarina Macario, have removed themselves from World Cup consideration entirely. Still others are struggling to find World Cup-level form.

Meanwhile, several players without any international experience are stepping up in league play and making their cases for the USWNT roster. Andonovski doesn’t get to guide his team through any more international friendlies before committing to the group that will chase the USWNT’s fifth World Cup star, and these stars with little U.S. experience are making his decisions that much more difficult.

Aubrey Kingsbury, GK, Washington Spirit

Aubrey Kingsbury is the only player on this list with a cap for the U.S., earned against Uzbekistan in April 2022. And with Alyssa Naeher, Adrianna Franch and Casey Murphy all having up-and-down seasons, a clear argument could be made that the American goalkeeper with recent USWNT experience having the steadiest 2023 so far is actually the Washington Spirit No. 1. Washington is tied with Gotham FC for fewest goals conceded this season with eight, with Kingsbury a steady presence behind a new Spirit defensive line.

When Franch had a surge in form for Kansas City late in 2022, Kingsbury became the first goalkeeper out of the player pool after having been brought in consistently for USWNT camps in recent years. One has to wonder if the combination of familiarity with the U.S. system and commanding league form could be enough to give her the edge on the third goalkeeper spot on the plane to New Zealand.

Jaedyn Shaw, F, San Diego Wave

If there’s been one major theme of the NWSL season thus far, it’s been the youth movement. And more than one teenager likely is ready for the international stage. Jaedyn Shaw’s role within the San Diego attack has only grown as she develops into her first full season as a professional. The 18-year-old’s versatility has been on display, with crafty movement front of goal and an ability on the ball that can find seams behind an opponent’s backline.

“Jaedyn’s vision and ability to pick a pass that breaks a back line is some of the best I’ve seen in the game,” Wave head coach Casey Stoney said after last Friday’s match, in which Shaw place a perfectly weighted ball in for an assist. Shaw can play both as a forward or as a deeper-sitting playmaker, and her current form indicates she should be a legitimate consideration for the spot left open by Catarina Macario’s injury.

Savannah DeMelo, M, Racing Louisville

If there was a “pure form” index for players across all NWSL competitions, Savannah DeMelo would surely be at the very top of the list. The 25-year-old has eight goal contributions in all comps since mid-April with five goals and three assists, the most in the NWSL in that time span. An audacious playmaker, DeMelo is willing to open defenses up by shots from distance as well as by finding the runs of her teammates in behind opponents’ backlines.

She also has experience with both a single and a double pivot defensive midfield structure behind her, something the U.S. has experimented with throughout 2022 and the early months of 2023. She’s not afraid of risky passes forward, and she provides a dynamism that the U.S. might need with Rose Lavelle still returning from injury. The only mark against the midfielder’s rise in league domination is that her current run of form comes in a section of Louisville’s schedule that includes two games apiece against the struggling Kansas City Current and Chicago Red Stars.

Sam Staab, D, Washington Spirit

While it hasn’t been an incredible season of defense to this point in the NWSL, Sam Staab has stood apart from the field. Staab has shown an impressive amount of durability and mental focus in 2023, having not missed a single start since the beginning of her NWSL career. She also had to be the foundation of a new-look center-back pairing after the departure of Emily Sonnett, but even with the added pressure, she is holding down one of the NWSL’s most efficient defenses.

What also makes Staab an exciting USWNT prospect is what she provides to a team in distribution. The 26-year-old has impressive long ball vision, hitting the kind of diagonal passes that the U.S. prefers when trying to progress the ball forward. She also has the ability to take long throw-ins when the Spirit are in the attacking third, giving an extra edge in set-piece configuration for her team. With a number of center-backs in the USWNT rotation struggling to find their form and Becky Sauerbrunn still returning to the pitch, Staab deserves a long look.

Olivia Moultrie, M, Portland Thorns

Olivia Moultrie is the second teenager on this list, but she plays in Portland’s midfield like the seasoned pro she actually is. The 17-year-old has two goals and two assists in the 2023 NWSL season thus far, and she has looked increasingly like the kind of player the USWNT could use on the ball in the midfield. She — like DeMelo — plays in the attacking midfield, and she doesn’t give the ball away easily, connecting over 81% of her passes this season despite a willingness to try to thread balls forward to connect with the Thorns’ attack.

There’s also an argument to be made for continuing to build for the future, with Moultrie a likely successor to the USWNT’s current crop of creative midfielders. She’s got a good attacking rapport with striker Sophia Smith, and her numbers year over year have improved with the more time she’s gotten in a professional midfield system. She can move the ball calmly under pressure, something that the U.S. could use not only in future years but also right now, with the World Cup on the horizon.