The USWNT clinched their fourth SheBelieves Cup title after a decisive 6-0 victory against Argentina last week.
Though the US walked away from the three game series with a clean sheet, the tournament provided key tests for the defensive line and further opportunities to evaluate the team’s execution in the attacking third.
Lights, camera, action! ????Highlights from last night's #SheBelievesCup finale: ???????? vs. ???????? pic.twitter.com/AtpXELVAcB— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) February 25, 2021
Lights, camera, action! ????Highlights from last night's #SheBelievesCup finale: ???????? vs. ???????? pic.twitter.com/AtpXELVAcB
Last Friday, during the semiannual U.S. Soccer Federation board meeting, it was confirmed that the FIFA Olympic roster deadline is June 30. Additionally, general manager Kate Markgraf announced five more opportunities to assess this team before Vlatko has to make a final call. The women will play two friendlies on the road in April during the FIFA window (possibly in Europe) and three matches in June when the U.S. hosts the Tournament of Nations.
With an 18 player Olympic roster (plus four alternates), the operative word for Andonovski is “versatility.” So far this year, we’ve been able to see more of what individual players can do in his system when slotted into positions they don’t typically occupy for the national team.
The most prominent episode came in the 63’ minute against Colombia in January, when Crystal Dunn subbed in for Megan Rapinoe in the attack and notched an assist to Lindsey Horan just 10 minutes later. Dunn played at outside back throughout the 2019 World Cup but has made it clear that she’d like to spend more time up top for the national team, which could very well happen in Tokyo.
On the defensive end, we’ve had the chance to see what Midge Purce can do in the right back position as well as Emily Sonnett’s play as both a two and a three. And though she’s seen as heir apparent to Becky Sauerbrunn, Tierna Davidson got the opportunity in the match against Argentina to show that she can play up the left side and get involved with the offense.
In the midfield and up top, Andonovski has experimented with different player combinations now that Alex Morgan and Christen Press are back to join Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and Lynn Williams. He’s also played Catarina Macario both in the eleven and nine positions as well as in her typical midfield spot.
During the SheBelieves Cup, the USWNT played with a different forward line each game. Andonovski also worked to change the pace of the games via his substitutions (“game changers,” as he calls them), most notably when he subbed in Morgan, Press, and Rose Lavelle to replace Lloyd, Rapinoe, and Macario against Canada, all in the 64’ minute.
When it comes down to decision time, Andonovski knows he’s going to need a roster of athletes that can deliver consistent play while also giving him tactical flexibility. Olympic rosters are small, the schedule is packed, and the USWNT is in a position to make history as the only team to ever win a World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back tournaments. Andonovski will have to balance leveraging his team’s proven core while also developing the unproven players who are the future of the program.
Assuming he takes two goalkeepers, six defenders, five midfielders, and five forwards, here’s our best guess as to where the roster stands today.
Assuming Alyssa Naeher is locked in as the team’s starting keeper for the Olympics, the question now is who backs her up. Ashlynn Harris has held the position as of late, but Jane Campbell took a turn in goal in Florida, playing a full 90 against Argentina.
Regarding her performance in the game, Andonovski stated “We’re very happy with Jane and her form. She’s been incredible in camp, actually in several camps in a row now and I just hope she continues the form in her [home] market.”
The Houston Dash keeper might have a better shot at being chosen as an alternate, but given that Ashlyn Harris (35) and Alyssa Naeher (32) are both north of 30, Andonovski could want to give the 26-year-old Campbell some crucial experience at a major tournament.
The USWNT defense is more or less rock solid with Crystal Dunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Kelley O’Hara looking like locks to start on the backline.
A knee bump kept O’Hara from playing in the majority of the SheBelieves Cup, but her 30 minutes against Argentina were a reminder that it’s still her spot to lose, and Andonovski has spoken glowingly of the leadership she brings to the team.
Given her aforementioned versatility and level of play, Emily Sonnett probably has the inside lane on claiming the fifth spot. She was a part of the 2019 World Cup team, and when O’Hara came off against Argentina, it was Sonnett who Andonovski sent in.
Sauerbrunn is 35, and while age doesn’t seem to be slowing her down, this summer’s Olympics may be her last major tournament with the team. If that’s the case, Tierna Davidson could be an attractive selection for the sixth spot. The youngest player on the 2019 World Cup roster, Davidson’s selection would thread the needle between utilizing the team’s foundation while also giving younger places opportunities to grow.
Sonnet and Davidson may be the favorites, but Midge Purce, Ali Krieger, Alana Cook (who missed the tournament due to PSG’s quarantine protocols), and Casey Krueger are all in serious contention. Krueger may be lower down on that list (with Krieger possibly on top given her international tournament experience), but as always, club performance could change that assumption entirely.
Purce’s ability to play multiple positions could be enticing given the compressed Olympic schedule. And while Cook may be off American fans’ radar, having spent most of her professional career in France, she has the skill and potential to be a perennial USWNT regular in the not-so-distant future.
Whittling down the midfield on this team is enough to make the most stoic break out in hives. One thing we can be pretty confident about is that one does not leave the house without keys, wallet, cell phone, and Julie Ertz.
That leaves four spots open for five contenders. Three of those openings likely belong to Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, and Sam Mewis who announced her return from an ankle injury with a brace against Birmingham City on Sunday while playing for Manchester City.
The last spot is a tussle between Kristie Mewis and Catarina Macario.
Macario has a confidence on the field that belies her age and international experience. SheBelieves didn’t show us the full extent what she’s capable of, but whether she goes to Tokyo or not, she’s on track to be a fixture for this team going forward.
As for Mewis, Andonovski noted after the Argentina game that, while it took her a moment to figure out how to impact the game, once she did, her performance was great, netting a goal, an assist, and a variety of impressive runs. From the outside looking in, her decision making and precision on the ball (especially near the goal) make a very good case for taking her.
a combination we LOVE:@ChristenPress + #SheBelievesCup ???? pic.twitter.com/qWvfK8DY1J— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) February 21, 2021
a combination we LOVE:@ChristenPress + #SheBelievesCup ???? pic.twitter.com/qWvfK8DY1J
Will Macario’s presumptive future with the national team give her the nod? She may be the more obvious choice given her potential, but Mewis has now proven both domestically and internationally that she’s ready to slide in and make a difference for this team.
When assessing the forward pool, it’s important to remember that we haven’t seen Tobin Heath since November, and based on her ankle prognosis, she may not see minutes for her country until the Tournament of Nations. Andonovski, however, doesn’t seem concerned about her ability to bounce back and get fit.
“She’s been in a situation like this before where she’s coming back from injury and needs to recover quick,” he noted ahead of the team’s match against Canada. “I’m confident that Tobin will do whatever it takes to get ready for the Olympics.”
Andonovski’s assessment seemingly locks Heath into the roster spot. Christen Press also seems like a sure bet, having gone from a super sub under Jill Ellis to potentially the team’s most dynamic goalscorer under Andonovski.
We are 100% here for the @KristieMewie x @CaseyShort3 combo ???? pic.twitter.com/Yzz4kJiTNM— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) February 25, 2021
We are 100% here for the @KristieMewie x @CaseyShort3 combo ???? pic.twitter.com/Yzz4kJiTNM
Alex Morgan is also looking more and more like herself on the pitch after giving birth to daughter Charlie and beating COVID-19. After the Argentina match, she acknowledged that she still has some work to do to get back into form, and she is someone who will benefit from consistent NWSL training and gametime in Orlando. If she keeps heading in the direction she’s going, she should soar straight on to Japan.
When it comes to Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd, there’s no question that they have the fitness required to make the Olympic roster. Either they both will go and that’s that, or (not to sound like a broken record), it will come down to the player who most impacts the game in the ways Andonovski needs them to.
If the roster was decided today, Megan Rapinoe appears to be the more likely contender. Coming back from a year of rest, Rapinoe still owns the eleven position both in setting up plays, scoring goals herself (she finished as the tournament’s highest scorer with three goals), and adding energy to the game when she comes in off the bench. Both her and Lloyd have a history of making the biggest plays on the biggest stage. That could be hard to turn down.
All-time leading #SheBelievesCup goal-scorer? ????@mPinoe says don’t mind if I do ???? pic.twitter.com/kD1lnGzfsd— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) February 25, 2021
All-time leading #SheBelievesCup goal-scorer? ????@mPinoe says don’t mind if I do ???? pic.twitter.com/kD1lnGzfsd
Lynn Williams and Sophia Smith remain the two question marks. Smith seems less likely to make the roster, simply given the depth on this team. Her time will come.
Williams is more difficult to assess. After making a name for herself with her game-braking speed, she’s now proven to be a consistent goal scorer in the NWSL, with one MVP and three league champions to her name. At the international level, she’s someone who has proven she can make a difference both offensively and defensively from the seven spot. During the SheBelieves Cup, however, she missed on a few key opportunities in front of the goal against Canada and Brazil.
Will those blunders impact her Olympic chances? Maybe. But what if she carries a North Carolina Courage squad that recently lost Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis, and Abby Dahlkemper to the top of the NWSL table early in the season? It’s just too early to know which variables Andonovski will weigh the most.
As players now return to their home markets, both domestic and international, Andonovski and his coaching staff will be paying close attention to how players perform for their club teams.
In the U.S., NWSL pre-season is underway with the second Challenge Cup set to start on April 9, followed by the regular season on May 15. Overseas, the UEFA Champions League games begin in March, a series that will give Dahlkemper, Lavelle, Mewis, and Macario high-stakes, high-octane opportunities on the field. Press (and Health once she’s healthy), will continue their WSL season with Manchester United, banking solid minutes in a competitive environment.
As Vlatko said during his post-game presser last Wednesday, selecting the roster will remain an ongoing process.
“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.”
And despite how safe some selections may feel, Andonovski reminded the public that he’s still closely evaluating each player every time they step on the pitch.
“We’re still evaluating everyone. The list is still pretty big compared to 18.”