In September, the U.S. women’s national team said farewell to two legends and also kicked off their post-World Cup era with two strong wins over South Africa. While attention was duly paid to Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe as they head into retirement, the breakout performance of the month came from 21-year-old Trinity Rodman.
Rodman scored in each match, finishing definitive strikes that helped assuage fears the USWNT might never get its confidence back. She showcased her collaborative instincts, working well with Alex Morgan in particular, and a newfound confidence on the international stage.
In the wake of Rapinoe’s exit, the rise of yet another explosive winger talent gives the U.S. not only another weapon, but also the next link across generations of players.
Rodman has 24 caps with the U.S. senior team, with 14 of those appearances coming in 2023. Of her 10 U.S. starts, eight of them have also come in this calendar year. Former head coach Vlatko Andonovski brought her into the fold slowly, even as she excelled at the NWSL level from a very young age.
This year, Rodman was asked to take a huge leap forward in minutes played during the World Cup due to injuries that Andonovski couldn’t have anticipated. At one point in the lead-up to the tournament, he intended to play a front three of Mallory Swanson, Catarina Macario and Sophia Smith, with Macario assuming a false No. 9 role to create space for the wingers.
Ultimately, Swanson and Macario had to miss the World Cup due to injuries. Andonovski shifted Smith to the left wing, inserted Alex Morgan at center forward and brought Rodman in on the right. Based on the players he had available, the move was the right call, but Rodman had to learn on the job on the biggest international stage. And when the team struggled to score, outside pressure on players working within a rigid system continued to grow.
“It was tough for the younger players, having that be their first experience,” Megan Rapinoe said before her farewell match. “Having the narrative around the team in a lot of ways be so, so negative was really hard, like this was their dream come true [being criticized].
“I feel like the way that the other players handled it, how they handled themselves and how they approached preparation for the games and their professionalism was amazing,” she continued. “And I think the World Cup will be a great learning lesson for them moving forward.”
As Rapinoe pointed out, it’s sometimes easier to be excited about a new generation of players when everything is working right away. But Rodman’s ability to grow through adversity will surely prepare her for the Olympics and her future with the national team.
In Megan Rapinoe’s final press conference as a member of the USWNT, she imparted a few words of wisdom to the next generation.
“It’s up to you, like this is your career,” she said. “This is your special talent. So like, really lean into that and take ownership of that.”
The U.S. players didn’t always look like they were enjoying themselves on the field in 2023, with a conservative game plan and outside pressure turning the former World No. 1 team into a more suppressed version of itself.
“It’s not worth hiding any part of yourself or playing it safe,” Rapinoe said. “It drives me nuts whenever I hear ‘Well, the coach wants me to’ — Well is it working? If it’s not, you’re the one playing, you’re the one that’s going to be benched if it doesn’t work.”
Earlier this year, those words might have felt more like a warning, but they’re also a responsibility a player like Rodman is clearly taking to heart on the pitch. She lined up on the right side of the attack in both September friendlies, and she clearly felt comfortable tracking back to defend and slipping in centrally to fill space every time Morgan shifted to pull defenders wide.
.@trinity_rodman wasn't gonna be left out of a first-half goal party 🎉 pic.twitter.com/HCcCTaeTc5— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) September 22, 2023
.@trinity_rodman wasn't gonna be left out of a first-half goal party 🎉 pic.twitter.com/HCcCTaeTc5
That freedom of movement paid dividends, allowing her to meet the moment and score a goal in each game. It was no secret that the USWNT’s younger players desperately wanted to send their friends and idols out with a goal, and Rodman was the first player to try to find Ertz and then Rapinoe in South Africa’s penalty area.
Rodman clearly has the technical ability to succeed at a high level, but she’s also showing she has the intangibles at the core of the USWNT’s identity from generation to generation.
The moment that Rodman’s shot hit the back of the net in the USWNT’s second game against South Africa in Chicago felt like something of a full circle moment. Rodman’s last name still carries a lot of weight in the Windy City, where her father Dennis won three NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls from 1995-98. The young star has said those family ties can at times get in the way of her becoming her own player.
W̶i̶n̶d̶y̶ ̶ CityTrindy @trinity_rodman opens the scoring! pic.twitter.com/OJyGyZFn9S— U.S. Women's National Soccer Team (@USWNT) September 24, 2023
W̶i̶n̶d̶y̶ ̶ CityTrindy @trinity_rodman opens the scoring! pic.twitter.com/OJyGyZFn9S
But Rodman is building her own profile as part of one of the most iconic women’s sports teams in the U.S. She’s known for staying after matches to sign autographs for fans, even after difficult results at the World Cup, and she has helped keep her NWSL club, the Washington Spirit, in the playoff race in a year full of transition.
“Before I was on a team, nobody knew about me, they only knew about Abby [Wambach] and Mia [Hamm] and the rest of them,” said Rapinoe. “So I think just that you’ve got to make your own way.”
With a new U.S. coach arriving in December, Rodman will again have to prove herself at the highest level. Based on her performances in September, she looks like a player ready to make her stamp on the USWNT by building on the legacies of those who came before.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.