United States women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski has his sights set on the future, filling the roster for the SheBelieves Cup with young players and budding talents. Eleven of the 23 players who will take the field when the U.S. opens the tournament against the Czech Republic on Thursday night have 10 caps or fewer.
The coach is intent on giving opportunities to players with the potential to make the USWNT’s World Cup qualifying roster this summer.
“This a group we want to see more of in camp,” Andonovski said. “We want to give them a chance to be in our system and we want to give ourselves a chance to evaluate them, not just in camp but also in camp with games.”
Andonovski will have much to evaluate in the attacking third, in particular. Ashley Hatch, 26, started to make her case in Australia in November when she scored two goals in two games against the Matildas. She buried the first one just 24 seconds into the USWNT’s opening match, making it the third-fastest goal in team history. At the SheBelieves Cup, 26-year-old Midge Purce and 21-year-old Sophia Smith will also look to prove themselves up top.
“It really challenges you,” veteran midfielder Andi Sullivan said of Andonovski’s decision to bring in young talent. “I think he’s just been consistent in what he’s looking for from people here, people in the league, and I think just constantly raising the level no matter where you are and who you are, and that there’s always an opportunity.”
I N C O M I N G 💥 First game of 2022 coming up quick! pic.twitter.com/zBnkU6F9pP— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) February 16, 2022
I N C O M I N G 💥 First game of 2022 coming up quick! pic.twitter.com/zBnkU6F9pP
While Andonovski originally left the three most inexperienced players — Trinity Rodman, Jaelin Howell and Naomi Girma — off of the roster following January camp, he added Rodman and Howell after veterans Lindsey Horan and Abby Dahlkemper were ruled out due to injuries.
It’s been clear that Andonovski values NWSL performances. Look no further than the fact that seven players on the USWNT’s SheBelieves Cup roster come from the reigning champion Washington Spirit.
Andonovski said Wednesday that, while most players are not ready to play all three 90-minute games of the round-robin tournament, Catarina Macario is in peak shape. The sole member of the team not in the NWSL, Macario is deep into her season with Lyon, while her U.S. teammates started their preseason just two weeks ago.
“It’s very obvious when you see her on the field, when you see her in training, that she just looks a little bit sharper with things that I’m pretty sure all the players are going to get once we get more training,” Andonovski said.
It wouldn’t be surprising to see the coach play Macario in the midfield in all three games to set a high bar and maintain a consistent game flow.
One of the USWNT’s main goals with the SheBelieves Cup is to strengthen the relationships among players on the field.
A few pairings Andonovski mentioned are Tierna Davidson and Alana Cook in the back, Macario and Rose Lavelle in the midfield, and Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh up top.
“These are players we believe need to spend time together so they can strengthen their relationships that we’ve seen in training, that make us believe if these relationships get stronger or they get to know each other better, that we’ll be more than successful with this team,” he said.
With so many new faces on the roster, it’s fair to wonder whether practices have been as competitive without as many veterans to set the tone. Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O’Hara are the USWNT’s highest-capped players in the SheBelieves Cup.
It may take longer for the chemistry to build, but overall, the players say it’s been business as usual.
“I think the really special thing about this team is all the personalities and the history, and that they’re all interwoven together,” Sullivan said. “So I think the standard for this team is so high no matter what, and that’s due to the culture that’s been built for decades, so I feel like there’s not a lot that’s different.”
always getting after it 😤 pic.twitter.com/qrghPk012d— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) February 15, 2022
always getting after it 😤 pic.twitter.com/qrghPk012d
Of the 11 young players on the team, the one to watch for in this tournament is Trinity Rodman. Along with Spirit teammate Aubrey Kingsbury, Rodman has yet to earn her first USWNT cap after declining an invitation to Australia in November. After a standout 2021 NWSL campaign, in which she won a championship with the Spirit and Rookie of the Year, the 19-year-old will finally get a chance to prove herself in an international game setting.
With 87 caps, two-time FIFA World Cup champion Morgan Gautrat is appearing on her first game roster since November 2019 against Costa Rica, Andonovski’s second game as head coach. The center midfielder played a key role in the Chicago Red Stars’ run to the NWSL finals last season, starting all 24 games in which she appeared. There is much at stake as Gautrat makes her long-awaited return to the national team and uses the opportunity to make her case for a spot on the 2023 World Cup roster.
Kelley O’Hara is a veteran leader on the team who’s stuck around despite the recent influx of young national team prospects. On both the USWNT and the Spirit, O’Hara is known for being fiercely competitive, setting the bar high, speaking her mind and expecting nothing less than the best from her teammates. The defender’s energy will be critical to the team’s success this week.
Joining the U.S. in the tournament are the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Iceland, squads Andonovski called “very, very good, quality teams.”
The U.S. will need to tap into another level of sophistication in order to break down their opponents’ defenses, since all three of these teams are very organized when they don’t have possession. If successful, the U.S. will be in line to win its third consecutive SheBelieves Cup title.
USWNT vs. Czech Republic
Thursday, 11 p.m. ET
USWNT vs. New Zealand
Sunday, 3 p.m. ET
USWNT vs. Iceland
Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET
Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.