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USWNT tracker: How World Cup hopefuls fared in NWSL openers

Trinity Rodman carried the ball all the way from midfield to score the game-winning goal for the Spirit on Sunday. (Amber Searls/USA TODAY Sports)

The NWSL kicked off its 10th regular season over the weekend, with a renewed emphasis on league serving as a testing ground for players looking to impress in the months ahead of the 2023 World Cup.

Not surprisingly, there were several notable moments for players both in the USWNT core and on the cusp of the roster, as the pressure to perform only increases from here.

Goals, Goals, Goals

The USWNT attacking player pool got off to a hot start for their respective club teams, having used the January and February camps to hone sharpness before league kickoff.

Out of 14 goals scored across six NWSL matches, current USWNT prospects scored seven of them: Mallory Swanson, Alex Morgan, Trinity Rodman, Sophia Smith, Lynn Williams, Alyssa Thompson and Midge Purce.

Rodman showcased her ability on the ball while scoring the game-winner against OL Reign. Picking the ball up near midfield off of a throw-in in the 54th minute, Rodman dribbled into space in front of the Reign penalty area and slotted the ball into the back of the net from the top of the box to give Washington a 1-0 win.

Reigning NWSL MVP Smith became the first NWSL player to score in three consecutive season openers, notching an early goal in Portland’s 4-0 rout of the Orlando Pride. After Canada captain Christine Sinclair got to the endline against the Pride defense, Smith made a smart, delayed run into Orlando’s penalty area. Left all alone, Smith received the ball and roofed it to double Portland’s scoreline in the 22nd minute. The 22-year-old also recorded an assist in the win.

Thompson and Williams swapped open-play goals in Angel City’s home opener against Gotham FC. Thompson got on the board first, putting the Los Angeles club up 1-0 just 11 minutes into her professional career. The 18-year-old’s speed and clinical finishing belie her inexperience at the professional level, where she looked immediately comfortable and poised for a call-back to USWNT camp.

Williams then delivered a perfectly timed, in-seam shot into the far post to give Gotham the 2-1 win. Returning to the NWSL after a hamstring injury kept her out for the entirety of the 2022 regular season, Williams again had some bad injury luck. The forward fell awkwardly on her elbow early, requiring a splint for the rest of the game, though she laughed off the injury afterward, saying “It’s an arm. I need my legs to play soccer.”

Swanson, Morgan and Purce’s tallies came from well-taken penalties, though all three players were also active in influencing the play outside of the scoresheet. Purce also registered a savvy assist on Williams’ game-winner. On the other end, USWNT No. 1 goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher made an error tipping the ball over the bar in Chicago’s 3-2 loss to San Diego, allowing for a Wave equalizer.

Midfield madness

The USWNT’s strength in the attack showed up in full force, but question marks in the midfield weren’t particularly cleared up by NWSL play this weekend. Taylor Kornieck played just one half for San Diego as a deep-lying attacking option behind Morgan, though she was effective in turning play in the Wave’s favor on the way to a late 3-2 win Saturday.

Crystal Dunn played 62 minutes in the Thorns’ midfield, the most since her return from pregnancy, as Portland completely dominated the middle third of the pitch against the Pride. Dunn’s growing midfield role for Portland provides a sharp contrast to her use as an outside back for the USWNT, as does the steady work Sam Coffey, who still sits on the USWNT bubble at defensive midfielder.

The biggest midfield head-scratcher came from OL Reign, who slotted longtime USWNT utility defender Emily Sonnett into the defensive midfield in place of Canada international (and usual starter) Quinn. Sonnett has traditionally played center back in the NWSL, most recently with the Washington Spirit. On Sunday, the 29-year-old looked uncomfortable in her positioning and distributive responsibilities as the Reign failed to find the back of the net. The defensive breakdown that led to Rodman’s game-winning goal allowed excess space in the middle of the pitch, turning what is usually a Reign strength into a moment of weakness.

Gotham FC's Kelley O'Hara defends Angel City's Alyssa Thompson in their club team debuts. (Kiyoshi Mio/USA TODAY Sports)

Early season fitness watch

This weekend brought both welcome returns and knocks to watch. Red Stars defender Casey Krueger made a short-lived return to the pitch after the birth of her son on Saturday, leaving the match in the 13th minute with what appeared to be a neck injury. After the match, head coach Chris Petrucelli said the team thinks she “will be fine,” with a possible return to April USWNT camp on the horizon.

Krueger’s Chicago teammate, Tierna Davidson, also made a long-awaited return to the club’s defense, getting 82 minutes in her first start back from the Challenge Cup ACL tear that sidelined her for most of 2022.

Kelley O’Hara played the first half for Gotham FC, her new club team, after missing the second half of the 2022 season with a lingering hip injury. Megan Rapinoe did not play for the Reign, listed on the injury report as out with a calf injury. Rapinoe has been in and out with the U.S. in recent months as she recovers from injuries, and with other players beginning to peak in the attack, her ongoing fitness is worth keeping an eye on heading into the summer months.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.