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USWNT 2022 player grades: Emily Fox makes case at outside back

Emily Fox made a case to start at left back for the USWNT in 2023, but she'll have to compete with Crystal Dunn. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

It’s the end of the calendar year for the U.S. women’s national team, with 2022 performances all wrapped up in a bow. Naturally, that also means it’s time for end-of-year report cards to evaluate how each player did in the run-up to the 2023 World Cup.

Again, a quick set of criteria: Despite the team’s first three-game losing streak in decades, the U.S. lost only three games total in 2022. A failing grade would indicate a player is wildly unprepared for the game at this level, which is not something we saw from the group playing the lion’s share of minutes this year. Likewise, an A+ indicates a player with all-star, team-on-their-back, best-in-the-world status.

Throughout this series, which will grade players by position, I’m going to avoid those who didn’t get minutes in 2022 and those who have missed significant time due to injury. In this installment, that includes Crystal Dunn, who missed most of the year after giving birth to her son, returning to appear in three games at the very end.

So far, we’ve graded the goalkeepers. Today, let’s take a look at the outside backs.

Emily Fox – B+

Fox quickly became one of the cornerstones of the USWNT’s new young core, tallying almost 1,000 minutes in 2022 despite dealing with a bout of COVID-19 and a number of injuries. Fox is naturally suited for the way Vlatko Andonovski likes his outside backs to play. She can confidently cut inside to overlap with the attacker in front of her when the team is progressing the ball, and she has the recovery speed to get back in transition.

Fox’s impressive 2022 actually makes for an interesting conflict on the left side of the pitch between the 24-year-old and left-back mainstay Crystal Dunn, whose minutes progressed in the last few international matches. Fox has starting capabilities, and clearly so does Dunn (though she could be used elsewhere). If they’re both healthy, the U.S. has a choice to make on whether to rotate between them or give one player the reins.

Sofia Huerta – B

Huerta’s performances can be broken down into two different evaluations: attacking and defending. In the attack, Huerta suits the USWNT formation perfectly, with a cross-first attitude that paid major dividends throughout the year. When the U.S. has to unlock a stout defense, Huerta’s ability to find her teammates can be an essential asset.

But she’s not a natural defender, and teams that are confident in transition have begun to overload her side of the pitch. Against Canada in the Concacaf W Championship, Huerta experienced trial by fire, bending but not breaking in 1v1 defending situations. Later in the year, the winger in front of her (often Sophia Smith) had to compensate at times for her spacing. Huerta has an intriguingly high ceiling if she can continue to raise her defensive floor.

(Joseph Maiorana/USA TODAY Sports)

Kelley O’Hara – B

O’Hara didn’t play for the USWNT again in 2022 after the Concacaf W group stage in July, but she still made it into the top half of minutes played for the USWNT in the calendar year. Her consistency in the first half of 2022 and absence later encapsulates the O’Hara paradox: The 34-year-old is reliable, experienced and strong on both sides of the ball when she is healthy. And she is possibly still the first-choice option on the right, even with Huerta carrying heavy minutes in the same position.

But O’Hara followed up one of her best years in 2021 with a less consistently healthy 2022. Her durability is the main question hanging over her potential in 2023.

(Ed Zurga/Getty Images)

Hailie Mace – B-

Mace came into the team under difficult circumstances, as further roster attrition caused her last-minute call-up for the USWNT’s European road trip in October. She then was thrown onto the pitch against England when Emily Fox exited early with a concussion. While adjusting to her quick substitution, Mace gave up a crucial penalty that ended up being the deciding goal in a 2-1 loss.

When she’s given time to compete, Mace’s versatility is an obvious asset. She played on both the left and right flank against England and Spain, and her willingness to impose herself physically on a match showed the basis of how she can help the U.S. in the future. That versatility, however, can be a detriment, when high-level specificity at the international level might actually be what helps her solidify a roster spot.

(Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Carson Pickett – Incomplete

Pickett played only slightly fewer minutes than Mace but in three fewer games — the Courage left-back got just two looks for the USWNT in 2022. Her first start came in a 2-0 win over Colombia right before the USWNT left for the Concacaf W Championship, and the 29-year-old did not look out of place in her role.

Pickett’s second game came against Spain, with a heavily depleted U.S. playing against a similarly depleted Spanish side. No U.S. player wrapped themselves in glory in that 2-0 loss, but Pickett wasn’t set up to succeed either. She’s a classic outside back with a good sense for goal that should be considered if Fox or Dunn is unavailable.

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