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.
So far, we’ve graded the goalkeepers, outside backs and center-backs. Now, let’s take a look at the defensive midfield position.
Even your average USWNT fan will tell you that Lindsey Horan is not a No. 6, a fact that makes her 2022 all the more impressive. Horan carried extra responsibilities this year, stretching herself positionally and stepping into a leadership role in the midfield. At times, Horan sat deeper to assist in the defensive midfield while also connecting lines with the attack.
Horan is still one of the best players in the world when it comes to reading space and putting opposing defenses under pressure. Her grade comes from doing an admirable job with a difficult task. Horan does not typically play as the lone defensive midfielder: She’s had a No. 6 partner with Olympique Lyon and a No. 8 partner with Portland. For the U.S., she’s a little bit of both, and it can take her out of games at times. Still, she remains a locked-in starter for the foreseeable future, as long as her lingering knee issue doesn’t flare up at the wrong moment.
Whether Sullivan is the answer for the USWNT’s pure defensive midfield position is one of the team’s biggest questions going into 2023. She took on heavy responsibility this year, trailing only Alana Cook and Sophia Smith in minutes. Grading Sullivan requires evaluating how the U.S. uses the defensive midfield role itself, as she would sometimes find herself taken out of the game in possession and struggling to know when to step defensively.
I don’t think Sullivan is the inherent issue, but rather the way she is deployed. Sullivan’s ceiling at the club level is in the A range, but it’s still unclear whether that excellence can carry over to the international stage. Instead of being asked to move the ball quickly in transition, if Sullivan can become part of the possession triangle with the two center-backs, she could be an infinitely more dangerous weapon.
A true rookie in a new position, Coffey has been slowly working her way into the USWNT system and hasn’t gotten enough experience to be clearly evaluated at the international level. Coffey had an excellent season with the 2022 NWSL champion Portland Thorns, but she played in only four international matches. Three of those matches were losses to England, Spain and Germany, during which she was a favored 60th-minute substitute. Neither Sullivan nor Coffey has the ability to solve the U.S. midfield on their own, and their like-for-like substitutions have disrupted the possibility of the two playing together in a double-pivot formation.
Coffey’s ascension appears to have put Howell’s development on the back-burner. The 2022 No. 2 draft pick failed to make her way back into USWNT camp late in the year despite multiple injuries. Howell had a Julie Ertz-like physical profile while playing for Florida State and needed to cover a large cross-section of space in her rookie season with Racing Louisville. Louisville’s on-field struggles seemed to have an adverse effect on Howell’s place on the U.S. depth chart. She has the style that seems to fit Vlatko Andonovski’s vision for the No. 6 position, but she has not had the chance to show she can execute it at the international level.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.