The SheBelieves Cup has two different purposes for the U.S. women’s national team: Prepare the core group for a round-robin format against top competition and continue to hone the team’s depth.
With top women’s soccer nations Brazil, Japan and Canada taking part in this year’s tournament, the balance between building confidence and evaluating talent will be as delicate as ever. With a middling finish to 2022, the U.S. could use a few wins to go into the World Cup with the confidence that they can come out on top against the world’s best.
With a few key roster decisions looming at certain positions, there are at least four players head coach Vlatko Andonovski should consider giving more playing time this tournament.
To give them both tournament experience and to keep competition fresh, all three U.S. goalkeepers should see time during the SheBelieves Cup. Franch has been called into three consecutive camps off the strength of an excellent NWSL season with Kansas City, but she has yet to see the field for the USWNT for the first time since 2021.
Franch is an excellent shot-stopper at the club level and went to the Tokyo Olympics as the team’s No. 2 goalkeeper, closing out the tournament for the U.S. after Alyssa Naeher suffered a knee injury. North Carolina’s Casey Murphy has moved into a more consistent role with the team after the Olympics, and Andonovski has given very little game time to the goalkeepers pushing for the third spot. I believe Franch has the ability to compete for more than the third goalkeeping spot and should get a chance to prove what she can do against top competition in 2023.
Kornieck appears to have an inside lane to making the World Cup roster as defensive midfield depth and a set piece aerial specialist. The 24-year-old is getting up to speed quickly in a position she doesn’t regularly play. For her club team, the San Diego Wave, Kornieck usually plays in more of a connecting midfield role. If Andonovski is truly committed to having Kornieck prepared to step into an unfamiliar role in New Zealand, time against top competition will be crucial.
Kornieck seeing time as the No. 6 is also part of Andonovski’s plans to tweak the midfield structure since the U.S. lost three games in a row at the end of 2022 for the first time in almost 30 years. Kornieck as a defensive midfielder requires something closer to a double pivot 4-2-3-1 formation, where either Lindsey Horan or Rose Lavelle sits further back to provide defensive cover and help in distribution. Those roles are likely just as essential as whoever plays the No. 6 (Andi Sullivan is the preferred starter), and forging that midfield chemistry will be key during the SheBelieves Cup.
The USWNT defense hasn’t felt completely settled going into 2023, with outside backs coming in and out of camp due to injury and availability. Huerta played a lion’s share of the team’s right-back minutes in 2022, but her role could become even more nuanced as other players return.
Huerta is a converted winger who is one of the best crossers in the women’s game, with an attacker’s approach to her position on defense. When the U.S. midfield tries to draw their opponents in centrally by holding the ball, Huerta is there to receive passes out wide and send the ball in quickly to set up goal-scoring opportunities.
Huerta’s progression as a 1v1 defender has been a longer process, and with Crystal Dunn back in the mix at left back, Andonovski might choose to craft his starting XI with more tactical awareness in mind. He has opted for a defensive system with Dunn at left back and Emily Fox at right back while the team awaits the return of Kelley O’Hara from injury. Huerta has the ability to hurt any team on the counter-attack and can shine when tactical priorities are clear.
It’s impossible to know exactly where Cook sits on the current U.S. center-back depth chart. She played the most minutes of anyone on the USWNT in 2022, but she has rotated more with Becky Sauerbrunn and Naomi Girma since the U.S. defense struggled against top attacking teams late last year. Cook’s counterparts appear to be locks for the World Cup roster, with Sauerbrunn as the veteran presence and Girma the young natural at the position.
Cook herself frequently looks like a natural, but she isn’t immune to being a step too slow in reacting to dangerous moments, leading to goals conceded. She’s joined on the SheBelieves roster by Emily Sonnett, who has been used as a hybrid center back/outside back in the past. Tierna Davidson is likely one camp away from returning to game minutes.
The U.S. can’t bring Cook, Davidson and Sonnett to the World Cup, and these games are as much about working out defensive communication as they are about looking for individual moments of brilliance. Cook has earned Andonovski’s trust as a steady contributor and deserves a chance to solidify her place with the team this week with an all-around performance.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.