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Evaluating Vlatko Andonovski’s USWNT World Cup roster refresh

(Carmen Mandato/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

One of the most common topics of conversation surrounding the U.S. women’s national team going into the 2023 World Cup is just how different the roster looks compared to the squad that won the tournament in 2019. After a middling performance at the Tokyo Olympics, head coach Vlatko Andonovski was tasked with revamping a squad many considered too stagnant to continue to contend at the international level.

Andonovski called in new faces, had veterans sit out of friendlies and camps, and maneuvered through treacherous injury terrain to arrive in New Zealand with a roster containing 14 debutantes out of the team’s 23 players. Still, Andonovski resisted a total youth movement, with the average age of the 2023 squad (28.5) actually higher than that of 2019.

So, how did Andonovski do when balancing experience and a necessary refresh? Let’s take a look.

Opening the door

From December 2021 onward, Andonovski’s intention to get a look at a variety of young and inexperienced players became clear. Veterans like Alex Morgan, Christen Press (prior to injury) and Megan Rapinoe all sat out of early USWNT camps in 2022, as younger players who were not part of the Olympic squad got chances to shine.

Some of the players in that rotation have garnered immediate success. Sophia Smith appears to be the heir apparent to the legacy of iconic American forwards, with former Stanford teammates Alana Cook and Naomi Girma following a similar course on the USWNT backline. Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez have had time to grow and develop the defensive tenacity needed for attacking players at the international level.

Eighteen-year-old Alyssa Thompson’s introduction to the world stage was accelerated by injuries elsewhere, but the experience she’s going to gain from the process of a World Cup should set the forward up for even greater success in the future. And 25-year-old Emily Fox already looks like a longtime veteran despite this World Cup representing her first major tournament call-up.

Andonovski’s willingness to try new and young players in his system is also personified in the inclusion of Racing Louisville midfielder Savannah DeMelo. DeMelo, 25, played her way onto her first World Cup roster due to her scintillating form at the NWSL level. She likely displaced Taylor Kornieck, another young midfielder who would be comfortable stepping back into the USWNT environment in the future.

Andonovski invested heavily in the futures of Catarina Macario and Mallory Swanson, who simply faced bad injury luck during the build-up process of the World Cup cycle. Andonovski was prepared to have three brand-new faces anchoring the team’s attack, but knee injuries to the two stars rattled his plans.

Still at arm’s length

In addition to Kornieck, other young players still found themselves on the outside looking in as veteran leadership took priority. Portland and Louisville defensive midfielders Sam Coffey and Jaelin Howell began to see their camp invitations dry up, as 31-year-old Julie Ertz returned to professional soccer after more than a year away.

Rather than adjusting the midfield to a possession-driven style that would suit Coffey and Howell playing together, Andonovski resisted significant change to the approach the team took with Ertz at the base of the triangle.

Andonovski has always taken something of a pragmatic approach with young talent, not wanting to rely on them too much at a major tournament. Smith and Swanson were left off the Tokyo Olympics roster entirely, and Macario was only included as an alternate, joining the full squad after the roster rules were relaxed due to the pandemic.

The next generation of American players are similarly waiting their turn. Eighteen-year-old San Diego Wave forward Jaedyn Shaw has yet to earn her first USWNT first team call-up despite excelling at the professional level. Seventeen-year-old Portland Thorns midfielder Olivia Moultrie has also shown flashes of brilliance in the NWSL. Mia Fishel, a 22-year-old prospect, is reportedly set to transfer to Chelsea in the WSL after starring in Liga MX Femenil last season.

They will all surely be a part of the USWNT’s plans for the future, but Andonovski prefers to work players in over time rather than pack an international roster with both young and untested talent.

Re-defining what experience looks like

Assessing the USWNT’s experience level going into this World Cup also requires re-defining what being a veteran looks like for a team very used to entrenched progress. Rather than fully leaning into the youth movement, Andonovski has balanced out his roster with players who have a wealth of experience, just not at a World Cup.

Lynn Williams is appearing in her first World Cup, but she has as much experience as a player possibly could at every other level, including the Olympics. Kristie Mewis is also a World Cup debutante with Olympic experience.

Starting No. 6 Andi Sullivan is an NWSL veteran, league champion and regular USWNT call-up, while outside back Sofia Huerta has taken a non-linear path to her first World Cup roster at age 30. One of the benefits of a stable domestic league is it allows talented players to present themselves over time, and Andonovski has pulled from his former position as an NWSL head coach to form a group with various experience levels.

For better or worse, the USWNT will probably never be satisfied with taking a truly young squad to a major tournament just to build experience. It might not always be realistic, but they expect to win every World Cup they participate in, and that has led Andonovski to reserve only a few development spots in favor of players who might only ever play one cycle.

If the U.S. hoists the trophy for a record third-straight World Cup, it might be worth it. If they don’t, they might have to start all over again.

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

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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