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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.