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USWNT roster: Who’s in and who’s out after early World Cup exit

(Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

After a disappointing Round of 16 exit at the 2023 World Cup, the U.S. women’s national team will regroup and turn its attention to coming back with a vengeance at the 2024 Paris Olympics. It’s unclear if head coach Vlatko Andonovski will be the one leading that charge. His contract expires at the end of 2023, and his performance will be the subject of an internal review following the team’s failure to make the semifinals of a World Cup for the first time in program history.

From there, roster decisions will be of utmost importance with less than a year to right the USWNT ship. Those decisions are also not as linear as they might seem, with the U.S. likely to continue some of the roster changes they started going into 2023. The talent pool is as deep as ever, with a new generation of young players with professional experience eager for a chance to play at the international level.

The group will also have a number of key contributors hopefully returning from injury, longtime veterans making decisions about their careers and players’ form naturally fluctuating over the next year.

The two-time winners considering their futures

We already know that two of the two-time World Champions who made their return for the 2023 World Cup will not be back for the Olympics. Megan Rapinoe announced prior to the tournament that she would retire at the end of 2023, and Julie Ertz revealed her own intention to retire from the national team after the USWNT’s Round of 16 exit.

Rapinoe served as a substitute in 2023, but Ertz quickly proved herself indispensable in a center-back partnership with young stalwart Naomi Girma. Her absence will usher in further change, and her contributions will be greatly missed.

Other two-time champions have decisions of their own to make. Kelley O’Hara’s desire to galvanize a young team and lead them through high-pressure situations has never waned, but her fitness this summer also never allowed her to make those contributions on the field. Becky Sauerbrunn, whose lingering injury left her off the World Cup roster, is even one degree further removed from a return to the U.S.

Alex Morgan and Alyssa Naeher both played significant minutes for the USWNT in 2023, stepping up in different moments to lead the squad. Both go back to their NWSL teams with questions of form lingering. With Naeher 35 years old and Morgan 34, where they fit in the USWNT’s future likely depends on who is coaching the team going forward.

Co-captain Lindsey Horan assumed a USWNT leadership role at the World Cup. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The 2019 connectors

Lindsey Horan becoming USWNT co-captain in 2023 felt like the U.S. coaching staff’s way of forging a clear connection between the 2015 veterans and 2023 rookies. Horan headlines a somewhat small group of players who won the World Cup for the first time in 2019 and returned to the tournament in 2023.

Horan, Rose Lavelle, Crystal Dunn and Emily Sonnett are the only players now tasked with carrying that legacy forward, indicating a down period in U.S. talent identification during those players’ formative years. Good news, the USWNT has a number of very talented young players under the age of 25 who will continue the high standards the team has become known for. But if there is one specific failure of the U.S. development system, it’s how many players were relied upon to carry the team from 2015 to 2023, and how few of the players who got caps in that period stuck with the team in major tournaments.

Two other players who should rejoin their 2019 World Cup teammates are Mallory Swanson and Tierna Davidson. The NWSL teammates missed the 2023 tournament due to varying injury return timelines, and though they are in a tumultuous club situation in Chicago, having more time to regain their form could make all the difference.

The young 2023ers

While they didn’t get as much time to develop through the World Cup as they would have liked, the young players making their major tournament debuts in 2023 will be better in the future for their experience. Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman, Naomi Girma and Emily Fox all learned what it takes to start in a World Cup game, how to process the highs and lows of the tournament, and how to manage their fitness while carrying heavy minutes.

Ashley Sanchez and Alana Cook were surprisingly held off the field for the four games the U.S. played in Australia and New Zealand, while Savannah DeMelo — a surprising roster inclusion — got an incredible amount of experience in the group stage. Those coaching decisions will have ramifications in the future, though they shouldn’t affect any players’ standing going into the next international cycle.

Alyssa Thompson gained World Cup experience likely a cycle early due to the injury to Swanson, making appearances as a substitute as she continues to add elements to her game. And the one player who deserves to hold space in this group despite her absence is Catarina Macario, who would have been right alongside her teammates if not for setbacks in her ACL recovery. Back in training with new club Chelsea, Macario has to be in any future USWNT plans that include the other players in this group.

Lynn Williams didn't get as much playing time as many expected at the World Cup. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

League veterans competing for another shot

If the U.S. has few players who can carry the memories of 2019 into 2024, they do have a number of players who worked their way onto the squad later in their careers. Kristie Mewis and Lynn Williams both made the last Olympic roster (though Williams was an alternate), and Williams has been effective in her minutes in both major tournaments.

The assets Sofia Huerta brings to the U.S. as a crossing specialist are clear despite few minutes played at the 2023 World Cup. Naeher’s heirs at the goalkeeping position also likely come from this group: Casey Murphy and Aubrey Kingsbury will have the advantage of their camp experiences, while other keepers push for consideration based on league play.

And then there is Andi Sullivan, a player who seemed to have just missed a number of major international tournaments before making her World Cup debut in 2023. Despite being let down by Andonovski’s system, Sullivan was steady while carrying heavy minutes in the U.S. midfield and catering well to Horan and Lavelle’s tendencies. She’ll be battling for position against the next generation, but will have experience on her side.

The next generation of talent

While the U.S. has been undergoing many roster changes in recent years, they have room to get even younger still. Players like Jaedyn Shaw, Sam Coffey, Olivia Moultrie, Mia Fishel, Jaelin Howell and Jenna Nighswonger are all getting experience and contributing in professional systems, with some of them forgoing the old pipeline pathways of the NCAA system.

Beyond young American players already proving their worth at the professional level, youth internationals at the collegiate level are also rising through the ranks. Alyssa Thompson’s little sister, Gisele Thompson, trains with NWSL club Angel City, as have other standouts like Simone Jackson. USC standout Croix Bethune was listed on Andonovski’s provisional roster for Concacaf World Cup qualifying, and other talents like Trinity Byars, Lexi Missimo and Lilly Reale will be eager to step up and fill the positional gaps left by the exits of longtime veterans.

That this is not even the exhaustive list of players available to refresh a USWNT project that didn’t get the balance right in 2023 should be exciting for fans of the team. It also represents just how daunting the year ahead might be for the coaching staff. After big wins, there is always an impulse to run it back with the players you know. In the face of failure, the future might look a little different.

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