USWNT roster: What will go into World Cup qualifying selections

(Francois Nel/Getty Images)

As Vlatko Andonovski prepares to name his roster for a pair of June friendlies, the last evaluation opportunity before the U.S. women’s national team travels down to Mexico for World Cup qualifying, he has a tricky task at hand. The USWNT has infused plenty of new talent into the squad over the past year, but they’re also dealing with injuries and looking to achieve a balance of veteran leadership and youth to sustain a full tournament.

Missing June doesn’t necessarily mean missing July, and missing July certainly doesn’t mean missing out on the 2023 World Cup. In the short term, the USWNT will weigh two key factors as they prepare for games in Monterrey: how they would like to play, and how they think teams will play against them.

The USWNT will have games where they’ll need to possess around a pressing defense and others when the task will be unlocking numbers behind the ball. Most importantly, they’ll have to balance getting the results they need and developing as a squad, especially with a number of key players not available.

Here is what I have my eye on as the USWNT gets ready to take the field again this month.

Absences that could field a world class XI

There’s no getting around it: The USWNT is hurt. A wave of injuries has hit the team at an inopportune time across a number of different positions, turning usual areas of strength into relative weaknesses.

Notable absences from the provisional shortlist include center backs Tierna Davidson and Abby Dahlkember — Davidson is out for the season with an ACL tear, and Dahlkemper is recovering from broken ribs suffered in the early part of the NWSL season. The backline will also have to adjust without outside back veteran Crystal Dunn, as she works her way back into fitness after the birth of her son. In the midfield, the USWNT will be without Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz. Mewis is still recovering from a lingering knee issue, while Ertz is taking some time off due to pregnancy.

On the forward line, all systems were firing until rising superstar Catarina Macario tore her ACL in Olympique Lyon’s final match of the season, knocking the 22-year-old out of any summertime competitions. The team will also be missing Lynn Williams after the “Snacks” host suffered a hamstring injury that required surgery and now months of rehab.

The USWNT suffered a big blow when Catarina Macario announced last week that she tore her ACL. (Emilee Chinn/Getty Images)

None of the players mentioned above were featured on the provisional roster submitted to Concacaf, meaning they will not be selected for World Cup qualifying, but the injury picture for those still available also presents cause for concern. Outside back Kelley O’Hara has missed a number of games with the Washington Spirit due to hamstring tightness, and midfielder Andi Sullivan has been slow to return from a calf and a quad strain. Lindsey Horan carried a heavy load for Olympique Lyon in their Champions League-winning campaign and has had lingering knee trouble since then. Forward Tobin Heath left Arsenal FC before the end of the FA WSL season due to injuries, and Megan Rapinoe has yet to play a regular season game for OL Reign.

As women’s soccer players are asked to compete in more competitions across the calendar year, injuries will continue to be a part of the game. As a result, this USWNT roster presents more of a logistical challenge than in years past.

A wealth of veteran leadership for different types of games

Andonovski hasn’t been shy about rotating veterans in and out of recent rosters, but with crunch time approaching, it might be worthwhile to bring some familiar faces back into the fold. The chances of a veteran making the team depend primarily on form and fitness.

No. 1 goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has looked as nimble as ever in her return from the knee injury that sidelined her for the latter half of 2021. She’s been able to organize a very young Chicago Red Stars defense this season with strong communication and reliability as a shot stopper. USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn has also made a welcome return to regular minutes in Portland and has shown few signs of slowing down.

For others, the questions lie not in fitness, but in form. There’s no question that Christen Press and Alex Morgan are two of the top American forwards in the current player pool, but the sheer number of rising attackers in similar roles doesn’t make their inclusion a done deal. Press has taken on a significant amount of responsibility at Angel City FC, having to create attack out of nothing at times, but that’s also limited clear goal-scoring chances for the striker. Morgan has looked especially sharp for San Diego, but half of her goals have come from the penalty spot and she’s had to find spaces behind the defense as a winger as often as from her natural position of center forward.

Press and Morgan would give the USWNT different options for breaking down the two types of defenses the USWNT will likely face in Monterrey. Morgan is masterful at slipping in behind a defense that is pushed forward or caught in transition, and she has a special ability to control the ball in the air to provide distance and create clear chances on goal. Press specializes in manipulating defenders in front of her to score from the top of the penalty area, which can be crucial when the other team keeps numbers back in a more organized defensive structure.

The untapped youth movement

Press and Morgan’s chances of making the team have less to do with whether they’re good enough to represent the USWNT, and more with how well they line up against the team’s opponents. Even with Macario sidelined, the player pool has never been stronger at forward than it is right now. The new generation’s specialty is on the wings, as Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh headline a group of wingers ready for the big stage.

Mallory Pugh is tied for second in the NWSL with four goals, trailing only Alex Morgan. (Howard Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Smith, Pugh, Trinity Rodman and Margaret Purce can all hurt a defense in a variety of different ways. Pugh and Smith have become the best kind of drifting attackers, settling into the midfield when necessary. Purce’s strength is beating defenders 1v1 and creating shooting angles or getting to the endline to send crosses in, and Trinity Rodman has only scratched the surface of being able to do all of these things at an elite level. Her Spirit teammate, Ashley Sanchez, brings a similar level of creativity and tenacity and will almost surely be an option as a No. 10.

Perhaps more important for Andonvoski will be fitting young players into more shallow areas. The USWNT has to figure out its defensive midfield quickly, with Ertz out and Sullivan a question mark.

Portland rookie Sam Coffey looks ready for the next step as a No. 6, but she’s never played at the international level with the first team. Racing Louisville teammates Jaelin Howell and Savannah DeMelo have a lot of promise in the midfield, but they’re still settling in at the professional level. San Diego midfielder Taylor Kornieck has likely earned a serious look, but she won’t have much time to prove herself before July’s qualifiers.

Behind the midfield, Naomi Girma has looked like a mainstay at center back in her first two months in the NWSL. Outside back Emily Fox has also looked increasingly assured in her second season with Racing Louisville, understanding when to defend and when to push forward in attacking possession. In goal, OL Reign keeper Phallon-Tullis Joyce has had a strong start to her first full season in the NWSL and might be a future prospect.

The provisional shortlist also includes college standouts like Jenna Nighswonger, Emily Madril and Croix Bethune, who have been tabbed as next-generation talent.

Players in their prime will be the glue

You’d be forgiven if you assumed the USWNT in 2022 was all 30-somethings and youngsters, but those in their prime years will be a significant part of the team’s success.

Rose Lavelle has never looked better, consistently creating attacking chances with OL Reign while still being one of the fastest players in the world with the ball at her feet. Sofia Huerta is playing with confidence as she approaches a full calendar year at right back for OL Reign. Alana Cook has also had strong performances in the Reign’s central defense.

Lindsey Horan looked as disciplined and savvy as ever in Lyon’s Champions League victory in May, though injury questions remain. Emily Sonnett, at times, has fallen into a pattern of trying to do too much during Washington’s tough schedule to start the season, but her competitive edge and understanding of the pressures of the environment will be key at center back. Imani Dorsey, who has been in camp with the USWNT before, remains a strong option for outside back depth.

Andi Sullivan has thrived since scoring her first international goals with the USWNT last year. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

When healthy, the USWNT has one of the best midfield trios in the world, but finding the right options in the face of uncertainty will also go a long way. Andi Sullivan was at the height of her powers in 2021, understanding the optimal lines of defensive contention and how to distribute the ball forward. Other midfield options include Gotham’s Kristie Mewis, whose ability to generate the attack are well-known but have been somewhat dormant as her club finds its way.

Macario’s injury also could pave the way for Ashley Hatch, who was in danger of losing a spot with Morgan’s resurgence at the club level. Hatch has a good rapport with her Spirit teammates and can drift into the midfield to receive services when passing lanes get disrupted.

Getting the right mix

With all of this in mind, here are the players I would like to see get looks during the June international window. This wouldn’t be my final defense or midfield for World Cup qualifiers, but the USWNT needs options at the No. 6 and outside back roles before bringing known properties like Sullivan and O’Hara back into the fold.

The team also has to solidify Naeher’s backup in goal, with Casey Murphy seeming like the most likely candidate. The versatility of the forward line makes me confident in the balance in numbers: Purce can play outside back, and Pugh can drop into the midfield if necessary.

I do think it’s time to welcome back some veterans, namely Press and Morgan. They give you different options in front of the other team’s defense, and they’re proven contributors at the international and club levels.

Here is my June roster:

Goalkeepers: Naeher, Murphy, Kingsbury

Defenders: Sauerbrunn, Girma, Sonnett, Cook, Huerta, Fox, Dorsey

Midfielders: Coffey, Horan, Lavelle, Sanchez, K. Mewis, Howell

Forwards: Pugh, Smith, Rodman, Hatch, Press, Morgan, Purce

Claire Watkins is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering soccer and the NWSL. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.