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2023 World Cup: Picking the USWNT starting lineup vs. Vietnam

The USWNT begins World Cup play against Vietnam on Friday in New Zealand. (Lachlan Cunningham/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

World Cup week is finally here, with the U.S. women’s national team kicking off their 2023 campaign on Friday evening against Vietnam. Each of the USWNT’s group-stage opponents have distinctly different styles of play, and head coach Vlatko Andonovski will have to select his starters and reserves with tactics in mind.

In the team’s send-off match against Wales, patterns emerged indicating how the U.S. plans to approach defenses that are willing to let them possess the ball and dare them to find a breakthrough. With that in mind, there are a few positional tweaks Andonovski could make to his starting XI in his World Cup debut.

Here is how I would deploy the USWNT lineup against Vietnam, from the starting group to the bench players.

Goalkeeper

Alyssa Naeher

Naeher played the full 90 minutes against Wales in the USWNT’s send-off match, which all but tipped the scales in her favor to start the team’s World Cup group-stage opener. Naeher has had some trouble on set pieces and low xG opportunities in the NWSL this season, but the game against Vietnam will be more about organization and keeping early jitters in check.

Defense

Crystal Dunn, Naomi Girma, Alana Cook, Sofia Huerta

Against what will likely be an organized lower block, the USWNT defense should lean as much as possible into their chance creation and ball distribution. Enter Sofia Huerta, a crossing specialist who can unlock the very type of defense the U.S. anticipates from Vietnam. Huerta’s presence also allows for rotation, with the possibility of Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox sharing minutes to prepare them for longevity through the tournament. Fox could also relieve Dunn in a left-back role to let the natural attacking player push forward into the midfield if the U.S. is still searching for a goal.

I think Emily Sonnett could start this match alongside Naomi Girma, a reflection less of my faith in Alana Cook and more of the understanding that center-back substitutions can be difficult when the stakes are high. Sonnett has very little game time with the U.S. as a center-back alongside Girma. Vietnam could be the right test for Sonnett to settle her nerves and give her a chance to be a real rotation option at the position. But the first match sets the tone, and Girma and Cook also need time together on the biggest stage to find their footing.

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Savannah DeMelo earned her first USWNT cap in the send-off game against Wales. (Lachlan Cunningham/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Midfield

Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan, Savannah DeMelo

Safely assuming that Rose Lavelle is not fit to start the USWNT’s first match of the tournament, Savannah DeMelo might be an intriguing option to take over the creative midfield role against Vietnam’s sturdy defense. DeMelo has scored from distance a number of times in the NWSL this season, and a shoot-first mentality is something the U.S. has lacked in recent games. They’ll try to put passing sequences together to exploit space, but if DeMelo has the willingness to try a few heat checks from distance alongside quality dead-ball service, she deserves a look.

Andi Sullivan might be a controversial starter at defensive midfield, but she’s best-suited for games with less transitional play and more possession, which is what the U.S. is likely anticipating from its first match.

Attack

Lynn Williams, Alex Morgan, Sophia Smith

This one is tricky. It’s tough to leave Trinity Rodman on the bench at the beginning of the tournament based on her recent play, but Lynn Williams could be the deciding factor in a game like this. Williams is so good at applying quick defensive pressure and forcing turnovers to win chances in front of goal. If Vietnam can settle into the game, the ticking clock can become the USWNT’s enemy as much as the other team on the pitch. Williams is the type of player who can give the U.S. an opportunity to take the lead early, which will allow them to settle into possession with an advantage in hand.

There will come a time in this World Cup when it makes sense to play Rodman, Williams and Sophia Smith together as the front three. But for this particular match, the veteran leadership of Alex Morgan wins out. It’s not just that she can communicate well with the team’s World Cup newcomers — she’ll also be able to do the back-to-goal work to create space for Williams and Smith to execute. No one understands the tempo of an international match better than Morgan, and they’ll need her for this game.

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Trinity Rodman scored both USWNT goals against Wales on July 9. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

First off the bench

Emily Fox, Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, Kristie Mewis, Alyssa Thompson

The USWNT’s depth is still a huge asset, with a variety of options available to Andonovski depending on the game state. As mentioned, Fox coming in might allow Dunn to join the midfield, or simply make sure that neither outside back depletes their energy.

Should the U.S. want to go high-tempo, Rodman and Alyssa Thompson bring quality positioning and speed to the frontline, while Rodman can also methodically connect with her midfield. Ashley Sanchez offers creative flair, and Kristie Mewis can sub in for any of the three midfield positions, giving the group a gritty edge should they need it late in the match.

Building their minutes

Rose Lavelle, Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz

The U.S. is still dealing with a handful of injuries, with Lavelle’s long-awaited return a key factor in the team’s chances in the knockout rounds. Lavelle has been training with the team and seemingly going full-contact, but she has yet to see competitive game minutes since April. The need to build her fitness back up is another good reason for the reigning World Champions to get off to a fast start and allow their midfield engine to resume play in a positive situation.

Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz are each also building their minutes back up, but they have more flexibility in their usage on the field. Ertz is a player best-suited for transitional play, meaning she might be needed more in the USWNT’s second two group-stages matches. She and Rapinoe are both secret weapons on set pieces; Rapinoe, in particular, can create a bit of magic should the U.S. struggle to grab a lead late in the game.

Ready if necessary

Casey Murphy, Aubrey Kingsbury, Emily Sonnett, Kelley O’Hara

As mentioned above, there’s a compelling argument that Sonnett should start this first game. But what is more likely is that Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara will be available as defensive reinforcements, with both players able to slot into different roles if necessary (could we see the return of O’Hara at midfield, for example?). Goalkeepers Casey Murphy and Aubrey Kingsbury will be in a similar position: Murphy has the capability to take the starting reins at any time in this tournament.

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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