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USWNT roster battles: Ashley Hatch faces World Cup ticking clock

Ashley Hatch's World Cup roster inclusion could hinge on Catarina Macario's readiness. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT is back, playing their last two friendlies before final roster decisions are made for the 2023 World Cup this summer. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has preferred a certain amount of roster consistency since the beginning of 2022, but long-awaited returns from injury are forcing the issue at a number of key positions.

Let’s take a look at the most hotly contested roles, and who might get one last opportunity to audition for one of the highest honors in American soccer.

Tierna Davidson and the third center-back spot

The April roster is heavy on defenders, with a limited number of games left to make decisions about the final form of the USWNT backline. Center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Naomi Girma appear to be near-locks for the World Cup roster, but who will join them remains up in the air.

The key player at the center-back position returning from injury in April is Tierna Davidson, who featured on both the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympic rosters as a center back with the ability to play outside back.

Davidson tore her ACL during the 2022 Challenge Cup and recently made her return to the NWSL, playing significant minutes in the Chicago Red Stars’ first two games of the season. Davidson brings a calm presence to her main role as a center back, and provides versatility if the team needs options on the outside.

But the position on the USWNT is increasingly crowded. In Davidson’s absence, OL Reign center back Alana Cook played the most minutes of any USWNT player in 2022 and appeared to have an inside track to making her first World Cup roster. The other player with the ability to play both centrally and on the flank is Emily Sonnett, who similarly featured on the 2019 and 2020 rosters as a utility defender. On a 23-player roster, the U.S. is unlikely to take all three of Cook, Davidson and Sonnett, and minutes in April could be the key differentiator after months of competition.

Kelley O'Hara will try to earn her roster spot back after returning from injury. (Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

O’Hara, Krueger, Huerta and the right-back strategy

The USWNT has been criticized in the past for using converted attackers as outside-back depth, but the April friendlies could provide a look at other options. Andonovski’s favored outside pair is Crystal Dunn on the left and Emily Fox on the right, but two known defenders rejoin the U.S. to take aim at the right-back spot in particular.

USWNT veteran Kelley O’Hara’s experience dates all the way back to the 2011 World Cup. She’s long-been the preferred starter for the USWNT at right back, but she missed much of last year with a lingering hip injury. O’Hara is back with the team in April camp after playing her first game minutes with Gotham FC in the first two weeks of the NWSL season. She is joined by outside back Casey Krueger, who made the 22-player Olympic roster in 2021. Krueger returns after the birth of her son and is coming off playing a full 90 minutes for the Red Stars this past weekend.

O’Hara and Krueger are defensive-minded players with 1v1 defending abilities in transition that Andonovski might prefer to see in action before making a decision on his outside-back pool. They provide a sharp contrast to OL Reign’s Sofia Huerta, another converted attacker. Huerta is one of the best in the world at crossing the ball, providing the U.S. an unmatched skill when in possession, but sometimes the defensive seams show when opponents target her on the outside.

Lingering injury concerns might make it difficult for O’Hara or Krueger to unseat Huerta and the obvious value she brings as an attacking specialist. This will be one of the most competitive position battles before Andonovski names his World Cup roster.

Julie Ertz is back in USWNT camp for the first time since 2021. (Atsushi Tomura/Getty Images)

Julie Ertz and the midfield pool

Julie Ertz’s surprising return to USWNT camp reopened competition in a midfield that seemed well on its way to becoming a settled proposition. In the free agent’s absence, the Washington Spirit’s Andi Sullivan became the de-facto defensive midfield starter, working in tandem with Lindsey Horan to cover gaps off the ball and help with distribution.

Ertz’s return is unlikely to push Sullivan to the fringes of the roster, but her presence might mean something different for the other players who have gotten tryouts at the same position. While the defensive midfield has remained unsettled, two players have stuck with the team due to their versatility.

Taylor Kornieck is on the roster not just as a midfielder, but also as a utility substitute who can slot into any central field position. Kristie Mewis shares that distinction in the midfield, having played as a No. 6, No. 8 and No. 10 in her time with the team. Ashley Sanchez is more of an attacking midfield specialist, who pushes forward into the attack as often as she connects with the defensive midfield.

It’s possible Andonovski’s intention is simply to add Ertz to the established midfield group and shut the door on any other new faces. But in that case, he would have to take a roster spot from either the USWNT’s incredibly deep forward pool or a defense that might need extra coverage against top opponents.

Ashley Hatch and the center-forward ticking clock

Catarina Macario is finally making her return to training with Olympique Lyon this month, after enduring a long recovery from an ACL injury suffered in June 2022. Following a scintillating run with the U.S. at the 2022 SheBelieves Cup, Macario will not have a chance to play in a USWNT jersey before Andonovski has to make a decision on his rising star.

Macario has talent worthy of a trip to New Zealand if she’s healthy enough by June, but her impending return complicates things for Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch. Since joining the team long-term in 2022, Hatch has done everything asked of her off the bench as Alex Morgan took over the starting role at center forward. She has continued to perform at the club level, most recently scoring a brace this weekend in the NWSL, and she has a knack for scoring in her limited international minutes. Despite those strengths, Hatch has yet to entrench herself in the starting conversation.

Hatch is in a race against time and sheer numbers. The U.S. isn’t likely to sacrifice a winger spot to carry three central forwards, Morgan is a clear lock for the roster, and Macario has the versatility to sink back into the midfield — something Hatch hasn’t been asked to emulate. The April friendlies could be the final push in one direction and, at the very least, a final audition for Hatch should Macario not be fit enough for the trip.

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