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USWNT roster: Inexperience, injuries biggest concern at 2023 World Cup

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Andi Sullivan will be anchoring the USWNT midfield in New Zealand, alongside 13 other players making their World Cup debuts. (Erick W. Rasco/Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)

The day has finally arrived; the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup roster has been announced. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has put together a 23-player squad with a balance of veteran experience and incredible talent, but many questions remain as to how the group will gel in time to attempt to capture a historic third-straight World Cup title.

The U.S. has been ravaged by injuries in the last year, forcing Andonovski’s hand with some of his decisions. But he’s also adopting a few calculated risks that could either pay off in the biggest moment, or spell disaster for a relatively inexperienced group.

Here are three takeaways from Wednesday’s roster reveal.

This is a brand-new USWNT

A main takeaway from the 2023 World Cup roster is much-discussed but perpetually relevant: This version of the USWNT couldn’t look any more different than the team that won a World Championship in 2019. Fourteen of the 23 players selected for this year’s tournament have never participated in a World Cup before, and a number of projected starters did not play in the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.

Sophia Smith is going to be relied upon heavily in the USWNT attack in her first major tournament, while Lynn Williams feels like a seasoned veteran despite preparing for her first World Cup. Emily Fox is a penciled-in starter at outside back, even with this being her World Cup debut, and the starting center-back pair will almost certainly have never performed on this big of a stage before. Emily Sonnett is the only center-back named to the roster with World Cup experience.

The U.S. midfield will be anchored by Andi Sullivan in her first major tournament, and fellow midfielder Savannah DeMelo is the first player since 2003 to be named to a World Cup roster without having registered her first appearance with the USWNT. Eighteen-year-old Alyssa Thompson made a last-minute surge into roster consideration after Mallory Swanson suffered a major knee injury, representing the next generation of star power rising in the USWNT ranks.

None of this is bad news — these are the players ready for this tournament — but it is a data point to consider. The U.S. likely made a mistake at the Tokyo Olympics for sticking with an aging roster, and in 2023 they have swung the pendulum in the opposite direction. No U.S. team is going to get the opportunity to call itself a rebuild, but everything Andonovski’s squad does in Australia and New Zealand this summer will be about both building for the future and chasing history in the present.

Rose Lavelle has been nursing an injury since April, but Andonovski said that is "not a worry for us." (Hannah Peters/Getty Images)

Endless creativity

The midfield section of the USWNT roster has a clear imbalance to it, by design and likely by necessity. Rose Lavelle hasn’t played any competitive game minutes since mid-April, and while Andonovski said he is confident she’ll be healthy by the time the group stage begins, she’s probably not going to be completely game-fit by World Cup kickoff. Thus enters the roster’s biggest surprise in DeMelo, whose attributes as a playmaker for Racing Louisville this season proved undeniable despite her inexperience with the USWNT.

Usually the need to bring a backup midfielder due to injury is bad news for other players in the same positional group, but Andonovski has taken a different approach. In making room for three creative midfielders in Lavelle, DeMelo and Ashley Sanchez, Andonovski cut a spot from his frontline — the traditional backup No. 9 spot that Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch has held for over a year.

Hatch did nothing to warrant a last-minute drop, but the trade-off makes sense in the context of who else fills out the attack; Sophia Smith and Lynn Williams can both play centrally as well as out wide. Andonovski also referenced Trinity Rodman, and Alyssa Thompson can slide into the role for short periods, all of which will be necessary to make sure that Alex Morgan can get the rest she needs throughout the tournament.

The question that hangs over this particular compromise is whether Andonovski will trust any of the three attacking midfielders to run a dual No. 10 system against defensive-minded sides (Lindsey Horan cannot play every minute of a World Cup), or if the team is simply carrying an extra player who will not feature much in the tournament.

Kelley O'Hara brings experience to a U.S. defense that needs it in the absence of Becky Sauerbrunn. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Making room for specialists

Rosters of 23 players frequently do have room for those who bring one particularly elite skill and might be needed in certain games to break an opponent down. But the thinner depth charts at a few core positions due to injury and form make some of Andonovski’s choices a bit risky.

Losing captain Becky Sauerbrunn to an injury has made the center-back position a precarious one, as 2019 starter Abby Dahlkemper is still recovering from back surgery and Tierna Davidson has struggled since her return from an ACL injury. But Andonovski did not make the same adjustment to the backline as he did with the midfield; he’s only bringing three center-backs in Alana Cook, Naomi Girma and Emily Sonnett. Central defenders have the ability to carry more minutes than positions with greater distances to run, but the USWNT head coach has always favored calculated rotation.

Instead, Andonovski has stacked up on outside-back depth, bringing crossing specialist Sofia Huerta and the oft-injured Kelley O’Hara to support his likely preferred starters, Emily Fox and Crystal Dunn. O’Hara brings veteran experience to a backline that needs it, but if the center-backs struggle against top opposition, the lack of options could become an issue. Andonovski said that Julie Ertz is another center-back option in the case of an emergency, but she hasn’t played there for the U.S. in over four years.

Megan Rapinoe is another locker-room leader who is traveling with the team in a specialist’s capacity. The original plan Andonovski outlined was to give most of the minutes at left wing to Swanson, and insert Rapinoe into matches for her dead-ball and crossing ability. With Swanson no longer available, a committee of players will now have to cover left wing. Rapinoe has the type of leadership and elite talent on the ball (including from the penalty spot) that could help the U.S. secure more than one victory. But if Andonovski finds himself leaning on her fitness more than he planned, the U.S. attack and full-team defending could suffer.

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