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USWNT players in the NWSL: Megan Rapinoe making a statement

Megan Rapinoe played a full half for OL Reign on Saturday as she works her way back from a calf injury. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

With every week that passes in the NWSL, players on the U.S. women’s national team bubble get a chance to prove their case further for inclusion on the team’s 2023 World Cup roster. USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski has long emphasized the importance of club performance, and players have been responding in the early stages of the 2023 season.

Andonovski himself took in two NWSL matches this past weekend, one in Seattle and one in Portland. The official World Cup roster is expected to be announced in June, and every week is crucial to Andonovski’s final decision-making process.

The games the USWNT head coach saw this weekend featured excellent performances for some and raised question marks for others.

Questions in the back

Not every player penciled onto the current USWNT roster had a weekend to remember as league action resumed. All three of Andonovski’s preferred goalkeepers either suffered losses or did not play in the NWSL’s fourth match day, and a few U.S. defenders also had rough outings.

Chicago Red Stars goalkeeper and longtime USWNT starter Alyssa Naeher conceded five tallies on just five shots on goal in a loss to OL Reign on Saturday. While one strike — a deflected free kick by Megan Rapinoe — was likely outside of the 35-year-old’s grasp, the other four were in the range of being savable. In all, the Reign got on the scoreboard five times on just 1.06 xG, a stat that measures expected goals.

Chicago’s rough day on defense also included USWNT defenders Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger, who had a hard time settling in within the Red Stars’ high-risk, three-back system. On the other end, Emily Sonnett again played in the Reign’s defensive midfield and struggled to contain Chicago rookie Ally Schlegel on the sequence that led to the Red Stars’ second goal.

Casey Murphy’s North Carolina Courage also suffered a loss, though in a much closer 1-0 scoreline. Gotham FC emerged from a near two-hour rain delay with renewed purpose, and Lynn Williams scored the game-winner in the 80th minute off an endline run and cross by Yazmeen Ryan. Murphy’s goals conceded so far this season have aligned closely with her xG faced, indicating a return to consistency after an up and down 2022. Adrianna Franch did not play in Kansas City’s 2-0 win over the Orlando Pride.

In better news, Andonovski’s preferred defensive starters looked as steady as ever. Naomi Girma had another excellent match for San Diego in a 2-0 win over Angel City, and Becky Sauerbrunn guided the Portland Thorns to another shutout victory.

Raining goals

In several cases, a defender’s bad day made for an attacker’s dream outing, as USWNT hopefuls once again made waves in front of goal. Williams’ strike was her fourth goal across all competitions this season, matching the total output of any other Gotham forward in 2022. The forward’s signing has immediately boosted the club that finished in last place in 2022 and has further solidified Williams’ value on both the domestic and international stage.

Reigning NWSL MVP Sophia Smith also continued her run of strong form, this time connecting on two assists in Portland’s win over Racing Louisville. Smith now has four goals and four assists in as many regular season matches, becoming the first player to reach both marks in just four games. Smith found Christine Sinclair early in the game to put the Thorns ahead, and then doubled her assist tally with a slick pass to Morgan Weaver to put the game out of reach.

OL Reign’s Megan Rapinoe showcased her value this weekend, putting in her longest performance of 2023 with 45 minutes against the Red Stars. As Rapinoe has progressed from an injury into game shape, her accuracy in dead-ball situations and overall influence over a match have grown. The USWNT veteran won a number of key set-piece opportunities against the Chicago backline in the second half, converting one of those chances outside the box into a deflected goal that put the Reign up 4-2.

Important minutes building

For some players, simply spending extensive minutes on the pitch is part of the process. Rapinoe played 15 minutes more on Saturday than in her last game, putting together a full half for the Reign. It was a positive sign for the winger, as she slowly works her way back from a lingering calf injury that had kept her off the field early in 2023.

Another player quietly working her way back to full fitness is Gotham outside back Kelley O’Hara, who played a full 90 minutes this past weekend for the first time in 2023 (albeit with an extensive rain delay). O’Hara hadn’t played a full match since August 2022 while recovering from a hip injury that ended her season early and kept her away from the U.S. until April 2023. O’Hara didn’t play many minutes with the USWNT in her return from injury in April, but her extensive experience combined with stalwart club performances could be just enough to get her on the final roster.

Perhaps the most significant return this weekend was that of Angel City midfielder Julie Ertz, who completed her most extensive performance in almost two years on Sunday. Ertz played in the midfield for 71 minutes, a big jump from the 45 minutes she gave the U.S. on April 11. Ertz looked equally sharp and rusty in her first NWSL match since May 2021, but her fitness shouldn’t be called into question after a durable performance in an end-to-end contest.

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