USWNT’s next wave: Catarina Macario, Mallory Pugh and young stars set to make impact

Catarina Macario strikes the ball during a training session in Japan this summer. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The United States women’s national team’s younger generation of players are making their names known as they gear up for their first match since the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday.

With five players aged 25 and under, the USWNT roster hasn’t been this young since 2016 at the Rio Olympics. Included on the roster for Thursday’s friendly against Paraguay are Tierna Davidson, Catarina Macario, Sophia Smith, Andi Sullivan and Mallory Pugh.

USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski said he’s excited to have them back in camp.

“They’re making an impact for their [NWSL] teams and helping their teams be successful,” he said. “It’s what we need at this point in time. More energy, more enthusiasm to kick us off in preparation for the World Cup qualifiers.”

The current roster is deep, and the young players are right in the mix for significant playing time. Davidson and Macario were both on the roster for the Tokyo Olympics, while Sullivan, Smith and Pugh can play multiple positions.

“Cat is technically great. Soph will drive at you,” said forward Lynn Williams. “It’s a new freshness. They are new, but they’ve definitely been at camp and been in this environment for a while, so I’m excited to see what their future holds and what they’re going to bring to the team. They have a hunger and a desire to stay here and make a name for themselves, so I’m excited to see them do it.”

Smith, 21, has six caps so far with the USWNT, the fewest on the team. The Portland Thorns forward leads the NWSL in shots and ranks fifth in goals.

Pugh, 23, and Davidson, who turns 23 on Sunday, have already been around for a while. Davidson debuted for the USWNT in 2018 and was the youngest player on the 2019 World Cup team at the age of 20. Pugh made her first appearance in 2016 when she was 17.

“I don’t feel young,” said Pugh. “I think I’ve kind of had to remind myself I am young and I still have a lot of years ahead of me.”

Macario, on the other hand, still feels new. As one of two players on the roster who compete overseas, the midfielder has been adjusting to the different dynamic.

In France, where the 21-year-old has four goals in four games for Lyon, the atmosphere is a “lot more chill.”

“These women are just completely, very intense at all times,” she said of her USWNT teammates. “Of course, off the field we have some fun and some good laughs, but it’s kind of like you committed to a business trip.”

Macario later added, “It’s two different environments that I love.”

The five younger players should get plenty of opportunities in the upcoming friendlies as multiple teammates sit out with injuries, including Sam Mewis, Megan Rapinoe, Lindsey Horan and Julie Ertz.

Andonovski has no doubt Sullivan can excel in the defensive center-midfield position, where she plays for the Washington Spirit in the NWSL. The 25-year-old might very well have to step into that starting role with the national squad in the absence of Ertz.

“I think she’s going to come in and have no problem adjusting to what we’re trying to do,” the coach said. “In these two games, I’m pretty sure we’re going to see Andi on the field and we’re going to see her getting a lot of minutes.”

The U.S. enters the fall tour knowing they have a lot of work to do between now and the 2023 FIFA World Cup. Coming off of a World Cup title in 2019 and ranked No. 1 in FIFA, the USWNT went into the Olympics with a gold medal in mind and came away with bronze. The team was on a 44-game win streak before losing 3-0 to Sweden in the first Olympic group stage game and then to Canada in a semifinal shootout.

Forward Alex Morgan says each player is closing that chapter on their own timeline, especially when it’s grouped with the emotional implications of COVID-19. Being together at camp has been an effective way to reflect on the summer and move on as a team as they head into their fall friendlies with Paraguay this month and South Korea at the end of October.

Thursday marks the USWNT’s first-ever match against Paraguay. The two squads face each other again Tuesday.

“There’s not much information on Paraguay,” Morgan said, “but it’s more about us getting back together, looking forward towards 2023, which is the next big tournament for us.”