The most surprising trade of NWSL Draft night saw Washington Spirit midfielder Ashley Sanchez get sent to the North Carolina Courage in exchange for the No. 5 pick and $250,000 in allocation money.

The trade came less than three hours after the Spirit swapped defender Sam Staab for the third overall pick from the Chicago Red Stars.

Sanchez had been with the Spirit ever since they drafted her in 2020. This past summer, she was named to the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup roster.

The Spirit drafted defensive midfielder Hal Hershfelt from Clemson with the 5th pick, and midfielder Croix Bethune from Georgia with the third.

In a post on social media, Sanchez wrote that she was “shocked and heartbroken” to be leaving the Spirit.

“Shocked and heartbroken to be leaving such a special place,” she wrote. “D.C. will always feel like home to me. Thank you to the fans and my teammates for the best years of my life. Truly don’t have the words to describe the gratitude I have, thank you a million.

“@thenccourage thank you for this opportunity, excited to get started”

Sanchez was especially close with Spirit and USWNT teammate Trinity Rodman, who took to social media to say that the trade “hits the soul.”

“Me and u became friends so quick it was the easiest friendship of my life,” Rodman wrote. “Together and separately we’ve gone thru the ups and downs of family, friends, and soccer. Don’t get me started on us both going thru our ‘depressed wrecks’ faze while using each others shoulder to cry on and climb on to still perform everyday for club, country, and ourselves.

“Anyway this probably seems very dramatic but when u spend every second of everyday w one human u realize how much they’ve changed ur life. … I’m gonna miss u like crazy, but i know god has set u up for the best thing he has instore.”

In response, Sanchez wrote “there is no me without you.”

“This is going to hurt for a long time,” she continued. “I love you forever best friend, wouldn’t change our friendship for the world.”

Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn and several more veteran players found themselves left off the U.S. women’s national team roster for the last camp of 2023. But don’t count them out for the 2024 Olympics.

USWNT interim head coach Twila Kilgore talked with each veteran player about the decision to leave them off the roster, she said Monday.

“None of the players that were left off the roster are out of the mix,” Kilgore said. “We want to win and we want to make sure that we bring the best players with us to the Olympics, and this is just one step in making sure that we are making the right decisions moving forward.”

Players who were called into the October camp but not the December camp include Morgan, Dunn, Alyssa Naeher, Sofia Huerta, Becky Sauerbrunn, Ashley Sanchez and Andi Sullivan.

“I did call all the players that were in the previous camp that aren’t on the roster and explain to them why,” Kilgore said. “Those conversations are between coach and player. But I will say that each and every one of them are professionals. They responded as professionals would. They understand that we’re watching everything they do, everything matters.”

The coaching staff knows what all these players “are capable of doing and what their value is,” Kilgore said. The USWNT sees in the upcoming friendlies against China the opportunity to evaluate a wider pool of players.

As the team continues to build toward next year’s Olympics, Kilgore and incoming head coach Emma Hayes wanted to get younger players some looks with the senior national team. But the veterans are still very much in the mix for the Olympics, she said.

“There’s equal opportunity moving forward to make this roster,” she added.

And as for why they called in the players that they did, including newcomers Jenna Nighswonger and Korbin Albert, their strong play at the club level contributed to the decision-making process.

“The leading factor was that these players have been performing really well in their home environments,” she said. “We’ve been consistently watching them and giving an opportunity to both challenge and support in our environment and be able to evaluate them.”

The final U.S. women’s national team roster of 2023 is here, with Rose Lavelle back in the fold for the first time since the World Cup after missing the last couple of camps with a lingering knee injury.

The 28-year-old midfielder missed all but four NWSL regular-season games but returned for the playoffs, helping lead OL Reign to the NWSL championship match. She also scored in the final for the Reign in their 2-1 loss to Gotham FC.

Despite the defeat, Lavelle looked as sharp as ever in the postseason, showcasing precisely what makes her such a huge asset both for the Reign and the USWNT. As the team looks to win its final two friendlies of the year against China, look for Lavelle to make an impact.

The USWNT will host China for two matches, the first on Saturday, Dec. 2, at 3 p.m. ET, and the second on Tuesday, Dec. 5, at 8 p.m. ET.

Several veteran players are sidelined for the friendlies, including forward Alex Morgan, defender Becky Sauerbrunn and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher. Their absences, though, should not raise too many red flags, as resting veteran players for the final camp of the year is a standard practice for the USWNT.

Also absent from the December roster are defenders Crystal Dunn and Sofia Huerta and midfielders Ashley Sanchez and Andi Sullivan.

Interim head coach Twila Kilgore will continue to lead the team in the stead of newly announced head coach Emma Hayes. This is the first roster to be dropped since the USWNT named Emma Hayes as its next head coach. But with Hayes continuing with Chelsea through the conclusion of the Women’s Super League season, Kilgore will remain at the helm until Hayes joins the USWNT in May 2024.

Catarina Macario remains sidelined, and the Chelsea midfielder is not expected to return for club or country before the end of the year, according to Hayes. But another Chelsea player in Mia Fishel is back on the roster, as is San Diego Wave forward Jaedyn Shaw. Both scored their first international goals in the USWNT’s most recent match in San Diego, a 3-0 win against Colombia at the end of October.

New faces on the roster include Korbin Albert, a 20-year-old midfielder for Paris Saint-Germain, and Jenna Nighswonger, the NWSL Rookie of the Year from Gotham FC.

USWNT schedule: December 2023

  • Saturday, Dec. 2 — 3 p.m. ET (TNT, Universo, Peacock)
    • United States vs. China (DRV PNK Stadium, Fort Lauderdale, Florida)
  • Tuesday, Dec. 5 — 8 p.m. ET (TruTV, Universo, Peacock)
    • United States vs. China (Toyota Stadium, Frisco, Texas)

USWNT roster: December 2023

Goalkeepers (3)

  • Jane Campbell (Houston Dash)
  • Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit)
  • Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage)

Defenders (7)

  • Alana Cook (OL Reign)
  • Abby Dahlkemper (San Diego Wave)
  • Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars)
  • Emily Fox (North Carolina Courage)
  • Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave)
  • Casey Krueger (Chicago Red Stars
  • M.A. Vignola (Angel City FC)

Midfielders (8)

  • Korbin Albert (Paris Saint-Germain)
  • Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns)
  • Savannah DeMelo (Racing Louisville FC)
  • Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyonnais)
  • Rose Lavelle (OL Reign)
  • Olivia Moultrie (Portland Thorns)
  • Jenna Nighswonger (Gotham FC)
  • Emily Sonnett (OL Reign)

Forwards (8)

  • Mia Fishel (Chelsea)
  • Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit)
  • Midge Purce (Gotham FC)
  • Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit)
  • Jaedyn Shaw (San Diego Wave)
  • Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns)
  • Alyssa Thompson (Angel City FC)
  • Lynn Williams (Gotham FC)

The U.S. women’s national team will move on from October with their heads held high. A 3-0 victory over Colombia on Sunday gave them more breathing room after a scoreless draw earlier in the week. The match was a tale of two halves, as the U.S. made slight adjustments at halftime to pepper Colombia’s penalty area in a chippy, physical match.

The shots on goal didn’t start landing until the second half, as key substitutes took advantage of a worn-down defense. Mia Fishel and Jaedyn Shaw tallied their first USWNT goals, and Lindsey Horan also scored a breakthrough goal in her attacking midfield role.

What was likely interim manager Twila Kilgore’s final game in charge of a team in a holding pattern didn’t answer every question fans have for the former world champions. But it did serve as a reminder that solutions are necessary, and that the players in the team’s future might actually be the ones who can perform the best in the present.

Here are a few main takeaways from Sunday’s win.

It’s time to start rotating the center forwards

The next USWNT coach could find themselves in a conundrum as they decide what to do about the established center forward role. It’s a spot that Alex Morgan has held in good stead for most of her career, but as the striker concludes another international break without a goal, questions about form continue to follow the 34-year-old.

Morgan brings more to the team than just a goal-scoring presence, as both a key leader and an increasingly effective playmaker. But in both October matches against Colombia, she struggled with her primary objective, missing a penalty kick and other high-quality chances in front of goal. It’s not Morgan’s fault that the USWNT has played slim-margin, counter-attacking soccer in 2023 — that responsibility primarily rests with former manager Vlatko Andonovski. But the last four games have followed a similar blueprint, and form being a fickle thing supports the idea of letting hotter hands get experience in the No. 9 role.

Mia Fishel made an obvious case on Sunday, scoring her first senior international goal on a header off a short corner kick. The USWNT has long been dominant on set pieces, and Fishel’s aerial ability combined with her comfort as a back-to-goal striker opened things up for the U.S. in the second half on Sunday.

Sophia Smith is also re-entering the fold after an MCL sprain and still lining up with the U.S. as a winger. She has had a two-year run of dominance in the NWSL in a more central position, something Andonovski leaned on but never committed to as USWNT coach. Other players who can do damage in front of goal include (but are not limited to) Ashley Hatch, Lynn Williams and Catarina Macario, considering she can return to her old form after recovery from an ACL injury.

It doesn’t do Morgan any favors to keep inserting her into a system that doesn’t play to her strengths, nor does it make sense for a team that has this much attacking talent to become rigid in the face of a shooting slump. The process of building cohesion and chemistry only works if the pieces in the system fit, and the U.S. appears to be a couple of personnel moves away from striking the right balance.

The future is now

Some of the turnover in the USWNT player pool happened so fast this summer that it’s difficult to contextualize a team that’s constantly changing. Trinity Rodman abruptly took on much greater responsibility during the World Cup due to Mallory Swanson’s knee injury and now looks like a confident, seasoned pro on the wings. Savannah DeMelo, after a surprising World Cup debut, was similarly called upon to infuse life into the U.S. attack in both of their October matches in the absence of Rose Lavelle.

The success of players like Rodman and DeMelo, who were pushed into the deep end and swam instead of sinking, should bolster the idea that the next USWNT coach need not be precious about giving minutes to younger, less experienced talent. In fact, Kilgore’s reluctance to move away from the hyper-conservative playing style of the team’s Round of 16 formation arguably wasted precious time when the team has never had less to lose.

Shaw and Fishel played like stars on Sunday, with a fearlessness and tenacity that the USWNT has been missing from its veterans. Shaw can slot into a number of positions with ease, her superpower being an understanding of how she can exploit space wherever it presents itself. With her chip of the goalkeeper to put the U.S. up 3-0, the 19-year-old showed a poise that belied her age. The assist came from the capable 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who is still being eased into playing time with the U.S. senior team after making the World Cup roster.

Given the excitement on Sunday, there’s an argument that the U.S. coaching staff isn’t moving fast enough. Olivia Moultrie could be the type of player to allow Horan to rest at times, but she did not see the field in October. The team’s avoidance of defensive midfielder Sam Coffey, an NWSL MVP finalist this season with the Portland Thorns, also continued this week (though the ascendance of Emily Sonnett in the same role has possibly muddied the waters). Ashley Sanchez received late minutes on Sunday, still finding herself struggling to rise on the midfield depth chart after not playing at all during the World Cup.

One of the blessings and the curses of managing the USWNT is that you have to find ways to balance leadership, mentality, form and positional roles while overseeing an intensely competitive environment where many players have a case for consideration. Former coaches have frequently pushed for changes in increments, with a steadfast faith in the team’s cohesion across player generations.

The 2024 Olympics looming in the background could push the next U.S. manager into inactivity, trusting the process that Andonovski began. But the game tape from Sunday might support a bolder approach, and one that needs to happen quickly lest the USWNT continue to lose ground on the international stage.

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

The U.S. women’s national team kicked off their October friendly series on Thursday with a choppy 0-0 draw with 2023 World Cup quarterfinalists Colombia. The two-game series will likely serve as the final international break before U.S. Soccer names a permanent coach after the departure of Vlatko Andonovski in August.

If the USWNT’s September games against South Africa were the closing of one chapter in the team’s history, Thursday’s game suggested a reluctance to begin writing a new era. The balance between steady cohesion and progress from a disappointing 2023 World Cup could be tipping too far in one direction, which is both understandable and worrying with limited time to regroup for the 2024 Olympics.

Fans looking for greater freedom of movement from the team’s veterans were disappointed this week. And while the U.S. ably contained Colombia superstar Linda Caicedo, their emphasis on defense over exciting attacking interplay made them look like a team that’s treading water before their real boss arrives in December.

The U.S. walked away with a result on Thursday night in Utah, but they still don’t look like the world-beaters they’d like to become once again. So, where do the biggest issues lie?

Keeping the band together

The USWNT’s starting XI against Colombia was completely made up of players from the 2023 World Cup roster, with only two changes from the team’s Round of 16 match to replace the departed Julie Ertz and the recovering Sophia Smith. Despite bringing in new faces in September and October, interim manager Twila Kilgore seemed more interested in continuing to build chemistry with the veterans than taking the risk of implementing new personnel.

Eighteen-year-old midfielder Olivia Moultrie did not dress for the match, and teenage compatriot Jaedyn Shaw was only given three minutes in regulation in her USWNT debut. The team’s first substitute was 38-year-old Becky Sauerbrunn at halftime, followed by longtime bubble defender Casey Krueger.

Savannah DeMelo replaced Andi Sullivan in the second half, which gave the U.S. more of an attacking outlook for the rest of the match, but once again they took a pragmatic approach to player development. Defensive midfielder Sam Coffey again sat out the entirety of the match, and Ashley Sanchez has struggled to see the field after Andonovski dropped her down the depth chart at the World Cup.

There’s something to be said about letting this group of USWNT veterans find their way without Rapinoe and Ertz, and they have work to do before any prospective coach can even begin to blow up the current project. There were also positives: Lynn Williams and Trinity Rodman brought defensive tenacity and danger on the dribble from the wings, and the team’s defense-by-committee approach rendered Colombia’s attack largely inert in the second half.

But for a team that increasingly feels like it has nothing to lose by trying out a few new faces in the well-worn system, the U.S. played to get a result instead of allowing Colombia to force the next generation of players to sink or swim. The USWNT has acknowledged it will take bravery to keep up with the rest of the world, and the pragmatic approach left something to be desired.

Andonovski-esque tactics

For the fourth game in a row, the USWNT lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation with two defensive midfielders and Lindsey Horan in the most attacking midfield role. Sullivan and Emily Sonnett again sat in a double-pivot, maintaining the strategy that helped the team look their best in their World Cup exit.

The double-pivot started as an antidote to many of the team’s problems at the end of the Andonovski era, but there’s mounting evidence that it is now their poison. The U.S. didn’t have many creative playmakers on the field at any given time, sitting off the ball in the first half to contain Colombia’s explosive attack and move in quick transition after forcing turnovers.

The approach almost paid off in the first half, when a quick turnover forced by Williams turned into a scoring chance for Alex Morgan, who sent it right to the goalkeeper. But it also meant that the USWNT spent much of the first half chasing the game. Disconnected passing through the midfield yielded poor turnovers. And while the defense recovered well to snuff out the Colombia attack, the U.S. was not fully in control of the game, outside of a period of momentum in the second half after the attacking-minded DeMelo came on for Sullivan.

In short, the USWNT’s performance felt reminiscent of the way they played under Andonovski. Kilgore has espoused the importance of building off the team’s performance against Sweden in the World Cup Round of 16, but that performance similarly resulted in a 0-0 draw. A number of the team’s creative players have been relegated to the bench, with an overemphasis on progressing the ball up the wings to send it into the penalty area.

Not unlike during the World Cup, better finishing would have papered over other issues, but U.S. players have not shaken off their inconsistency in front of goal. Morgan’s scoreless stretch for the USWNT has now reached a 10th game, punctuated by a penalty miss in the first half. A number of other players settled for shots into traffic from distance late in the game rather than remaining patient in possession.

There are logical reasons for many of the USWNT’s struggles: They haven’t had much of a break since the World Cup, they don’t have a permanent coach, and many of them are in the middle of playoffs with their club teams. But with the Gold Cup and the Olympics looming, a match without new ideas against a quality opponent feels like a wasted opportunity.

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

The U.S. women’s national team’s next generation is ready for their moment.

Several young players, including Sophia Smith and Naomi Girma, as well as Trinity Rodman and Ashley Sanchez, already have been with the USWNT over the last year, honing their skills. Now the retirements of Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz have left holes in the roster, and even more up-and-comers are stepping in to fill them.

“It’s a privilege to first of all be on this team and to be able to play,” said Mia Fishel, who made her debut with the senior national team on Sunday. “But to play alongside Megan Rapinoe and being training this whole week is just like a dream come true. So I try to soak it in as much as possible and apply as much as I can in the field.”

The 22-year-old forward enjoyed her experience in the September camp – in just the second senior call-up of her career – despite the long flight from London to Cincinnati. She and Catarina Macario, 23, are playing together for Chelsea in the upcoming WSL season. And while Macario is recovering from an ACL injury, they could play together for club and country in the near future.

“I tried to get as quick as possible with the group because I missed the training,” Fishel said of the USWNT camp. “But it was all positive vibes. … I feel like this new group has new energy after the World Cup and we’re ready to go.”

Jaedyn Shaw, 18, joined World Cup forward Alyssa Thompson, 18, as one of two teenagers on the September roster. And while Shaw didn’t earn a cap in her first call-up, she still made waves.

“I don’t really surround myself with hype, or whatever, that is attached to my name or how I play,” Shaw told the Inquirer. “I think that I just, up to this point — and will continue to do it — just focus on myself and focus on my journey, and just try to learn as much as I can, and enjoy this experience.”

She also looked at the call-up as an opportunity to grow in an environment full of encouragement. After all, she’s got San Diego Wave teammates Girma and Alex Morgan alongside her. And both see what Shaw can bring to the USWNT.

“When we signed [Shaw] mid-season last year, she immediately came in and was a great professional at 17 years old, so much more mature than for her age,” Morgan told the Inquirer. “The goals she scored and the composure that she had in front of goal — you kind of knew right from the start after those first few weeks that she was going to have a long career, not only in the NWSL but hopefully with the national team as well.”

Morgan’s World Cup co-captain Lindsey Horan also is excited to see more of Shaw in the future.

“The more training sessions that we have, we’ll see more and more,” Horan said. “I’ve heard such incredible things. I wish NWSL games were better times for me in France [where she plays for Lyon], because I could probably give you a better answer right now. But I’ve heard nothing but the best, and the little bits that I’ve seen, it’s really cool.”

The U.S. women’s national team got their mojo back during the September international break, sending Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe off in style with two dominant wins over South Africa. The games were filled with emotion, and goodbyes off the field influencing the USWNT’s sharpness on the field.

The performances also shined a light on a few of the lingering questions from the Vlatko Andonovski era that new management will have to investigate as the team looks toward the 2024 Olympics.

The Alex Morgan question

Alex Morgan had two perfectly-placed assists in each game against South Africa, bringing her assists total for the USWNT in 2023 to five, the most since her breakout year in 2012. The 34-year-old showcased an ability to slide into wide areas to pull South African defenders out of position and free up space for her teammates, most notably Trinity Rodman.

Both of Morgan’s assists offered a glimpse into the all-around player the striker has become later in her career, providing an improvisatory spark that opened up both matches and set the U.S. up for comfortable leads. The plays could also be indicative of the way Morgan has had to adapt her natural tendencies in order to work in a system that still reflects the way Andonovski asked her to play at the 2023 World Cup.

But for all the positive play Morgan brings to the USWNT frontline, she is still struggling to find the back of the net herself. With another international break behind her, the 34-year-old hasn’t scored for the USWNT since February nor for her club team since May. Her scoring drought has seemed to stem less from a significant decline in pace or touch (her ball control on Sunday’s assist was world-class), and more from positioning and poise. Whatever mental block is holding Morgan back hasn’t stopped her from impacting games, but it has limited her effectiveness in the role she is primarily brought in to play.

The Emily Sonnett question

Emily Sonnett now consistently plays defensive midfielder for her club, OL Reign, and she started in that role in both of the USNWT’s games against South Africa. She’s looked increasingly confident there, but her usage in recent months begs the question: Is the former defender in the midst of a true position change, or is the team simply tapping into the versatile talent she’s been known for her entire career?

Sonnett was the unlikely hero of the USWNT’s 4-2-3-1 formation change in their Round of 16 match against Sweden at the World Cup, and she looked just as steady when paired with Ertz and then Andi Sullivan against South Africa. But the new commitment to what seemed at the time to be a last-minute position switch could also be holding the team back from moving on from Andonovski’s style of play. Portland Thorns standout No. 6 Sam Coffey got another call-up in September but did not see the field in either game. Based on positioning, Coffey would ostensibly step into Sullivan’s role alongside the ball-winning Sonnett.

There’s no doubt that the 4-2-3-1 could be a sturdy formation for the team going forward under new management, and position switches have happened with success before — such as Ertz moving from center-back to defensive midfield in 2017. But Sonnett’s emergence as a midfield option rather than as a defender could also reshape the team’s roster approach altogether.

The Alana Cook question

Ertz’s retirement and Sonnett’s emergence as a starter in the defensive midfield prompted the return of Alana Cook to the USWNT’s central defense in both September games. Cook had a very strange 2023, with Andonovski abruptly benching her in favor of Ertz for the entirety of the World Cup after she had played the most minutes of anyone in 2022.

Now, she is again being asked to anchor the U.S. backline, a task she likely thought would have come in much bigger games. Cook partnered with Naomi Girma in the first match of the international break, and then with Tierna Davidson in the second game. Davidson is looking to return to a USWNT tournament roster after being left home during the World Cup, and with Becky Sauerbrunn’s return in question, the team’s center-back depth is just as questionable as it was earlier in the year.

Andonovski decided to push questions about the central defense into the future when he went all-in on Ertz and Girma in Australia and New Zealand. Those decisions will now be made by a new coach, and Cook missed out on major tournament experience that could have been a foundational point of the next cycle.

Ashley Sanchez didn't see the field for the USWNT at the World Cup. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The Ashley Sanchez question

The team’s renewed commitment to a defensive 4-2-3-1 in the absence of Rose Lavelle also leads to questions about the future of the playmaker role. The defensive midfield double-pivot came out of necessity, as the U.S. struggled to retain and progress the ball through the midfield with only one defensive midfielder feeding two attacking midfielders.

But the team’s realignment has left a few of the USWNT’s pure playmakers adrift. Ashley Sanchez subbed into the first game of the September series, and Savannah DeMelo did the same in the second, but the current starting lineup indicates a trend. Interim manager Twila Kilgore appears most comfortable with a conservative, possession-based approach that attacking playmakers can stretch later in matches.

Kilgore’s logic is sound, as the U.S. continues to build on the positive play of their Round of 16 match against Sweden. But after Sanchez was left on the bench during the World Cup, and DeMelo got thrown into the fire of the group stage without much midfield support, the USWNT has too much attacking firepower to line up as conservatively as it has been in recent months. Lavelle’s expected return will force the new coach’s hand one way or another on whether the defensive priorities should take precedence over the team’s attack.

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

The San Diego Wave suffered two major losses Saturday night.

The team lost to the Kansas City Current, 2-1, falling out of first place in the NWSL standings. And perhaps more important for the team’s long term future, star striker Alex Morgan suffered an injury in stoppage time and limped off the field.

San Diego coach Casey Stoney said afterward she had no updates on Morgan, who didn’t score a goal for the 13th consecutive game. Last season, Morgan won the NWSL’s goals title and never went more than three matches without scoring

The Wave can reclaim the top spot in the standings with three regular season games remaining, but they’ll need to play better than they did Saturday; the Wave didn’t record a shot on goal in the first half, losing the possession battle 57 percent to 43 percent.

“I was extremely disappointed with our first half,” San Diego coach Casey Stoney told reporters.

Morgan wasn’t the only NWSL star to suffer an injury this weekend. Washington Spirit midfielder Ashley Sanchez also suffered an injury during the team’s 2-0 loss to Gotham FC on Saturday. Spirit coach Mark Parsons said afterward he had update on Sanchez, who has scored five goals and recorded an assist this season.

Ashley Sanchez has returned to the NWSL with a vengeance.

The 24-year-old midfielder did not play in the 2023 World Cup, despite making the 23-player roster for the U.S. women’s national team. But upon her return to the NWSL, she has solidified her place as one of the game’s brightest young stars.

The Washington Spirit signed Sanchez to a three-year contract extension last Friday. While Sanchez was previously set to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season, her new contract runs through 2026.

“Keeping Sanchez with the Spirit is critical for this club,” Spirit coach Mark Parsons said in a statement. “Her world-class technical ability and goal-scoring quality are very important to the success of our team.”

Sanchez said she’s “looking forward” to continuing her career in Washington, having been “fortunate to take a lot of strides in my game” during her four years in D.C.

Among those strides was earning a place on the USWNT’s 2023 World Cup roster. Sanchez has 25 career caps, three goals and four assists with the USWNT. Before the World Cup, she made eight appearances in 2023, averaging 50 minutes per match. But at the tournament, the attacking midfielder did not see the field, having been replaced on the depth chart first by USWNT newcomer Savannah DeMelo, and then by veteran defender Emily Sonnett.

Sanchez has been open about her role at the World Cup, noting that what then-head coach Vlatko Andnovski told her ahead of the tournament was different from what played out in Australia and New Zealand. The USWNT fell to Sweden in a penalty shootout in the Round of 16, marking their earliest exit ever from a World Cup.

“Let’s just say the role (I was told I would fill) was not what I played,” she told the Washington Post.

Since returning to the NWSL in late August, Sanchez has made a statement on the field. Just 40 seconds into her first game back with Washington, she scored a goal in a 1-1 draw with the Houston Dash. Sanchez’s fifth goal of the season put her six behind league leader Sophia Smith. And her 1.20 shots on target per 90 is good for ninth in the league, ahead of star players like Alex Morgan.

“Revenge mode was coming,” Parsons said after Sanchez’s return. “It came really quick, and I think that helps. Being involved, she’s now feeling good.”

What went wrong for the U.S. women’s national team at the 2023 World Cup?

The shootout loss to Sweden in the Round of 16 marked the earliest ever World Cup exit for the USWNT. And the trouble started in the group stage, as the attack floundered against the Netherlands and Portugal.

Here’s what players have said about the USWNT’s struggles in the month since the World Cup elimination.

Lindsey Horan

The 29-year-old co-captain called out the lack of preparation for the tournament in Australia and New Zealand. While Horan did not mention head coach Vlatko Andonovski by name, she did share what she wants to ask his successor. (Andonovski resigned after the Round of 16 exit.)

“(How do you plan on) getting the best out of your team without overcomplicating everything? Because I could talk about the last four-year cycle, and we don’t need to get into every single thing, but that’s not what we did,” she said. “We did not get the best out of every single individual. I don’t think everyone was fully prepared.”

The starting midfielder pointed to the game against Sweden, which proved to be the best of the tournament for the USWNT despite the shootout loss. The improvements seen on the pitch in that contest came from the players themselves, according to Horan.

“The game against Sweden, I don’t think we were necessarily set up to play the way that we played,” she said. “That was just us, finally coming together and being like, this is what we’re gonna do. And then it worked. Then it’s like, ‘OK, keep doing it.’ Could that have happened earlier? Maybe. It’s a really tough one.”

Andi Sullivan

Like Horan, Sullivan started every single World Cup match. And she saw a “disconnect” between the preparation and the execution, she said after the tournament.

“I like Vlatko. He’s a good coach. And I felt we were prepared for the games, but there was clearly a disconnect between our preparation and then what actually was executed in the game,” Sullivan said. “That’s not good enough for the U.S. women’s national team. So you have got to make changes, and hopefully we can get things right before the Olympics.”

Ashley Sanchez

Several USWNT players, including Sanchez, pointed to a disconnect not in the overall strategy but in the communication of their roles on the team.

For example, Sanchez discussed her usage with Andonovski ahead of the tournament. The 24-year-old midfielder had played in all eight USWNT matches in 2023 leading into the World Cup, averaging 50 minutes per match. But she did not receive any playing time across the USWNT’s four matches in Australia and New Zealand.

“Let’s just say the role (I was told I would fill) was not what I played,” she told the Washington Post.

Lynn Williams

Williams entered the World Cup ready to channel her “inner Christen Press” and be a “super seven” sub, based on how Andonovski had described her role. But she did not play in the first two matches against Vietnam or the Netherlands.

“On some level, it’s devastating,” she said. “Because you’re like, everybody’s getting into the game, and I’m not getting into the game.”

The 30-year-old forward adjusted her expectations, and she did end up playing in the next two matches. She played 83 minutes as a starter in the group-stage finale against Portugal, then subbed on for the final 55 minutes against Sweden.

“I just had to remind myself again, like, it’s not about you, it’s about the team,” Williams said. “So whatever the decisions were made, just support that decision and make your teammates the best teammates you can possibly be.”

Still, the World Cup elimination stings.

“I just think we were too talented to have the outcome that we did,” she said on Just Women’s Sports‘ “Snacks” podcast.

Megan Rapinoe

As the 38-year-old forward prepares for her final USWNT appearance on Sept. 24, she took a broader view of how the USWNT needs to adjust in an interview with The Atlantic.

“From an overall federation perspective, it is worth at least a deep-dive look at our structure. We haven’t done that well in youth tournaments,” she said. “I think a more consistent style and a more consistent philosophy from the younger teams all the way up through the senior teams is necessary.”

Sophia Smith

One of many players who posted reflections on Instagram after tournament, the 23-year-old forward called herself “heartbroken” after the World Cup loss.

“Thank you to those who believed and supported us throughout the tournament, and most importantly to those who still do and never stopped,” Smith wrote. “It wouldn’t be life without moments like this, and I know without a doubt we will be back and hungrier than ever.”

Midge Purce

Purce missed out on the World Cup with a quad injury, but she followed her friends from afar. And while she understands their disappointment, and offered some criticism of the team’s World Cup tactics, she also expressed her optimism for the future of the USWNT.

“I think it’s so interesting the way we look at World Cups and big tournaments as if that tournament is the end of the movie, there’s nothing else to be seen,” Purce said on Just Women’s Sports‘ “The 91st” podcast. “This is a long journey. It’s a long story. These kids (are) probably gonna have three or four World Cups under their belt. And it’s the next one that I think everyone should be terrified for.

“They have a chip on their shoulder. They have broken hearts, they’re hurting. It’s hard and they’re good. They’re better than what they got. They’ve put out better performances individually than what they’ve received. … So I just think that there’s so much more to be excited for on the landscape of U.S women’s soccer. It’s going to be incredible.”