Reigning NWSL champions Gotham FC are adding to their remarkable free agency haul, announcing the signing of World Cup champions Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett on Thursday.

Sonnett and Lavelle are the third and fourth USWNT mainstays to sign with the New Jersey club this year after midfielder Crystal Dunn and defender Tierna Davidson also reached multi-year deals with the team. All four World Cup champions will remain with the club through 2026.

Both Lavelle and Sonnett join Gotham most recently from OL Reign, where Lavelle won an NWSL shield and both players reached the 2023 title game (losing in the championship match to Gotham.) 

“Rose is an amazing talent, and we are very excited to have her as a part of the club,” said Amorós in a team release. “She is a very exciting player to watch because of her creative and technical abilities.”

Sonnett is a two-time NWSL champion, first with the Portland Thorns in 2017 and the Washington Spirit in 2021. The 30-year-old flourished in 2023 after making a position change from center-back to defensive midfielder, becoming a USWNT starter at the position during and after the 2023 World Cup.

Both Lavelle and Sonnett are also well-known at the international level, winning the 2019 World Cup with the USWNT as well as a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics. They join a stacked Gotham roster, which includes Spanish World Cup champion Esther, Lynn Williams, Midge Purce, Kelley O’Hara, Allie Long and more. The club finished a storybook “worst to first” run in 2023 behind a roster refresh and the clear leadership of manager Juan Carlos Amorós.

“We are incredibly excited to have two exceptional talents like Rose and Emily join the club,” Gotham general manager Yael Averbuch West said. “Rose is a crafty and entertaining player, and our fans and club will be very excited to watch her at Red Bull Arena, and Sonnett is a true professional and competitor, who understands what success in the league looks like. The club and our fans are extremely excited to have players of their stature as we build upon the success of last season.”  

The signings coincide with a Thursday morning announcement by the NWSL that the 2024 salary cap will be $2.75 million, almost doubling teams’ operating budgets from last year. The league is also slowly doing away with allocation money, which limited the flow and usage of funds despite not counting towards a team’s salary cap.

For fans trying to understand how Gotham could possibly afford to bring in four of the biggest stars in the league, the salary cap increase alongside a few big player departures might prove to be a big part of the puzzle. World Cup champion center-back Ali Krieger has retired, and star midfielder Kristie Mewis recently finalized a transfer to West Ham United in the WSL, with an immediate severing of her contract at Gotham. 

It’s possible that Dunn could slot into Mewis’s role, or the team will rethink the midfield with Lavelle as the primary playmaker and Sonnett as a defensive midfielder. 

Long, who most recently came off the bench in a No. 6 role, is currently an unrestricted free agent out of contract with the team, as well as veteran midfielder McCall Zerboni.

Davidson will likely replace Krieger at center-back, who retired at the end of 2023. She’ll slot into a backline that includes 2023 NWSL Rookie of the Year Jenna Nighswonger, rising Brazilian talent Bruninha, and Spanish international Maitane López.

No matter how Gotham lines up on the field in 2024, all four signings should be considered a historic high in the league’s young history with free agency, only in its second year. The era of the NWSL superteam might be upon us, and all roads are leading to New York.

Tierna Davidson is in advanced talks to sign with Gotham FC in NWSL free agency, The Equalizer’s Jenna Tonelli reported Tuesday.

Davidson, 25, is a star defender who has played for the Chicago Red Stars since 2019, when she was selected by the club with the No. 1 overall pick in the NWSL college draft.

A member of the 2019 World Cup-winning U.S. women’s national team, Davidson has made 51 international appearances. She also has made 61 appearances for Chicago since 2019.

Davidson becomes just the latest USWNT player to be linked to Gotham FC in free agency. Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett also reportedly are in advanced discussions to join the reigning NWSL champions, and Crystal Dunn has been linked to the club as well.

The addition of Davidson would make sense for Gotham FC given the retirement of 2023 NWSL Defender of the Year nominee and captain Ali Krieger.

After winning the 2023 NWSL championship, Gotham FC is surging into the offseason, with free agents and U.S. women’s national team stars Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett reportedly in “advanced discussions” to sign with the club.

The news was first reported by The Athletic’s Meg Linehan, though according to her sources, no paperwork has been signed yet.

Both Lavelle and Sonnett were major players for OL Reign in the 2023 NWSL final, in which their team fell, 2-1, to Gotham.

Last month, OL Reign general manager Lesle Gallimore said the club had been in contact with both players “just about daily” since the season ended. But head coach Laura Harvey also said the club was encouraging players to explore free agency.

“I just think that free agency is something that players should live through,” Harvey said. “I said this last year with our free agents: They should live through it. And I think the expansion draft adds an extra wrinkle to that, that they know that if they’re still free, they can’t be picked. So that gives them some power [over] their own destiny outside of wherever they choose their next destination to be.”

Even with that encouragement, though, Harvey also made it clear that she wants to see midfielders Lavelle and Sonnett back on her roster in 2024.

“I think everyone knows that we really value Rose and Sonnett,” she continued. “They’re a huge part of our team. I think Sonnett’s evolution this year has been exceptional. Rose obviously had a tough year, but you saw that at the back end of the season what she can do. They know that we love them, and we want them to stay here.

Lavelle and Sonnett aren’t the only big names to be tied to Gotham in free agency. Fellow USWNT veteran Crystal Dunn has also been linked to the club, with CBS Sports reporting earlier this month that Gotham, the Orlando Pride and the Washington Spirit all are interested in her services, though The Athletic later reported that the Pride were no longer among the top contenders.

After winning the first NWSL title in franchise history, Gotham lost Ali Krieger to retirement and Ellie Jean and Mandy Haught to trades for expansion draft protection.

OL Reign are up for sale this offseason, which could throw a wrench in their free agency plans. NWSL commissioner Jessica Berman has said that the club should be sold by the end of the year.

The NWSL’s transaction window opened at 9 a.m. ET Saturday. It will remain open until 6 p.m. ET Friday before closing for a holiday break and reopening on Dec. 29.

Rose Lavelle and Emily Sonnett might be unrestricted free agents this NWSL offseason, but that doesn’t mean that OL Reign is going to let them go easily.

On Tuesday, general manager Lesle Gallimore said the club has been in contact with both players “just about daily” since the end of the season. The issue, she noted, was the timeline in relation to the expansion draft. Free agents who are signed prior to the Dec. 15 draft will need to be protected by their clubs – while those who aren’t signed by clubs aren’t eligible to be selected by expansion teams Bay FC and Utah Royals FC.

But head coach Laura Harvey said that she’s been encouraging both players to explore their options in free agency.

“I just think that free agency is something that players should live through,” Harvey said. “I said this last year with our free agents: They should live through it. And I think the expansion draft adds an extra wrinkle to that, that they know that if they’re still free, they can’t be picked.

“So that gives them some power [over] their own destiny outside of wherever they choose their next destination to be.”

Former Portland Thorns star Tobin Heath opened up in the latest episode of “The RE-CAP Show” about being drafted by Racing Louisville in the 2020 expansion draft, which she described as her “biggest heartbreak.” Heath and co-host Christen Press also discussed the impact that the expansion draft can have on players.

“Sometimes players are really excited about it. Sometimes players want to move,” Heath said. “So then there’s the very opposite of that, where maybe there’s a player that has signed a long-term contract with a club, has invested time there, has put down roots there, and they are left unprotected and therefore could be picked up.

“And I think there’s a little bit of chicken and egg that happens, where clubs play some games seeing which players they can leave unprotected and still have the feeling that they won’t get picked.”

The added wrinkle of free agency, which started just last year in the NWSL, has made things interesting. Still, OL Reign hopes to bring both Sonnett and Lavelle back next year, Harvey said.

“I think everyone knows that we really value Rose and Sonnett,” she said. “They’re a huge part of our team. I think Sonnett’s evolution this year has been exceptional. And Rose obviously had a tough year, but you saw that at the back end of the season what she can do.

“They know that we love them, and we want them to stay here. But I do think that every player – and we advise them this – that they should live through free agency and see what it looks like for them.”

The free agency signing period for the 2024 NWSL season has officially begun, with both restricted and unrestricted free agents now able to sign contracts with clubs of their choosing. Unrestricted free agents can sign with new teams immediately, while restricted free agents can also receive matching qualifying offers from their current clubs.

As in last year’s inaugural free agency, the players with the most freedom are established league veterans, and therefore some of the most valuable players in the league. Signings might start slowly due to free agents being exempt from the upcoming two-team expansion draft, but it’s reasonable to expect another league shake-up before the offseason is over.

Here are a few of the best-known free agents in this year’s class, as well as the journey that got them here and what they might do next.

Crystal Dunn, midfielder/forward

After winning an NWSL Championship with the Portland Thorns in 2022, Crystal Dunn announced right as this year’s offseason began that she’ll be moving on to another squad. She joked during the Skills Challenge at 2023 Championship weekend that she was “looking for a job,” and according to her Instagram, she has already moved out of the Pacific Northwest.

Dunn’s decision to tell the public about her plans right away suggests she might be ahead of the game in picking her next destination, whether it be in the NWSL or abroad. Dunn has already played for the Washington Spirit and the North Carolina Courage in her career, and she has family ties on the East Coast. It seems feasible she could choose to join Gotham’s championship-winning midfield, or even listen to an offer from the Orlando Pride, who have an excess amount of allocation money at their disposal.

Rose Lavelle, midfielder

Rose Lavelle has already taken a circuitous route to her first-ever free agency period. She was drafted into the NWSL by the Boston Breakers and moved to the Washington Spirit after her former club folded. She then was traded to OL Reign in 2020 while playing for Manchester City in England, a move she said came as a surprise to her at the time.

Despite the circumstances that landed Lavelle in Seattle, she’s thrived in her time there. The Reign have a consistent midfield that other clubs envy, and when healthy, Lavelle has had the freedom to pull the strings as the team’s midfield maestro under manager Laura Harvey. Her fit with the team was on full display during the Reign’s 2023 NWSL Championship loss, which might encourage the 28-year-old to extend her contract with the club. But Lavelle isn’t afraid to take leaps in her career, and finding a new home abroad or closer to the region of her NWSL beginnings wouldn’t shock anyone.

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Mallory Swanson played just two NWSL games this season after tearing her patella tendon in April. (Daniel Bartel/USA TODAY Sports)

Mallory Swanson, forward

There are a number of reasons to believe that USWNT superstar Mallory Swanson might be open to re-signing with the Chicago Red Stars. Swanson’s husband Dansby is locked into a multi-year contract with the Chicago Cubs, and Swanson herself has flourished upon joining the Red Stars in 2021. Her play in Chicago catapulted her back into the U.S. women’s national team conversation, and she’s been working with their trainers in her slow journey back to the pitch after a patella tendon injury.

But the Red Stars have extensive roster work to do after a last-place finish in 2023, and they don’t currently have a general manager or head coach to make promises to top players who might be worried about the club’s formerly tenuous environment. New ownership appears to be steering the team back on track, but players of Swanson’s caliber will likely have to be reassured that the Red Stars will be contending for the postseason again in the future.

Emily Sonnett, defender/midfielder

Emily Sonnett might be one of the most intriguing free agent prospects in this year’s class. After being drafted by the Portland Thorns in 2016, Sonnett won an NWSL Championship as a center-back with the Washington Spirit in 2021 following a trade from the Orlando Pride (for whom she never actually suited up). Then in 2023, new Spirit manager Mark Parsons abruptly traded Sonnett to OL Reign on NWSL draft day, a move that took the 29-year-old by surprise.

Since joining Seattle, Sonnett has reinvented herself as a player, becoming a steady presence in the defensive midfield, first for the Reign and then on the international stage with the USWNT. Now a free agent, she could slot into any team’s defense or midfield and command space with confidence. As a player who has had to abide by trades in the past, she’s likely looking forward to making her own decision, whether that means staying with the Reign or landing somewhere entirely new.

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María Sánchez's scoring talents were somewhat stifled in Houston this season. (Maria Lysaker/USA TODAY Sports)

María Sánchez, forward

While she is a restricted free agent, María Sánchez is the type of player any NWSL club could shape an attack around. She was originally drafted into the league by the Chicago Red Stars, but hit her stride in Liga MX Femenil, playing for Chivas and then UANL Tigres. She returned to the NWSL with the Houston Dash, first on loan and then full-time at the beginning of the 2022 season. Sánchez is a talented winger, with quality on the ball and the ability to make defenders miss and send solid crosses into teammates in the box.

Despite the talent they’ve compiled, the Dash have struggled under numerous managers to convert their style of play into a compelling attacking structure. Houston scored the fewest goals in 2023, nine fewer than the next-worst attack, even after putting together a high-flying frontline that included Diana Ordoñez and Nichelle Prince. With the Dash again looking for a permanent coach to put all the pieces together, Sánchez might be convinced to extend her time in Texas to see out the roster’s original vision. But it also wouldn’t be surprising if the Mexico national team player has her eye on a club that’s already scoring goals to optimize her potential.

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

Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.

There are few managers more synonymous with success than OL Reign’s Laura Harvey. In a league currently dominated by a constantly moving carousel of open coaching positions, the original manager of the Seattle Reign has endured, leading the team to their first NWSL Championship appearance since 2015.

Known for her humor, candor and proclivity for sitting on an ice cooler in the coach’s box during games, Harvey is already an iconic figure in NWSL history.

When you speak to her players, Harvey’s strengths as a manager are reflected in their words. She’s described by forward Megan Rapinoe as “the best manager I’ve ever had,” and by defender Sofia Huerta as the only coach she’s had that “knows what they’re talking about, and really cares about the players.” Midfielder Jess Fishlock says her managing style is “just successful, man. It works. It’s such a respectful way of working.” And defender Alana Cook says “she looks after us as humans before players.”

All players say that Harvey is the person who sets the culture upon which everything in the locker room is based. And if the Reign win the 2023 NWSL Championship by defeating Gotham FC in San Diego on Saturday, it will be because they leaned further into that culture rather than turned away from it.

Harvey is the longest-tenured coach in the NWSL, even after stepping away from the Reign from 2018-21. NWSL coaching positions as a whole have become difficult jobs to hold in recent years, either due to off-field misconduct or on-field results.

Harvey has the staunch support of her players for the way she treats them off the field, but the Reign also could be rewarded for patience with results over the years. Harvey famously has led the Reign to three NWSL Shields, an honor many on the team feel is more reflective of a truly successful season than the two- or three-game playoff run to the championship. But the team has also become synonymous with struggling in the playoffs, falling to lower seeds in recent years after earning top-two finishes in the regular season.

Consequently, Harvey’s record in knockout matches has seeped into the conversation about her reputation as a manager over time. Prior to 2023, Seattle had won only two playoff matches in the club’s history — two semifinals in 2014 and 2015. In both of those postseasons, the team fell in the championship match to Vlatko Andonovski’s FC Kansas City, and until this year had not registered another postseason win despite making the semifinals every single season from 2018-22.

Harvey’s knockout record (and her old coaching battles with Andonovski) have followed her, especially after Andonovski was named manager of the U.S. women’s national team in 2019. Harvey, who’d made the jump to become a coach at the U.S. development level in 2018, was considered a contender for the USWNT job after Jill Ellis stepped down in the aftermath of the 2019 World Cup victory. But Andonovski had the consistent record in playoff matches, one of the closest equivalents to international tournament play available at the domestic level.

Fast forward to 2023, and Harvey’s name again was in the mix for the USWNT job after Andonovski struggled to continue the program’s history of excellence with a disappointing Olympic and World Cup run. And once again, the well-respected Seattle coach appears to be left on the shortlist, with reports indicating that the job will go to current Chelsea manager Emma Hayes instead. Hayes, like Harvey, has a history of excellence at the club level, but she also has domestic knockout tournament wins in the FA Cup.

So if the Reign appear to go out of their way to win for their manager on Saturday, the intensity is warranted. The Reign have doubled their playoff win count in 2023, with two assertive victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals. And Harvey’s players have been steadfast in their desire to get over the top of that one final hill and earn their manager the respect they feel she deserves.

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(Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

“I actually think a lot of people still underrate Laura Harvey as a coach anyway, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I don’t understand what else she needs to do,” says Fishlock, who has played for the Reign since their founding in 2013. “Laura has a structure. She knows what she wants, she has her principles, but within that she has fluidity.”

The Reign are known to play some of the most beautiful, free-flowing soccer in the league, stringing long series of passes together to find an opening in the opponent’s defense and put the ball in the back of the net. They’re also strong defensively, with well-drilled pressing triggers that can set an opponent on their heels.

That consistency has been a clear asset to the Reign’s ability to rule the regular season, but Harvey’s players similarly credit their communication structure and steady principles with their ability to execute in the postseason.

“She’s very tactical but also is able to put together a really good group or lineup per game, depending on who shines,” says Emily Sonnett, who has flourished as a holding midfielder for the club after spending most of her professional career as a defender.

She credits the Reign coaching staff with not overcomplicating the game plan, a helpful tool when a player is getting used to a new position: “Laura and the coaching staff have done a really good job of each game [asking] ‘What is actually needed, and can we accomplish that?”

Harvey communicates with the team through her leaders, notably the Reign’s original three of Fishlock, Rapinoe and defender Lauren Barnes.

“She doesn’t really have an ego like that, and really wants that collaboration, and really relies especially on us older players to be her lieutenants out there,” says Rapinoe, who says she wants her final professional game to be a win for her manager almost more than she wants it for herself. “She’s always pulling us in and wanting our opinion, and allowing us the space to be f—ing annoying and ask a million questions all the time. But she empowers us to do that.”

Both the Reign’s desire to win and the tools are clearly there, and have been for years. But the players’ execution of the game plan, Rapinoe says, has let Harvey down in the past more than her own preparation as a coach.

“The thing about Laura, she’s always gonna get up and own the entire loss,” Rapinoe says. “But I think a lot of the knockout games, we’ve just played terrible and haven’t shown up as players.”

“I think being a coach is really difficult,” Huerta echoes. “It’s really hard to have success as a coach, because when the team loses, it’s your fault. [But] the team wins, and the players played amazing. I think it’s hard to be in that position. There’s a lot of turnover, I don’t think a lot of people are on your side. But we’re on Laura’s side. She’s a good coach, she’s really one of the main reasons we’re here.”

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(Michael Thomas Shroyer/USA TODAY Sports)

Harvey’s principles have guided the Reign to this point, but it’s their newfound ability to play a less beautiful, more punishing style that the team feels could earn them the trophy they’ve long been searching for.

“This year, I don’t think really anybody on the outside envisioned us being in the finals,” says midfielder Rose Lavelle. “And I think we maybe had more of a chip on our shoulder that helped us get here.”

To win an NWSL Championship, the Reign will have to be willing to endure touchy passages of play and lean into their defensive identity against the consistently dangerous Gotham FC attack.

“I think obviously you want entertainment, you want goals, you want flair,” says Cook. “But I think we can make our living on just being solid in that regard and being organized, being hard to break down.”

In other words, it’s possible that this version of OL Reign looks and plays more like a knockout-round winner than any other Reign team in the past. Through injury and absence, they’ve found a toughness that hasn’t always been a part of their identity.

“I think just the overall grit and discipline of the squad this year took a really big step, which is really necessary,” says Rapinoe.

With newfound confidence in their ability to weather the storm, the Reign feel ready to prove they can join the ranks of NWSL champions and forever take the asterisk off the legacy of their manager. Because in the NWSL final, it doesn’t always have to be pretty — you just have to end on a win.

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

Preview the 2023 NWSL Championship by tuning into the Just Women’s Sports Super Show Presented by State Farm, featuring surprise guest appearances by NWSL stars. Watch here.

The NWSL Championship will bring plenty of buzz. But “the most exciting NWSL players aren’t going to be in the final,” Christen Press said on a recent episode of “The RE-CAP Show.”

No. 4 OL Reign will meet No. 6 Gotham FC in the NWSL Championship at 8 p.m. ET Saturday — a game that will prominently feature Megan Rapinoe, 38, and Ali Krieger, 39, as they finish their legendary careers.

Press and co-host Tobin Heath are happy for “elder millennials” Rapinoe and Krieger, but they are “done with retirement games,” as Heath stated on the podcast.

“I want to see the best players in their prime, and the best players that are coming up, and right now, I don’t see any of those two things in this final,” she said.

In the same episode, Press and Heath discussed the playoff format and how it may negatively affect players that had a first-round bye or had to leave training to fulfill U.S. women’s national team duties. The two top-seeded teams — the San Diego Wave and Portland Thorns — fell in the semifinals after long periods of not playing together, making room for the lower-seeded Reign and Gotham in the championship match.

Yet while none of the five NWSL MVP nominees will appear in the final, Press and Heath did give the players and teams who did reach this point their due. They pointed to Gotham forward Lynn Williams and Reign midfielder Emily Sonnett as potential game changers.

Heath highlighted Rapinoe and Krieger’s retirements, which give the match a great storyline. And both were excited that this tournament will end with a first-time NWSL champion. Press and Heath missed the 2023 season with injuries, but Heath won two NWSL titles with the Portland Thorns, and both played with Rapinoe and Krieger on the 2019 USWNT World Cup squad.

“Really, really interesting obviously, two teams that have never won a championship that, for the first time ever, they’ll make history and that’s so exciting,” Heath said. “If you look at a player like Pinoe and Krieger, they both have never won an NWSL Championship either. So it’s huge, one of them is going to do something at the end of their career for the first time.”

The NWSL has announced its expansion draft for Bay FC and Utah Royals FC, but there appears to be an important loophole: unsigned free agents aren’t available for selection.

The 12-round draft, which will be held at 7 p.m. ET Friday, Dec. 15, features rules similar to past expansion drafts, with teams permitted to protect nine players. Players with a “no trade” clause are required to be protected by their club — and if one of the expansion teams selects a player from a team’s roster, that team is allowed to protect one additional player.

With free agents exempt from the draft, though, teams could wait to sign players until after Dec. 15. Top unrestricted free agents include Rose Lavelle of OL Reign, Crystal Dunn of the Portland Thorns and Sarah Gorden of Angel City FC. By waiting to sign a new contract, their teams would not have to protect them.

Several teams have a large number of free agents. The Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash have 10 free agents each, while Gotham FC has eight, as do the Portland Thorns and Angel City FC.

There are 75 total players eligible for free agency this offseason.

Top unrestricted free agents include:

  • Tierna Davidson, Chicago Red Stars
  • Crystal Dunn, Portland Thorns
  • Sarah Gorden, Angel City FC
  • Casey Krueger, Chicago Red Stars
  • Savannah McCaskill, Angel City FC
  • Rose Lavelle, OL Reign
  • Emily Sonnett, OL Reign
  • Mallory Swanson, Chicago Red Stars

Top restricted free agents include:

  • Emina Ekic, Racing Louisville
  • Emily Fox, North Carolina Courage
  • Madison Hammond, Angel City FC

Sophia Smith, Becky Sauerbrunn and Alex Morgan are among the 13 players at the U.S. women’s national team’s October training camp still competing in the NWSL playoffs.

All those players are seeking to strike a balance between focusing on their national team duties and staying sharp for the NWSL semifinals on Nov. 5. Smith, Sauerbrunn and the Portland Thorns will take on Lynn Williams and Gotham FC, while Morgan and the San Diego Wave will face Emily Sonnett and OL Reign.

Other players competing in the postseason include: Sam Coffey, Crystal Dunn and Olivia Moultrie with Portland; Naomi Girma and Jaedyn Shaw with San Diego; Midge Purce with Gotham FC; and Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta with OL Reign.

“You come into camp and it’s so busy because you have so many different meetings — a set piece meeting, a defenders meeting,” Sauerbrunn said after Thursday’s scoreless draw with Colombia. “And so you’re just trying to remember, OK, these are the national team tactics. And then you get back to Portland and it’s like you’ve got to relearn everything that Portland was doing. And so it is really tough.

“You have to be wherever you are and give it everything that you’ve got with the team that you’re with. But it can be really tough because, I’m so excited to be back with Portland as well, but also I really want to beat Colombia in a few days.”

The USWNT will face Colombia again at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday to finish out the two-match friendly series.

The U.S. coaching staff is aware of its players’ dual priorities, and they are “managing minutes with players in different parts of the NWSL season,” interim head coach Twila Kilgore said Thursday.

“The key is just that when they do go in, that they make a difference that they’re asked to make,” Kilgore said.

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.