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.”

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.

(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.”

(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.

Rose Lavelle was available Sunday for OL Reign’s final regular-season game – but only if the team really needed her.

The 28-year-old midfielder continues to build back from a leg injury she has been nursing since before the 2023 World Cup. She played in just four regular-season matches for OL Reign in 2023.

While Lavelle played near full minutes in two matches late in the season, on Aug. 27 and Sept. 3, before that she had not played for the club since April 1. She picked up what was described as “a little knock” during a friendly for the U.S. women’s national team in April, and she has been dealing with the injury since then.

“Rose was sort of there if we desperately needed her to be there, and thankfully we didn’t,” OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey said after Sunday’s 3-0 win. “I know she was still running (on the field) after the game so that we can keep her ticking over in preparation for Friday.”

OL Reign will host Angel City FC in the first round of the postseason at 10 p.m. ET Friday. The match will be streamed on Paramount Plus.

Harvey also noted that Lavelle was not going to see the field Sunday unless the team absolutely needed her in the must-win match. But a brace from Megan Rapinoe helped seal the victory over the Chicago Red Stars and the Reign’s spot in the playoffs.

Sofia Huerta, who exited the USWNT’s September training camp with a hamstring injury, did play in Sunday’s game, subbing on for the final 21 minutes.

“We always knew that if we were gonna get Rose on the field tonight, it was going to be a last-ditch effort. You know, we need to score or whatever,” Harvey said. “They’re both progressing well. I think when you come in, back off the injuries that they’ve got and it’s this time of the season, you maybe go about things differently than you would if you were in the middle of it and you might (have), you know, 12 games to go.”

The U.S. women’s national team is abruptly moving into a new cycle, as it tries to shrug off a disappointing World Cup campaign and bounce back at the 2024 Olympic Games. The team has yet to name an official successor to head coach Vlatko Andonovski, and all assumptions about the USWNT player pool are off while the team resets.

A number of players on the World Cup roster this summer didn’t get the opportunities they perhaps deserved, but that doesn’t mean the future isn’t still bright for the four-time World Cup champions. So, what comes next for the USWNT’s bench players?

Let’s take a look at how they are currently contributing to their club teams, and why they’re still in the mix for permanent USWNT roster spots.

Ashley Sanchez, M, Washington Spirit

Sanchez explained to the media upon her World Cup return that she was a bit surprised by her role at the tournament. “Let’s just say the role [I was told I would fill] was not what I played,” she told the Washington Post after returning to the Spirit.

Sanchez is a player who can exploit space as both an attacker and a playmaker and isn’t afraid to take shots on goal. She made that clear with a ripper of a goal just 40 seconds into her first game back with Washington. Under Andonovski, Sanchez was frequently asked to sit on the backline of the USWNT’s opponent and as an additional attacker rather than a traditional midfielder. The finishing pressures placed on the player in that role have never suited Sanchez, who thrives when she has the freedom to collaborate with teammates like Trinity Rodman. As the U.S. works out its midfield shape, allowing Sanchez to create her own space will be paramount.

Alana Cook, D, OL Reign

Cook had one of the USWNT’s strangest World Cup experiences. After carrying the most minutes of any U.S. field player in 2022, she never saw the field at the World Cup, abruptly dropped in place of Julie Ertz at center-back. She’s since returned to a starting role at OL Reign, as she further develops her club partnership with Sam Hiatt.

Cook is a talented player who has struggled with the timing of the game at the international level. The Reign are currently battling for NWSL playoff position, sitting just above the playoff line and five points away from the top of the league table. The team is also on a two-game regular season losing streak heading into September, with an urgency to shore up their formation in defensive transition. Cook is now in the difficult position of needing to step up for her team at home without having gained the playing experience of a World Cup.

Alyssa Thompson was the youngest player on the U.S. World Cup team at 18 years old. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

Alyssa Thompson, F, Angel City

Alyssa Thompson didn’t feature much for the U.S. during the World Cup, but she perhaps returned to a better situation at the club level than the one she left. Angel City is undefeated in nine games under interim manager Becki Tweed, rising in the NWSL standings and pushing for the club’s first-ever playoff berth.

Thompson has seen some of her scoring responsibilities lessened by the Angel City midfield and the team’s newfound tenacity on set pieces. She continues to stretch defenses with her speed and positioning, while benefiting from a team no longer dependent on getting her the ball on the dribble to have a shot at creating quality chances. The best-case scenario for Thompson is that she continues to grow in her rookie season without the weight of a playoff spot on her shoulders, and so far Angel City is succeeding.

Emily Sonnett, D/M, OL Reign

Emily Sonnett played the part of a World Cup hero in the USWNT’s Round of 16 matchup against Sweden. The 29-year-old has mostly excelled as a center-back at the professional level but also has experience at defensive midfield. After short stints at outside back for the U.S., Sonnett rediscovered her No. 6 roots when Andonovski turned to her unexpectedly to partner with Andi Sullivan and help shore up the team’s shaky formation in the knockout stage.

She has since returned to a Reign team that is firmly set on Cook and Hiatt as their center-backs, and she will likely continue to develop as a defensive midfielder as the Reign jockey for playoff position. Sonnett filled in for an injured Quinn in the early stages of OL Reign’s 2023 regular season, using her natural ability to command space from the midfield. She most recently paired with Quinn in a double-pivot shape, showing the respect she has earned as a midfielder in a very short period of time.

Sofia Huerta, D, OL Reign

Sofia Huerta didn’t see much of the field during the 2023 World Cup, as Andonovski took a conservative approach to his defense. The Reign defender is one of the most reliable contributors in the NWSL, bringing quality on the ball in attacking areas and the ability to drop crosses into the box on a dime. She likely doesn’t need further development as a player nor a confidence boost to be in the mix for the USWNT in 2024. She’ll always be a fair option for a USWNT call-up, depending on how the new coach wants the team to play.

Lynn Williams' usage was questioned after she played in just two games at the World Cup. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

Lynn Williams, F, Gotham FC

Lynn Williams’ vulnerability as part of the USWNT player pool has never made much sense. Her understanding of the team’s defensive pressing triggers are better than almost any other available player. She can fit into both wide and central spaces, and she can thrive in high-volume shooting schemes and in taking key chances without controlling possession.

Williams is a legitimate NWSL Golden Boot and MVP candidate in her first season with Gotham. The forward should be a valued part of the USWNT’s plans going forward, rather than held at arm’s length by the program, as she has been in the past.

Kristie Mewis, M, Gotham FC

Kristie Mewis has always shown flashes of sophistication at the international level that she’s never had significant time to develop. Mewis is known as a galvanizing locker room presence and a versatile midfielder who can slot into a number of roles as a substitute. She also brings quality on set-piece delivery, and yet hasn’t been given many of those opportunities nor been relied upon to hone one particular position.

Mewis was a starting midfielder for what was arguably the USWNT’s best win in 2023, a 1-0 victory over Japan at the SheBelieves Cup. She was able to combat Japan’s quick-trigger possession approach with her defensive positioning to keep them off the scoresheet. Mewis’ prowess in that moment only takes on greater weight after the World Cup, where Japan was one of the best teams before losing to Sweden in the quarterfinals, and should be considered in future USWNT evaluation.

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

U.S. women’s national team veteran Julie Ertz announced her retirement from professional soccer Thursday, and her teammates wasted no time in celebrating her career.

From retired champions Carli Lloyd and Ali Krieger to rising stars Mallory Swanson and Alyssa Thompson, U.S. players from throughout Ertz’s 10 years with the national team sung her praises. Ertz, 31, received her first cap in 2013 and her last at the 2023 World Cup.

Lloyd, who played with Ertz until her own retirement in 2021, applauded her work ethic in a post on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter. Lloyd and Ertz were both members of the 2015 and 2019 World Cup-winning squads.

“Honored to have played with you and train with you during our offseasons!” she wrote. “You gave it your all every single training/game and represented the crest with pride, honor and the mindset needed to help the team achieve success! You will be missed! Congrats on an amazing career.”

Many other players commented on Ertz’s Instagram post announcing her retirement.

Thompson, 18, just played in her first World Cup with the USWNT. She also played alongside Ertz this season with NWSL club Angel City FC.

“Such a legend and a role model,” Thompson wrote. “Thank you Julie.”

Krieger wrote: “Congrats! So grateful to know you and play alongside you over the years. I hope this next chapter is more than you could have ever imagined!”

Swanson commented: “Congrats Jules! Very thankful for our time together! This game will miss you!!”

Abby Dahlkemper shared a similar message, writing: “Congrats Jules! It was an honor to share the field with you.”

And Sofia Huerta kept it simple, commenting: “Julesss!!! ❤️❤️❤️ I love u”

The U.S. women’s national team advanced to the Round of 16 in auspicious fashion on Tuesday, finishing second in Group E following a 0-0 draw with tournament debutantes Portugal. The USWNT made it through the group stage undefeated, but scored only four goals in three games and compiled their lowest World Cup points total in team history after two consecutive draws.

The message after the match from head coach Vlatko Andonvoski and his players was about the importance of surviving and advancing, but the reigning World Champions now have a more difficult path to the World Cup final. They’ll likely face longtime rivals Sweden in their first knockout-round match, with more than a few adjustments needing to be made.

The good news for the U.S. is that they have yet to lose a match while underperforming, but they’re running out of time to fix glaring issues. Here are a few main takeaways from a sloppy, scoreless draw that nonetheless set the stage for the rest of the tournament.

Formational regression hangs players out to dry

No individual players for the USWNT looked sharp against Portugal, but they also were not aided by formational issues that have plagued the U.S. since the start of 2022. Since the Tokyo Olympics, Vlatko Andonovski has been trying to figure out the best combination of formation and personnel to round out the team’s midfield, especially during Julie Ertz’s prolonged absence.

In the middle stages of that key development year, the U.S. tried to slot Andi Sullivan into Ertz’s role in a 4-3-3 formation that prioritized pushing two midfielders forward to aid the attack. Against Concacaf competition in World Cup qualifying, there was logic behind this approach, as the U.S. was tasked with breaking down low-block defenses. Ultimately, the approach worked, even if the USWNT didn’t look like their best selves for much of that tournament.

But the lesson the USWNT should have learned from their tough slate of friendlies against England, Spain and Germany in the latter half of 2022 is that Sullivan needs a defensive partner against similarly balanced midfields. The U.S. adjusted into a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Lindsey Horan and sometimes Rose Lavelle helping occupy defensive space and distribute the ball through the spine of the midfield.

Strangely, in the World Cup group stage, the USWNT lined up in the former setup rather than the latter, despite in-game data showing that two of their opponents were unlikely to sit and wait for the U.S. to attack. The approach might have made some sense against Vietnam, but the Netherlands were clearly coming into the second match with a packed midfield as part of their three-back system. Portugal, likewise, had defensive players step forward to neutralize the U.S. midfield with relative ease.

Scouting abnormalities can be forgiven; it’s the other team’s job to surprise and create problems that the USWNT isn’t anticipating. But Andonovski’s reluctance to adjust to losing the numbers and possession battle in the midfield has placed more strain on individual players than necessary. Against the Netherlands, the U.S. found a second gear to make the system work for them. But against Portugal, the mental fatigue of holding an uneasy shape began to show as players tired.

The shape does not suit Sullivan, who has continued to start in the defensive midfield despite the team’s struggle to move the ball. On Tuesday, the USWNT was relegated to moving the ball in a horseshoe motion from the backline out to the wings, where defensive overloads quickly shifted possession back in Portugal’s favor. Players were so locked into the system that they couldn’t find their open teammates.

Andonovski might be saving a surprise shift to a 4-2-3-1 for the knockout rounds, but more deft adjustments in the group stage might have given the USWNT a better chance at finishing on top. He might also slot Ertz back into the defensive midfield, but with Alana Cook failing to see the field in the team’s first three games, the team’s cohesion is at risk.

Lynn Williams started in place of Trinity Rodman against Portugal, but the USWNT still lacked finishing ability. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

Continued lack of trust in the bench

After calling for only one substitute against the Netherlands, Andonovski made two changes to his starting XI against Portugal, starting Lynn Williams in the frontline and Lavelle in the midfield. Williams made an immediate impact, but her relative freshness compared to Sophia Smith and Alex Morgan’s fatigue actually added to the lack of cohesion on the frontline, rather than alleviating it.

Lavelle similarly provided a spark but also paid for trying to bring an edge to the midfield, picking up her second yellow card of the tournament that will require her to sit out the USWNT’s Round of 16 match. The rest of the squad appeared to suffer for lack of rest, with both physical and mental fatigue playing a role in the team’s tepid approach to ball progression and chance creation.

When Andonovski compiled this World Cup roster, he had a clear idea of his starters, his depth players and his specialists. After three games, it seems clear his trust mostly lies with his set starters, as those on the bench continue to fight for minutes. Megan Rapinoe made a substitution appearance against Portugal, but her defensive limitations at this stage in her career makes it difficult to start her and relieve some of the pressure on Smith. Sofia Huerta has not gotten much time on the field either, despite being called in to unlock tight, low-scoring games with her service — something the U.S. has struggled with in all three matches.

Instead, Andonovski brought on Emily Sonnett in a 5-4-1 formational shift that saw the U.S. concede more chances in second-half stoppage time than in the rest of the match. He has now locked the USWNT into a process of their own making, with starters who are tiring and substitutes who have not gotten enough World Cup minutes to step in and feel comfortable. It’s the same dilemma that led to Savannah DeMelo getting two quick World Cup starts after just her first cap with the team.

The approach may have been forgiven if the team had gotten all three points against the Netherlands, allowing for heavy rotation in their third match. But in a tournament decided by the finest of margins, the U.S. has now perhaps pushed too hard for results that never came, making the climb ahead of them even steeper.

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

The U.S. women’s national team will round out their 2023 World Cup group stage campaign against Portugal at 3 a.m. ET on Tuesday, likely needing to win and retain their +2 goal differential over the Netherlands to advance out of Group E in first place.

The USWNT’s group-stage performances have not mirrored their difficulties at the Tokyo Olympics, but the reigning World Champions did not look dominant against the Dutch, leaving room for Portugal to spoil their plans. With very little rotation through two games, head coach Vlatko Andonovski will need to weigh his lineup changes carefully to both secure a win and manage player fitness for the prospective knockout rounds.

Adjustments will come at a premium, and nothing in this tournament is guaranteed. Here are some of the decisions facing Andonovski as he sets his starting lineup for Game 3.

Dynamism in the attack

Andonovski made the decision to use just one substitute against the Netherlands, building Rose Lavelle’s minutes from 27 in the tournament opener to a full second half. He left four other available subs on the board despite not changing his starting lineup, raising fitness questions for a matchup in which the U.S. needs to earn all three points to retain their place atop Group E.

Andonovski’s gamble will come at a price, meaning the balance of retaining continuity while not burning out key starters could take precedence over any tactical tweaks he wants to explore. Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman showed fatigue at different points of the USWNT’s 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, indicating they might need to be relieved on the wings in order to be fresh for a Round of 16 game. The most obvious replacements would be Lynn Williams and Alyssa Thompson, both of whom are capable of burning a backline.

But straight-up replacements for the wingers would mean the team needs another start from 34-year-old Alex Morgan at center forward. Morgan has had to cover a lot of ground as both a striker and a playmaker in the team’s first two matches, and there’s no exact replacement for her on the USWNT’s bench, though Williams can line up centrally as well.

Too much change all at once can be detrimental to attacking cohesion, which the U.S. has been developing through the group stage. Andonovski will likely prefer to retain at least one of the players from his favored front three, depending on who is the most fit to continue. This match should also be a good opportunity for Megan Rapinoe to make an impact off the bench and provide service that was sometimes missing against the Dutch.

Balance in the midfield

With the U.S.’s midfield looking less than convincing against the Dutch, Andonovski might prefer to insert Lavelle into the starting lineup while keeping Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan in their same roles. Savannah DeMelo has performed admirably in two starts in the attacking midfield despite her international inexperience, combining well with the attack to get the ball into dangerous areas.

But there’s still no one quite as adept at controlling the USWNT’s creativity like Lavelle, who has been a game-changer in both of her appearances thus far. If she’s available for anywhere near 60 minutes against Portugal, she could be the difference between a fast start and a match that turns into a grinding result.

Horan’s star turn as the savior against the Netherlands likely only solidifies Andonovski’s desire to rely on the Olympique Lyon midfielder, but she will also need to save her legs for a potentially deep run in the knockout rounds. Even if Horan and Sullivan start the match, the U.S. coach should be more willing to insert a player like Kristie Mewis or Ashley Sanchez into the midfield later in the match.

Naomi Girma has partnered well with Julie Ertz at center-back despite their inexperience together. (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Control in the defense

The U.S. has faced only one shot on goal so far in the tournament, with Jill Roord’s strike to pull the Netherlands ahead in Game 2 the only blemish against the backline. Julie Ertz and Naomi Girma have looked comfortable as center-back partners despite their relative lack of time together, and Emily Fox and Crystal Dunn have been given room to problem-solve from the outside-back positions.

Now, Andonovski has to make sure his starters don’t lose their sharpness, nor sacrifice the communication and chemistry they have been building. The center-backs present an intriguing issue, since inserting Alana Cook would theoretically relieve Ertz instead of Girma — Girma plays on the left of the formation, with Cook and Ertz’s experience coming on the right. If Andonovski wants to give the young Girma time to rest, he’d likely have to either shift Ertz to the left or start Emily Sonnett alongside Cook.

The team’s outside-back options are slightly more straightforward, with Sofia Huerta an option on the right, Fox to the left and Kelley O’Hara on either side. Huerta can hurt a backline with her precise crossing ability and might be a good fit for a game against a team like Portugal in a mid-block formation. But Portugal also has players who are dangerous on the ball in transition, which might lend itself to a more pragmatic approach with O’Hara on the right and Fox on the left.

Projected starting lineup

GK: Alyssa Naeher

D: Sofia Huerta, Julie Ertz, Naomi Girma, Emily Fox

M: Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle

F: Lynn Williams, Alex Morgan, Alyssa Thompson

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

The U.S. opened their 2023 World Cup campaign with a comfortable 3-0 win over Vietnam on Saturday afternoon in Auckland, keeping the game under control in a quality — if not perfect — performance.

Vietnam came into the match in a 5-4-1 formation, holding numbers in front of their own goal to deny the USWNT space to execute their attack. Vietnam’s fierce commitment to the approach kept the U.S. from nearing their 13-goal output against Thailand in 2019. The reigning World Champions’ lineup also featured a handful of players making their major tournament debuts.

With a blockbuster matchup against the Netherlands coming into view, here are three takeaways from the USWNT’s opening World Cup victory.

The new kids can hang

Sophia Smith contributed to all three goals scored by the U.S. on the night, scoring two and assisting on one. She rightfully took Player of the Match honors, with her calm on the ball belying her relative major tournament inexperience. Smith and 21-year-old Trinity Rodman looked unafraid to play with freedom, often getting to the endline to try to find the feet of their teammates.

Smith also handled the physicality of the game well, a skill that only comes with international experience. The game was officiated somewhat oddly, with long stoppages in play and a lack of consistency as to what constitutes a foul. Smith and Rodman took the challenge in stride, never losing their composure when the match got chippy or delayed.

Other quieter debuts were nonetheless impressive. Emily Fox and Naomi Girma looked comfortable in defense, putting out fires and combining with the midfield when necessary (Vietnam did not register a shot or even enter the U.S. penalty area). Alyssa Thompson and Sofia Huerta added energy off the bench, threatening to add to the USWNT’s scoreline.

Midfielder Savannah DeMelo looked fearless, starting her first World Cup game in just her second USWNT cap. She combined well with Rodman and Fox, and made runs that gave the U.S. extra attacking options as they tried to unlock the organized Vietnam defense. With so many players dealing with nerves on the pitch, the USWNT as a whole looked remarkably assured.

Finding room for Julie Ertz

When Julie Ertz returned to the USWNT for the first time in over two years, the natural assumption was that she’d be the answer to the team’s defensive midfield concerns. Ertz anchored the midfield that won the World Cup in 2019 and offered an emergency replacement while still coming back from injury at the Tokyo Olympics.

So when Ertz lined up alongside Naomi Girma in the central defense against Vietnam, the thinking behind the move wasn’t entirely clear.

It’s possible that Ertz came in as an early rotational move, with the understanding that Alana Cook will return to the backline against the Netherlands. But it’s also possible that Ertz might partner with Girma throughout the tournament. U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not say after the game whether Ertz would remain in the role for upcoming games.

If Ertz is performing anywhere near the level of the player she was before she took time away, she needs to be on the field for the U.S. — having her come in as a backup No. 6 behind Andi Sullivan isn’t a good use of her talent. And with veteran center-back Becky Sauerbrunn missing the tournament, Ertz’s calm head and ability to disrupt play and send piercing diagonal balls forward might lend themselves to a last-minute audible few expected.

Ertz was excellent against Vietnam, working well with Girma and making her patented dangerous runs on set pieces. Where she lines up against the Netherlands will be illuminating.

The same old nagging problems persist

Some of the same issues that have plagued the U.S. in Andonovski’s tenure popped up in their first World Cup game. The team lacked a certain amount of patience in the final third, with a number of quality build-up sequences ending up in the stands or ricocheting off a defender. With goal differential at a premium in their group, opportunities left on the table could come back to haunt the U.S.

The USWNT also struggled to bring urgency to the second half. After taking a 2-0 lead, they slowed the tempo down instead of pushing to extend a scoreline they should not have been satisfied with. Vietnam didn’t push numbers forward frequently, but when they did, the U.S. was not quick to counter, often resetting play to allow their opponent to regain their defensive shape and get numbers behind the ball. The U.S. has had trouble pushing tempo under Andonovski in the past, all too often relying on lofted crosses in the air to try to find separation.

The rest of the team’s weaknesses occurred in the margins of a choppy game and against a tenacious defense. Many times, players’ passes forward rolled out of reach of their intended targets in the final third, and dribbling sequences lasted too long to deliver a quality ball to a teammate. With Megan Rapinoe’s minutes limited, Alex Morgan took a penalty attempt she’ll want back, showcasing how human the U.S. can look during dead-ball situations without their longtime PK taker.

Despite a vast advantage in both fitness and depth, the U.S. could not turn their substitutes into effective scorers as they pushed for more goals late in the match. Winning Group E could define the USWNT’s World Cup, and they let an opportunity to set themselves up at a goal advantage slip through their hands.

Andonovski’s U.S. has faced criticism of doing just enough to advance, rather than grabbing games and running away with them. A 3-0 result against an overmatched opponent won’t move them further away from that perception. The U.S. midfield looked more assured when Rose Lavelle entered for the final half hour of the match and gave them a sense of cohesion to build upon.

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

It was a long time coming, but Sofia Huerta was finally content.

She’d spent years agonizing over call-ups and camps. Her career, she thought, was made or broken by whether or not she wore a United States women’s national team jersey.

Huerta played for two years on the Mexican national team before deciding to represent the U.S. instead. From 2017-18, Huerta made seven appearances for the USWNT. Then, things came to a halt.

It crushed her.

After nearly a year and a half of absences, with a global pandemic thrown in the mix, Huerta started to work with a life coach and a sports psychologist. Slowly, they built Huerta back up. Slowly, she came to see her career as a success. She hadn’t been a mainstay on the national team and she hadn’t played in a World Cup. But Sofia Huerta — from Boise, Idaho, with Mexican roots to match her last name — was a success. She had an eight-year professional soccer career to prove it.

“I needed to redefine the definition of success, and I needed to change the narrative,” she said. “Just because I’m not on the national team doesn’t mean I’m not successful. It doesn’t mean I’m not a great player.”

So as the 2023 World Cup approached and Huerta received call-ups, the process didn’t hold as much weight. The idea of playing on the USWNT was still a dream, but it no longer held her back. If she didn’t make the final roster, Huerta would be content.

“I really started working on staying present,” Huerta said. “Not thinking about the past, not thinking about the future, just thinking about today. It just makes things easier on yourself, easier on the mind.”

She’d walk her dogs and enjoy her new partnership with Lotto, an Italian sportswear company she grew up admiring and now represents as a brand ambassador for their U.S. crossover partnership with DICK’s Sporting Goods, announced Friday. She’d play for the NWSL’s OL Reign, a team she says “changed her life” when she signed with them in 2020.

“I just focused on the Reign and being the best I can be for them,” Huerta said. “Because ultimately, that is going to have me playing my best soccer, which is what would get me called up for the World Cup.”

And if she didn’t represent the United States, it would be OK. Huerta felt free knowing that.

“I’m just playing and having fun,” Huerta said a few days before the U.S. roster drop. “Because ultimately, it’s Vlatko’s decision. It’s out of my hands. I just have to keep doing what I’m doing, and hopefully, he will choose me.”

Huerta switched to outside back full-time when she got to OL Reign in 2020. (Stephen Brashear/USA TODAY Sports)

He did.

As soon as Huerta let go, the national team came back to her. The universe is funny that way.

Huerta was selected as one of seven defenders to the 23-player World Cup roster representing the U.S. in New Zealand and Australia this summer. Outside back is not her natural position, but rather one she’s made her own through hard work and faith.

The 30-year-old started out as a forward, playing her college soccer at Santa Clara and the beginning of her NWSL career with the Chicago Red Stars and Houston Dash in the attack and midfield. But eventually, it was clear that Huerta had a knack for defense, and the USWNT had a need. If she was going to make the roster, Huerta would have to make the switch full-time.

Huerta thought she would when she was traded to Houston from Chicago in 2018. Instead, she spent most of her minutes playing midfield. Finally, when Huerta got to the Reign, she moved to defense.

Despite the chaos, constantly shuffling positions made Huerta stronger. And now with the USWNT, she is considered an irreplaceable crossing specialist.

“At this point, I have nothing to lose because I’ve been told no so many times in my career,” she said. “Being pushed out and then coming back up creates a lot of strength in itself. But I think at this point, my mentality is a lot less anxiety and a lot more excitement. I appreciate where I am as a player now.”

When the United States opens World Cup play on Friday against Vietnam, Huerta will be there, representing two communities.

The first is Idaho, and all the rural communities where kids still dream of playing soccer but don’t always have the resources to do so. Huerta was always a talented soccer player, but there were no club teams nearby, and her family couldn’t afford the big price tag that came with sending her to college showcases.

“My career has not been easy, whatsoever,” Huerta said. “I was never with youth teams. It hasn’t been linear, hasn’t been a guarantee. That’s what makes my journey so unique, and I love to be a representation for people who feel like that.”

(Courtesy of Anthony Mandler)

Huerta, 30, is also proud to represent the Latinx community. Showcasing that part of her identity has always been a priority, but became even more of one when she left the Mexican national team.

Wearing “Huerta” on her jersey is the ultimate honor for the defender. She’s one of two Mexican-Americans on the national team, along with midfielder Ashley Sanchez. Her name represents her father, who has been her biggest source of inspiration, and her heritage.

“I think it’s important for that community of young boys and girls to see that name, and know that they can do what I do,” Huerta said. “I represent those who don’t have an easy journey.”

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

Sofia Huerta knows her selection to the USWNT roster for the 2023 World Cup tells a story of dedication and persistence.

“I’ve faced a lot of adversity in my career and there were definitely times where I wasn’t sure if it was going to be possible for me to be named to a World Cup roster or Olympic roster,” the defender said after OL Reign’s 2-1 win over the San Diego Wave on Saturday.

“Going to my first big tournament at (age) 30, it feels crazy, but it just shows that I have a lot of perseverance and resilience.”

Huerta made her international debut at the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup as a member of Mexico’s roster, a decision she made after she wasn’t named to the U.S. team for the tournament. She went on to record five caps for Mexico’s senior national team, but in 2017, she officially switched her national affiliation with the goal of representing the United States.

She recorded her first cap for the U.S. on March 7, 2018, but then found herself left off of national team rosters for more than three years. While Huerta aimed to compete for the U.S. as an outside back, she instead found herself playing as an attacker in the NWSL, first for the Chicago Red Stars and then for the Houston Dash.

Huerta credits her trade to the Reign in 2020 and Laura Harvey’s return in 2021 with changing her trajectory.

“When I got to the Reign, it was just easier to have more freedom and play the way that I knew how, especially when Laura took over and put me at outside back,” Huerta explained.

“I’m proud of myself, for sure, but it’s not a coincidence that I’ve been selected (for the World Cup) now that I play on the Reign.”