Former NWSL player is first woman to coach men’s soccer team to NCAA title
Julianne Sitch played for the Chicago Red Stars.
The U.S. women’s national team is gearing up for Nov. 27 and 30 friendlies in Australia, where they haven’t played in 21 years.
Twenty-one is also the age of the current roster’s youngest player (Sophia Smith). The squad, which was announced Tuesday morning, is full of the next generation, in fact. Of the 22 players, 12 have 10 international caps or fewer. Five don’t have any caps at all.
“Part of the reason why we picked some of the younger players, or some of the inexperienced players, is to give them a taste of what this environment is all about and also to show them that they have potential to be on the World Cup team, and I think that’s the best motivation they could have,” said USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski.
Mallory Pugh and Trinity Rodman were also invited to join the roster but opted out due to undisclosed reasons.
The frontrunner for NWSL Rookie of the Year, Rodman has yet to make an appearance with the senior national team. Her presence would have added to a young offense that already has three rookies.
Defense is the only position that doesn’t have any uncapped players. Alana Cook heads to Australia with two caps, while Emily Fox has six and Sofia Huerta seven.
Let’s take a closer look at the particular areas of the field Andonovski is keen to rebuild and the players he is eager to see.
In the absence of Alyssa Naeher, who is out with a knee injury, veteran Jane Campbell will lead the goalkeeping trio that includes the North Carolina Courage’s Casey Murphy and the Portland Thorns’ Bella Bixby, each with no caps.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to put those young goalkeepers in the top and challenging environment and to put him through some adversity and see how they deal with it,” Andonovski said. “I think that Australia’s an incredible team … We’ll find out very fast who is cut for big games under pressure.”
Bixby had a standout season in the NWSL, starting 16 matches and recording nine clean sheets to earn a nomination for the league’s Goalkeeper of the Year.
“She’s done a very good job individually to keep those shutouts, so she’s one of those players that needs an introduction to this environment,” the coach said.
Bixby and Murphy were teammates on the national U-23 team from 2017-18. Murphy also started on the U-20 squad.
Andonovski is familiar with Murphy after coaching her with OL Reign (then Reign FC) in 2019. He saw her improve on a weekly basis and, after watching multiple videos to evaluate her progress this year, has noticed her continued development with the Courage. In North Carolina’s quarterfinal game against the Washington Spirit on Sunday, Murphy made 13 saves to send it to extra time, where the Courage eventually lost.
“We’re glad to say that she’s ready for the next level of her career,” he said.
With zero caps for the USWNT, Ashley Sanchez steps onto the pitch as the only novice in the midfield.
The 22-year-old, however, has a multitude of experience with the youth program, from the U14 level all the way through U15, U17 and U20. Competing in the U17 and U20 FIFA Women’s World Cups in 2016, she became the first player in U.S. history to play in multiple World Cups in the same year.
Andonovski has been following Sanchez’s progress with Spirit closely all season.
“Some of the things that she’s developed first and foremost is she’s better at the things that she was good at,” Andonovski said.
Specifically, Sanchez thrives at solving problems under pressure, whether it’s finding tight spaces, connecting with the front line or getting back on defense.
“I think that she she’s becoming a little bit more of a rounded player,” Andonovski said.
The attacking third will feature the most youth, as five of the six forwards have 10 caps or fewer. While Lynn Williams leads the offense with 43 caps, Bethany Balcer and Morgan Weaver will look to get their first.
“The forward position is an area where we felt like we need to increase the competition,” Andonovski said. “And not just the competition; we need to increase the overall experience of the players. We have to give them games like this.”
The coach seems to be taking into consideration player performances in the NWSL, where five of his forwards have seven league goals or more to rank among the top 10 scorers. Ashley Hatch won the NWSL’s Golden Boot award with 10 goals during the regular season.
Weaver of the Portland Thorns appears to be the outlier, with just one goal in 19 NWSL games this season. But stats aren’t everything. Similar to Williams, the 24-year-old is a workhorse off the ball and puts defenders under a lot of stress.
Balcer, the 2019 NWSL Rookie of the Year in her third season with the OL Reign, has been a weapon on attack. Five of the nine goals she’s scored this season have come by way of headers. She’s also the first player from an NAIA school to have made an NWSL roster. At Spring Arbor University from 2015-18, Balcer had 129 goals in 98 appearances.
The first match will kick off on Nov. 27 at 3 p.m. local time in Sydney. For North America, that’s Nov. 26 at 11 p.m. ET on FS2.
The team plays again Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. local time, or 4 a.m. ET on ESPN.
Jessa Braun is an editorial intern for Just Women’s Sports. She is also the Head of North American Content for the Women’s Sports Alliance. You can find her on Twitter @jessabraun.
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