USWNT qualifies for the 2023 World Championship, but uncertainty looms
Nine months before the 2019 US women’s national team conquered all comers, it was already a finished product.
It had yet to secure a spot at the World Cup it would eventually win, but the 11 players who opened a brisk qualifying campaign on October 4, 2018 became the core that triumphed the following summer. Of the 11, 10 started at the World Cup opener; and 10 started into the final. They strutted in and out of France with a swagger befitting a team that had been there, done.
Three years later, however, the latest iteration of the USWNT is still trying to figure itself out.
On Thursday night, with Megan Rapinoe jetted back from the White House and much of the 2019 core on the bench or absent, the U.S. women effortlessly qualified for the 2023 World Cup. They tumbled past Jamaica 5-0 and there gave many fresh faces. They showed the talent that will make them World Cup contenders, if not favorites, next summer in Australia and New Zealand. They may even have introduced a new group of fans to a new group of stars – with 21-year-old forward Sophia Smith being the brightest of them all.
But a year later, this USWNT remains a team in transition, potentially caught between the old guard phasing out and the next generation arriving. Alex Morgan is struggling to reclaim her starting spot. Rapinoe has embraced her new role as supersub. Tobin Heath doesn’t appear to be in the picture and Christen Press was on the outside of the squad, looking inside even before she tore her cruciate ligament. Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper are injured. Julie Ertz is pregnant. Crystal Dunn recently gave birth to her first child.
And with some top youngsters also on hiatus, no one — not even head coach Vlatko Andonovski — knows exactly what USWNT 2023 will be like.
The only thing that is certain is that it will look different. Andonovski came to that conclusion last year after the US faltered at the Tokyo Olympics due to staleness. He had clung to a core that had been the oldest at the 2019 World Cup. He named an 18-man Olympic squad of 17 holdovers for 2019 and just one freshman. This USWNT, as Canadian captain Christine Sinclair said after beating her North American rivals in a semi-final, was “ripe for harvest”.
So, after Carli Lloyd’s farewell tour, Andonovski revised the list and launched what he called “the next chapter.” Morgan and Rapinoe stood aside for several months. Andonovski used friendlies and second-rate tournaments to integrate the likes of Smith, Trinity Rodman and Catarina Macario, the 22-year-old Brazilian-born attacker who was widely considered the sport’s top American player as of early 2022.
This was, to some extent, a standard stage in a national team’s life cycle, with veterans waiting in the wings to reclaim spots young players weren’t. But Andonovski was frank in February: “It doesn’t mean that all these players who have performed well in the past just come back here at the next camp because they performed well a year or two ago.”
This is how evolution began. While Rapinoe battled injuries, frustrations and thoughts of retirement, Macario won a Champions League and Smith and Pugh rose through the NWSL. “They are probably the two most exciting players to watch in the league right now,” Andonovski said of the wingers last month. “It’s going to be extremely difficult for a player to come in now and take his starting spots.”
But then Macario, who can play in various offensive roles, tore his cruciate ligament. Morgan, aged 33, is enjoying her best start to a club season ever.
“If Cat comes back, we’ll see,” Andonovski said this week when asked how he would find space for one or both on the field. “If Alex is playing the way she is, I don’t know how anyone takes that place. If Cat’s doing as well as we think we’re going to have to find a place for her somewhere.”
Rapinoe, 37, has also returned and can still do things with a soccer ball at her feet that very few women on this planet have ever done.
In midfield, Lindsey Horan has developed into what Andonovski calls a “true leader” and Rose Lavelle is as dynamic as ever alongside her. But the precise makeup of the ideal three midfielders that Ertz is likely to be absent from until next season is unknown. Andi Sullivan is currently the first choice in midfield. Sam Mewis, her sister Kristie and Ashley Sanchez offer more individual advantages but would force an offense-focused player into a more defensive role.
And at the back, future central defender Tierna Davidson also tore her cruciate ligament this spring. Becky Sauerbrunn, the mainstay of all pillars, will be 38 at the start of the World Cup next year. Dahlkemper has been under-challenged at the Olympics, and both Alana Cook and Naomi Girma are relatively unproven.
Behind them, too, the first goalie job appears to be up for grabs – with 2019 veteran Alyssa Naeher and 26-year-old Casey Murphy being the top candidates.
Uncertainty is everywhere. The first real challenge will be qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. That requires a first place finish at this CONCACAF W Championship. Even losing the finals, possibly to Canada, would send the US into a playoff in September 2023.
Then the size of the biggest task sets in. Questions must become answers. Because the two-time reigning world champions, who embody the establishment of women’s football, are anything but an established gloss product.