WASHINGTON — Vlatko Andonovski has 10-plus months to prepare the U.S. women’s national team for a three-peat. Ten-plus months to merge world champions with young talents, and manage a generational shift. Ten-plus months to find and refine the 23 (or 26) players who'll drive the USWNT deep into the 2023 World Cup — and already, he seems far more focused on the refining than the finding.
Andonovski, in his third year as USWNT head coach, called 23 players into training camps this week and last in Washington, D.C., and Kansas City. All 23 had helped the U.S. qualify for next summer’s World Cup and the 2024 Olympics at the CONCACAF W Championship in July.
“We were very happy with the level of play those players displayed when they were in our environment,” Andonovski said a month later. When asked Monday whether he’d learned anything throughout the camps, which featured two friendly wins over Nigeria, he spoke not about personnel but about tactics — about “areas of the game” and “behaviors.”
That, it seems, is what he means when he says that, “in what we call the World Cup year, it's all about preparation for the World Cup.” In fact, defender Emily Fox said Monday, “I think for us, the World Cup preparation started a while ago.” Andonovski spent last fall and winter expanding his player pool; now he is narrowing it, and building a machine with the parts he has.
It is fair to conclude, then, that the current group is the favored group; and that any fit players who weren’t in camp this month might find it difficult to crack the World Cup roster. “Going forward, obviously, we're gonna see a lot of these players coming back if they continue to stay in the form that they're in,” Andonovski said.
His dilemma, however, is looming. Because the current group is incomplete. Take, for example, Crystal Dunn, who was not one of the 23 players, but who did return to near-full training with the USWNT as she works her way back from pregnancy. Dunn told Yahoo Sports on Sunday that she hopes to make her first NWSL appearance “in the next couple weeks.” Andonovski thinks she looks “ready to play.”
Or take Julie Ertz, the two-time World Cup winner who also recently gave birth.
Or Catarina Macario, the USWNT’s budding star who tore her ACL in the spring. Or Sam Mewis, who’s also out for the season but should return in 2023.
The list could go on — defender Tierna Davidson, and forward Lynn Williams, also recovering from ACL tears. There will, quite simply, not be room for the newly established 23 and the returning veterans on the plane to Australia (and New Zealand) next summer.
There could be a bit more room than expected. FIFA expanded men’s World Cup rosters to 26 in 2022. The global governing body has not yet said whether it will do the same for the women in 2023. “It is still unclear,” Andonovski said last week. He posed the question to U.S. Soccer officials in a recent meeting. An answer, he said, “will help us with the preparation going forward.” But there isn’t one yet. “As of right now,” he said, “we're preparing for 23."
And, especially if it is 23, he surely realizes that he’ll have agonizing decisions to make next summer.
On the plane: Alyssa Naeher, Casey Murphy
In the current mix: Aubrey Kingsbury
Still in the picture: Adrianna Franch
The most consequential decision at the very back will not be who makes the 23, but who makes the 11. There's an ongoing battle for the No. 1 goalkeeper spot. Alyssa Naeher started at the 2019 World Cup and the 2021 Olympics. Naeher and Casey Murphy have started the bulk of the games this year, and will both very likely be on the roster.
Aubrey Kingsbury has been the No. 3 goalkeeper this summer. If she remains the No. 3, there’ll be no room for the No. 2 at last summer’s Olympics, Adrianna Franch. Andonovski said recently that Franch remains "in the pool," but so do a few other National Women's Soccer League goalkeepers.
"The goalkeeper pool for the U.S. women's national team is big, and the competition is very stiff," Andonovski said. "Every single one of them gets evaluated, and we trust our goalkeeper coach [Philip Poole], who has really tough job, and makes the decision who comes in and who doesn't."
On the plane: Crystal Dunn
In the current mix: Emily Fox, Kelley O'Hara, Sofia Huerta, Emily Sonnett
Still in the picture: Casey Krueger
Dunn is a lock, and “will be a very important player for us going forward, if she can get back anywhere close to her best,” Andonovski recently said. The only question is what position she’ll play — she’s capable anywhere in midfield or up front. But the increasingly likely answer is fullback.
She could play on the right if Fox solidifies herself on the left. Or Dunn could stay on the right if Kelley O’Hara or Sofia Huerta sufficiently impresses Andonovski and wins a spot on the right. There is also Emily Sonnett, a USWNT regular as a reserve for years now — and there are, therefore, five fullbacks for what will likely be four spots.
There is also versatility to consider. Sonnett can also play as a center back. Tierna Davidson, who's primarily a center back, can also play on the left.
On the plane: Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma
Still in the picture: Tierna Davidson, Abby Dahlkemper
Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook and Naomi Girma have seemingly established themselves as three of the 23 — and of likely four center backs. Davidson should be the fourth if she can fully recover from her injury. “Tierna is doing very well,” Andonovski said late last month, but she is still a ways away from returning.
The wild card is Abby Dahlkemper. A 2019 starter in the prime of her career, she has battled a rib injury and fallen out of favor. But, given her experience, she is presumably one of the few players for whom that could change over the next 10 months.
The other possibility to consider is that, especially if Andonovski selects Sonnett and Julie Ertz — who was a center back until her mid-20s — he could take just three true center backs. There were only three in camp in Kansas City and D.C. this month.
On the plane: Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis
In the current mix: Ashley Sanchez, Sam Coffey, Andi Sullivan, Kristie Mewis, Taylor Kornieck
Still in the picture: Julie Ertz
The major question mark in midfield is Ertz, the one true dominant defensive midfielder in the USWNT pool. If and when she’s fit, she is a lock and likely starter. She is, though, currently less than one month post-pregnancy, with no timeline on her return.
In her stead, Andi Sullivan has been solid, and 23-year-old Sam Coffey was impressive on her debut in Tuesday night’s 2-1 win over Nigeria. "She was very calm on the ball, very composed," Andonovski said postgame. She remains better with the ball than without it, but if she develops, and if Andonovski wants his backup No. 6 to be a ball-player, a yin to Ertz's aggressive yang, Coffey could ultimately be the preferred option.
But there is likely not space on the roster for all three — because there must be space for Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle, arguably the team’s two most important players; and for Sam Mewis. Then there's Mewis' sister, Kristie; and 23-year-old, 6-foot-1 Taylor Kornieck, who’s much more than an aerial threat off the bench, but who could serve that specific role well. Kornieck scored with a header on her USWNT debut this summer.
And then there is Ashley Sanchez, a creative attacking midfielder with a skillset unparalleled in the pool. She could, in theory, fit into the “winger” category — but the depth chart is even more crowded out there than in the center of the park.
If rosters expand to 26, Sanchez would seemingly be a no-brainer inclusion. If not ... there are no guarantees.
On the plane: Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith, Megan Rapinoe
In the current mix: Trinity Rodman, Midge Purce
Still in the picture: Lynn Williams, Tobin Heath, Christen Press
Andonovski has indicated that Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith are the locked-in starters — and rightly so. Trinity Rodman is electric and, at 20 years old, still rising. Megan Rapinoe, at 37, is on fire in the NWSL, and seems to have a place on the roster even if she weren’t. She was the first player off the bench in Tuesday’s friendly against Nigeria, and almost immediately assisted on the game-winning goal.
And that — those four wingers — might be that. A 23-woman World Cup roster typically has two players in each position. If so, there’d be no room for Midge Purce, a vertical right-winger who's featured consistently over the past year.
There'd also be no room for Williams, who played at the Olympics; or for Tobin Heath and Christen Press, two mainstays over the past decade. Press is currently out with a torn ACL, and Andonovski said she’d have been been left off the CONCACAF W Championship roster even if healthy. Heath has fallen down the pecking order, and, although back on the field with the OL Reign, has not started an NWSL game this season.
On the plane: Alex Morgan, Catarina Macario
In the current mix: Ashley Hatch
Alex Morgan has re-established herself as the sure-fire starter — at least, that is, until Macario returns. Macario can play almost anywhere in attacking areas, but again, there is no more room elsewhere than there is at striker.
Ashley Hatch is probably third in line, and at one point looked like a possible starter over Morgan. She’d be in position to go to Australia if Andonovski finds a way to get Morgan and Macario on the field together in his first 11.
These are all, of course, good dilemmas to have. But they are dilemmas nonetheless.
USWNT 2023 World Cup roster prediction
Assuming health where reasonable, and assuming — like Andonovski is — that the roster size remains 23, here is Yahoo Sports' first projection for the USWNT's 2023 World Cup squad.
Goalkeepers: Alyssa Naeher, Casey Murphy, Aubrey Kingsbury
Fullbacks: Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Kelley O'Hara, Emily Sonnett
Center backs: Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma, Tierna Davidson
Central midfielders: Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis, Julie Ertz, Ashley Sanchez, Sam Coffey
Wingers: Mallory Pugh, Sophia Smith, Megan Rapinoe, Trinity Rodman
Strikers: Alex Morgan, Catarina Macario