The time for transition with a team is never easy to predict, but there is one near certainty for the U.S. women's national team: you typically do it after an Olympics because you have a big, three-year gap before the next World Cup on the calendar. Well, that is until a pandemic hits -- I'm adding it to my "Another Thing COVID-19 Has Messed Up" list.
With the 2020 Olympics delayed by a year and the window for transition much tighter, everything's a bit more complicated for USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski. Yes, this new USWNT is going to look very different than the 2020 Olympic team, and for the past three years, the escalating murmur from USWNT fans has been "Go younger!" as it relates to players. That mantra turned into a low roar during the USWNT's struggles at the Tokyo Olympics last year, and it became a full-fledged chant by the time the USWNT lost to Canada in the Olympic semifinals.
To my surprise, that rumble to go younger quickly turned into, "Where are all the veterans??!!" once the SheBelieves Cup roster was announced two weeks ago without players like Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Tobin Heath and Alex Morgan. Not that I will ever pretend to understand social media -- and honestly, there isn't enough wine to convince me to try -- but I am sure Andonovski has been very clear with his sentiment: "I need time to see younger players."
Andonovski could not bring in all younger players during the USWNT's post-Olympic games in September and October because he was contractually obligated to bring in the Olympic roster for those so-called "victory tour" games. But he said repeatedly during that fall, with a smile: "November is a new chapter." Indeed it was. Andonovski took full advantage of his blank canvas and took a very young team to Australia for two friendlies. He did the same in the USWNT's opening camp of 2022 in January as well.
Andonovski has spoken often of the need for younger players to get minutes, and he said he would not bring the veterans back most likely until after the SheBelieves Cup -- and not until they had shown they were fit and ready through their club teams. True to his word, this SheBelieves Cup roster is full of young talent. Some fun breakdowns for you:
And my personal favorite: Rodman was 5 years old when Sauerbrunn made her USWNT debut. (It's OK, Becky -- Rodman was still 15 years from being born when I made my USWNT debut.)
You get it: this is a young roster. But here's what I think some might have missed: In past non-COVID cycles, you had about two years between an Olympics and the next World Cup qualifying tournament. With the delayed Olympics, Andonovski and his staff had only about eight months to experiment before World Cup qualifiers start this July. With that in mind, I do understand the urgency and need to see players pronto.
But another big change should be discussed as well: this 2023 World Cup has an expanded field of 32 teams (up from 24 in 2019), which means four teams from CONCACAF get an automatic spot. Basically, you only have to reach the CONCACAF semifinals to go to the 2023 World Cup, and if you don't fall into that top four, you still have a chance to get in through an intercontinental playoff. So, not to be disrespectful to the rest of CONCACAF, but I am about to be disrespectful to the rest of CONCACAF: This is a sure thing, party people. World Cup qualification isn't really at risk.
The catch, however, is that for the first time this World Cup qualification tournament is now doubling as the path for 2024 Olympic qualification, which adds a whole new layer of complexity. If you win CONCACAF's World Cup qualifying tournament, you automatically qualify for the 2024 Olympics in Paris. If you finish second or third, you play a home-and-away series in the fall of 2023 to decide who goes as the second team from CONCACAF. Remember, the Olympics are a smaller tournament and only two teams from CONCACAF make it.
So now winning the CONCACAF qualifiers becomes the clear goal. Because what if you get paired with Canada in the semifinals of CONCACAF qualifying? Yes, you go through to the World Cup regardless of outcome, but if you lose that semifinal, you have the real chance of not finishing in the top three when it comes to Olympic qualification.
All of this means, in my opinion, two things.
First, Andonovski doesn't have the luxury of gradually working in the younger players as teams had in the past. With the shortened cycle and now a double World Cup/Olympics qualifier, he needs to see players now. Then, he must quickly pivot to whichever of those younger players can help the USWNT win this summer. Hence, that's why this SheBelieves Cup roster is so young, and all the while, Andonovski is giving them valuable minutes and caps for experience.
Second, let's be clear: there will be a mix of younger and older players going forward. No need to panic, my friends. The April and June international windows, as well as the 2022 NWSL season, are vital markers for getting the mix right. You need the experience, leadership and game-winning abilities of some of those veterans combined with the young energy, hunger and fresh legs.
What that mix entails will be the most interesting. How many young players vs. veterans will play? How many veterans can still be clutch? How many young players can make a mark in such a short time? How many big-name veterans will be content with a minimized role and fewer minutes? Balancing all of that is the challenge every coach faces in transition, but it's made all the more difficult for Andonovski given how many big names and stars are still wanting to play.
I am mildly disappointed this SheBelieves Cup is not against teams like France and England and Spain, as was the case in the past tournaments, to see how this younger group would perform against some of the best. But the Czech Republic, New Zealand and Iceland are all going to present a very organized, compact defensive unit that is hard to break down. (Where have we seen that before? Hello, World Cup qualifiers!)
These types of defensive teams have caused problems for the USWNT in recent years. Perhaps these games will present the perfect opportunity for a young player to show she can be a game-changer and provide the creative spark to break through an organized low block.
Regardless, it is going to be a fun ride over these final next five months before World Cup/Olympic qualifiers kick the new cycle into high gear. Andonovski may not emerge from this SheBelieves Cup with all the answers, but we should start to get a hint as to what this new USWNT will look like and who can rise to the challenge. Strap in, folks, and enjoy the unknown -- it wouldn't be a proper USWNT transition without a bit of uncertainty.