For the players who want to represent the U.S. women's national team at the 2023 Women's World Cup, the window to make their mark is closing rapidly.
USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski must submit his final 23-woman roster to FIFA by July 10, and the tournament starts July 20, when the U.S. faces Vietnam in Auckland, New Zealand. However, Andonovski is expected to announce his squad by June 26, which is when USWNT players will head to a pre-World Cup camp. That leaves players with two months to earn a spot, which will consist entirely of club play now that there are no more international windows left before the World Cup.
We have done three editions of the USWNT Big Board for the 2023 Women's World Cup in which we've assessed who will make the roster, and for this fourth edition so close to the tournament, we might've expected few (if any) questions. But whew, that could not be further from what's happened -- as Andonovski said himself recently, there are 10 to 12 players still fighting for six to seven spots.
This might be the most surprising Big Board yet, with some unexpected players becoming sudden locks, and would-be stars falling off the roster entirely, which leaves open spaces throughout the roster. In fact, we can't remember the last time a USWNT roster had this many question marks so close to a major tournament.
So, with less than 100 days until the Women's World Cup, settle in because here we go -- it's time for our USWNT Big Board: The Pre-World Cup Homestretch Edition™.
How we're doing this
If you've seen our previous Big Boards, you know how this works. We are not making a prediction about what will happen over the next two to three months -- our final roster prediction will come later. Rather, we are evaluating where the USWNT squad stands right now. We're breaking down the roster by position, as if Andonovski is picking his squad today.
It's crunch time now, and at this point, either you're on the roster or you're fighting for a spot, or you're just out of the picture. Here's how we'll categorize players:
Tier 1: Roster locks. Clear starters and preferred substitutes. As of today, on the roster.
Tier 2: The bubble. These are the players fighting for a World Cup spot. They are in contention, but it could go either way.
Tier 3: Outside looking in. These players have had a passing look, are in the form to deserve a look, or used to be a key player but no longer appear to be in Andonovski's plans. A major, unexpected shake-up would need to happen for these players to be at the World Cup.
Tier 4: Wait and see. These are former locks racing against time. The USWNT was so ravaged by injuries over the past year that we made a special category for players who were once locks but need to regain their status to make the squad. These players should have a clear path to return to lock status -- if they get back to 100% in time, that is. (Almost all the players who were in Tier 4 on previous Big Boards are now Tier 1. Keep reading to see who's not.)
Roster locks: Alyssa Naeher, Casey Murphy, Adrianna Franch
The bubble: None
Outside looking in: Aubrey Kingsbury, Jane Campbell, Bella Bixby
Wait and see: None
Yes, we promised twists, turns and drama up top, but you (mostly) won't find it at this position.
Alyssa Naeher remains the No. 1, and for good reason. Whether she is the best goalkeeper in the pool in every category is up for debate, but she is the most reliable goalkeeper the USWNT has and she has consistently performed on the biggest stages (including her stellar penalty kick save at the 2019 World Cup, which helped the USWNT beat England in the semifinal).
So, about that debate: Aubrey Kingsbury (née Bledsoe) arguably has been one of the best goalkeepers over the years in the NWSL, the domestic topflight league that almost all of the USWNT players call home. But she hasn't gotten the chance to prove herself on the USWNT level, earning one cap. We've had her on the bubble in past Big Boards, but she didn't even make the roster for the USWNT's camp in the final international window before Andonovski will pick his roster. The time for Kingsbury appears to have passed.
Instead, Andonovski and the USWNT coaching staff have stuck to what's familiar. Casey Murphy is the No. 2 behind Naeher. In the past several camps, including this latest one, Naeher and Murphy split time in goal for games, and Andonovski has made a concerted effort to give Murphy reps.
Rounding out the goalkeeper pool is Adrianna "AD" Franch. Although she has been at times the best goalkeeper in the NWSL, she has never quite been able to translate such performances to her time with the USWNT, and she's never looked to be in the running to become a starter. Nonetheless, even though Murphy has overtaken her as the No. 2, Franch is a familiar player and remains No. 3. It's hard to see this order changing.
On the plane right now: Naeher, Murphy, Franch
Roster locks: Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Sofia Huerta
The bubble: Kelley O'Hara, Casey Krueger, Emily Sonnett
Outside looking in: Hailie Mace, Carson Pickett
Wait and see: None
There are a few big changes from our previous Big Board, and this is one of the least clear-cut positions on the entire roster.
First, Kelley O'Hara is back from injury and is now fighting for a roster spot. The veteran does not appear to be pushing for a starting spot right now -- Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox have those locked down -- but O'Hara is within reach of the roster. She played in the USWNT's last match, but before that hadn't featured since she picked up an injury last summer. Her leadership and experience on the World Cup stage, however, give her the inside track to winning one of the open spots.
Casey Krueger is also back after giving birth last year. She played in the USWNT's last match, coming on for O'Hara at halftime, but otherwise hadn't featured for the USWNT since 2021. Asked about giving Krueger (née Short) minutes, Andonovski said that in case she does make the World Cup roster, he doesn't want her arriving without having had recent minutes for the USWNT. She is clearly a player Andonovski is considering.
Also of note: Emily Sonnett returns to the full-back position after being listed as a center back on our previous Big Board. Andonovski seems to like her, and he's been moving her around the back line and testing her. To that point, Sonnett's experience playing as both an outside back and central defender for the USWNT is probably seen as a helpful bit of versatility in a tournament setting. But she frankly isn't the USWNT's best backup option anywhere along the back line, which makes it hard to view her as a lock.
As of today, right back Sofia Huerta is a lock. She has started four of the USWNT's seven matches in 2023, and Andonovski has a lot of time invested in her -- she featured in 16 of the USWNT's 18 matches last year. However, that was in the absence of O'Hara and Krueger, and that pair's return over the next two months could threaten Huerta's lock status.
On the plane right now: Dunn, Fox, Huerta, O'Hara
Roster locks: Becky Sauerbrunn, Naomi Girma, Alana Cook
The bubble: Tierna Davidson
Outside looking in: Abby Dahlkemper
Wait and see: None
There is no world in which a Becky Sauerbrunn who is available for this World Cup is not there for the USWNT. Andonovski spoke recently about how he has appointed Sauerbrunn as captain whenever she has been on a team he coaches, whether in the NWSL or for the national team because, in his words: "I trust her, I trust that she can lead the team to success." At 37, she's the oldest player on the team but remains a steady presence along the back line.
Last season's NWSL Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year, Naomi Girma, 22, continues to prove she has the composure, vision and distribution that belie her young age in a position where experience is usually valued.
Meanwhile, Andonovski seems to like Alana Cook despite a lack of consistency compared to the other two players ahead of her, and she even scored a goal in the USWNT's last game. Right now, there's no reason to doubt she'll be at the World Cup.
Tierna Davidson, who was listed as "wait-and-see" on our previous Big Board, moves to the bubble. The former lock tore her ACL one year ago and made her return for the USWNT in their last game after not playing for the national team since February 2022. But there's no one Davidson is directly fighting with for a spot right now unless you count Sonnett, who could be seen as either a reserve full-back or center back. Ultimately, Davidson could be fighting against how Andonovski chooses to configure his roster.
On the plane right now: Sauerbrunn, Cook, Girma
Roster locks: Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Andi Sullivan, Ashley Sanchez
The bubble: Kristie Mewis, Taylor Kornieck,
Outside looking in: Samantha Coffey, Savannah DeMelo, Jaelin Howell, Samantha Mewis
Wait and see: None
Joining the list of locks is a player who was not on the previous Big Board, and who many people thought might not play soccer again. After more than 600 days away from the USWNT, defensive midfielder Julie Ertz has made an unexpected return and a late push for a roster spot. This is not a turn we thought the USWNT Big Board would take!
Interestingly, Andonovski has talked a good game about how he will call up players based only on form and players must be performing well for their club teams. Well, Ertz didn't even have a club team for all of 2022 and 2023, and Andonovski still called her in for his final camp before he will pick his World Cup roster, and she played in both games. She has since signed on to play in the NWSL, and it's pretty clear that Andonovski wouldn't have called her in, nor would she have signed a one-year contract with Angel City FC, if there wasn't a roster spot waiting for her.
At this point, Ertz's presumed spot on the World Cup roster is based entirely on what she has done in the past. The fact is, the USWNT has been desperately trying to replace her at the "No. 6" defensive midfielder position ever since she left -- it has been the single biggest question plaguing the team. Well, now Andonovski has an answer. We'll see what the next two months in the NWSL show us -- or, more importantly, show Vlatko -- but right now, Ertz is on that plane.
Ahem. OK, now that the exciting part is out of the way, everything else here is the same as it has been: Rose Lavelle (No. 10 playmaker) and Lindsey Horan (box-to-box No. 8) will run the midfield, with Ertz as the No. 6. But Andi Sullivan, the USWNT's other No. 6, will still be there, as will Ashley Sanchez, the backup No. 10/8. (For those who haven't been paying attention over the past few months, Sam Mewis is still injured and appears all but ruled out of the World Cup.)
Ertz's arrival means defensive midfielder Sam Coffey no longer has an obvious spot to fight for. Taylor Kornieck has also been tried at the No. 6 position with the USWNT but was not the best fit there -- Kornieck can still fight to be an all-rounder who can make up the "half" in Andonovski's preferred "two and a half" defensive midfielders on the roster, along with Kristie Mewis, who seems to be ahead in this race.
On the plane right now: Ertz, Lavelle, Horan, Sullivan, Sanchez, Mewis
Roster locks: Sophia Smith, Megan Rapinoe, Lynn Williams, Trinity Rodman
The bubble: Alyssa Thompson, Margaret "Midge" Purce
Outside looking in: Christen Press, Tobin Heath
Wait and see: None
The biggest change here is that the USWNT's best winger all year, Mallory Swanson, is out of the World Cup. The former lock tore the patella tendon in her left knee during a 2-0 win over Ireland earlier this month in the final international window before Andonovski will pick his roster.
The timing could not have been worse: Swanson (née Pugh) was in the best form of her career, and the USWNT attack had deservedly been built, to some extent, around her. (If you're looking for a reason the USWNT might not win a third straight World Cup, here's one.)
But this creates an opening that could see 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson leapfrog from not even being on our previous Big Board to making the World Cup squad. Some context: Our last Big Board came before the NWSL season began, and Thompson has since been impressive in her rookie season. Exhibit 1 -- this goal she scored 11 minutes into her in professional debut last month:
ALYSSA THOMPSON ARE YOU KIDDING? pic.twitter.com/wT0Tg0J6Pt— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) March 27, 2023
Thompson also started for the USWNT in their last game -- her first start and third cap -- and she looked the part of a player who can compete at this level. Is she a first-choice starter at the World Cup? Certainly not. But she has worked her way into being considered a viable option off the bench, if needed. A coach like Andonovski would probably also relish the opportunity to give a young player some World Cup experience, viewing it as an investment in Thompson's future with the USWNT.
Her direct competition for a roster spot might be Margaret "Midge" Purce, who has been on the periphery of the forward pool. Right now, it looks like Thompson is ahead because, when Swanson was injured during the last camp, Andonovski invited Thompson to replace her, not Purce, though Purce has spent far more time in the USWNT environment.
A trio of Sophia Smith, Megan Rapinoe and Lynn Williams has been long expected to make the team based on a mix of current form -- Williams' return from a long injury in January has gone well -- and what they've done for the USWNT in the past. Meanwhile, Trinity Rodman sits just outside this group, but ahead of Thompson.
Rodman has been good-to-sensational in the NWSL since her debut in 2021, being named Rookie of the Year that season, and the Washington Spirit locked her down for a record-setting contract. But for the national team, she hasn't had the same impact, often struggling to get into games. Despite that, Andonovski continues to give her minutes, and based on that alone, it feels like she is a lock.
On the plane right now: Smith, Rapinoe, Williams, Rodman, Thompson
Roster locks: Alex Morgan, Ashley Hatch
The bubble: None
Outside looking in: None
Wait and see: Catarina Macario
This position looks on paper more straightforward than it really is. "Alex Morgan is the obvious first-choice starter for the USWNT at striker," you're surely saying. Many people (including the person writing these words right now) would agree.
But you must understand: Up until Catarina Macario tore her ACL last June, Andonovski was building the USWNT around her, and Alex Morgan was not even earning call-ups. Part of that was Andonovski testing the player pool and trying to turn the page, but part of that was Macario being a special talent who was killing it for the USWNT up top.
Macario is back to training, but she has yet to feature for her club, Lyon. The European season is winding down, so she'll probably have to move to the NWSL ahead of the World Cup and prove her fitness to secure her spot. If she can do that -- still a big if -- it's hard to envision Andonovski passing on her. The fact that Macario can (and has) played other attacking positions for the USWNT only makes her more appealing -- if not at the striker position, could a healthy Macario grab a winger spot with Swanson out?
Morgan is currently the USWNT's go-to striker, which she has earned, and Ashley Hatch, who has come off the bench in five of the USWNT's past six matches, will be her backup -- at least as long as Macario is not making the roster.
Macario is rapidly running out of time. But, she has earned a "wait and see" special designation because if she is fit for the World Cup and able to be on the roster, she probably will be on the roster.
On the plane right now: Morgan, Hatch