The U.S. women's national team has no coach, no coherent tactical identity and nothing to build upon after a worst-ever round-of-16 exit in the Women's World Cup. And yet the USWNT is about 10 months away from another marquee tournament in the form of the 2024 Olympics.
Let's start out with a basic point: the Olympics, which are a senior competition on the women's side (unlike the men's side), -- are not nearly as important as the World Cup. At just 12 teams, it's not even half the size of the World Cup. But winning a gold medal at the Olympics in France next summer would certainly soothe some of the sting from hitting that lowest point in USWNT history -- a round of 16 exit -- this year.
Who will be the players who can help the USWNT do that? It's hard to say with any certainty without a coach. Enter ESPN's 2024 USWNT Big Board.
Remember: the point of the Big Board is not to predict what the team will look like next summer, but take the pulse of where the USWNT stands right now. Will the next coach have a turnkey roster and strong player pool to work with? Or will he or she need to do some work to get the squad into shape? Let's take a look.
How the USWNT Big Board works
If the USWNT were to compete in the Olympics today, who should start? Who should be on the roster? That's what we're trying to figure out.
There's no coach, of course -- U.S. Soccer wants to hire one by December -- so we have no previous lineups or statements on which to base this depth chart. Instead, this is a bit of the author's opinion (hi, that's me!) and a bit of analyzing where the player pool seems to be trending. We don't know if the USWNT will drastically change formations under the new coach -- wingbacks, anyone? -- so for now we're assuming the USWNT's tactical shape will look similar to how it has for the past few years.
An important roster note up top, too: Olympic rosters are much different than for the World Cup. They are traditionally much smaller than World Cup rosters -- while a Women's World Cup squad comprises 23 players, with three of them required to be goalkeepers, an Olympic squad is just 18 players, with two specific goalkeepers.
Another difference is that Olympic rosters have four alternates, one of them a goalkeeper -- players who aren't available for games, but do travel and train with the team, only joining the roster in case of tournament-ending injury. For the delayed 2021 Olympics, alternates were added to the full roster because of the pandemic, but it's unclear whether that will happen again.
We're categorizing the Big Board like this:
Tier 1: Starters. A clear first-choice player.
Tier 2: In the squad. Not a starter, but a substitute and player on the bench available to go into games.
Tier 3: On the bubble. These are possible alternates, or players who might miss out on the Olympics completely. Players who have had a passing look or players who were once integral but no longer seem in favor fit into this category.
Tier 4: Longshots. These are the players whose chances of making the Olympics at the moment look low. This includes players performing well for their clubs who haven't gotten a look. This category also includes injured players who, today, aren't healthy enough to make it (and it doesn't mean their status can't change once they recover).
Starter: Alyssa Naeher
In the squad: Casey Murphy
On the bubble: Aubrey Kingsbury, Phallon Tullis-Joyce, Katie Lund, Jane Campbell, Bella Bixby
Longshot: Adrianna Franch
Other than centerback Naomi Girma, who was a breakout star in her debut World Cup, the USWNT's best player in New Zealand and Australia was quite possibly Alyssa Naeher. She continues to play well for the USWNT, even if she hasn't enjoyed the same level of shot-stopping domestically with her Chicago Red Stars.
The question: who will be her backup? Casey Murphy still seems to be the No. 2 and based on her time with the USWNT, that probably hasn't changed, regardless of anything happening in the NWSL. But Aubrey Kingsbury, Phallon Tullis-Joyce, Katie Lund, Jane Campbell and Bella Bixby are all viable options as a third goalkeeper or an alternate. After Adrianna Franch lost her starting spot in Kansas City and then didn't make the USWNT's World Cup team, it seems her time with the national team is over.
Aubrey Kingsbury, 31, was the third goalkeeper at the World Cup based on her strong club play for the Washington Spirit. But 26-year-old Tullis-Joyce, who just completed a move to Manchester United, and 26-year-old Lund, who has been excellent for Racing Louisville, could deserve a shot. It's not too soon to get some younger goalkeepers time with the team and get a succession plan behind 35-year-old Naeher. In fact, it probably makes more sense to call in some younger, less experienced goalkeepers for the third and fourth spots.
Starters: Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox
In the squad: Sofia Huerta
On the bubble: M.A. Vignola, Kelley O'Hara, Casey Krueger, Hailie Mace, Carson Pickett
Longshot: Jenna Nighswonger, Imani Dorsey, Caprice Dydasco, Kristen McNabb, Merritt Mathias
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It's really hard to say who should or will be on the team outside of the starters, Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox, who didn't really do anything to lose their spots during the World Cup. It seems like everyone else is fighting just to get a call.
Sofia Huerta has had a lot of call-ups with the USWNT, but she's better at attacking than defending, thus she can be a liability, and she didn't play during the World Cup. Kelley O'Hara has been consistently solid for the USWNT, but she's increasingly injury prone as she nears the twilight of her career. Casey Krueger has been a better defender than attacker and the USWNT likes to play more attacking soccer, but she's solid enough on both sides that she has a strong case.
M.A. Vignola just earned her first cap for the USWNT in a friendly last month. Hailie Mace and Carson Pickett have both been in with the USWNT before, but very much seem to be on the outskirts of the player pool. That gives way to several players who have been good for their clubs, but have been unable to gain a foothold in the USWNT.
If I were coach -- and to be clear, U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker has not called me yet -- I'd start turning the page to the 2027 World Cup cycle. That could mean potentially bringing in Vignola because the USWNT desperately needs to build some fullback depth. A player like 22-year-old Jenna Nighswonger isn't ready for the Olympics, but might deserve a call-up based on solid NWSL play, versatility in being able to play multiple positions and, again, an alarming lack of depth in the pool. The USWNT needs more options.
Going into the Olympics, the USWNT's defense has been solid enough that leaning a bit more attack-minded for the Olympics with Huerta seems worth it. The next coach, who will be coming in with no track record, might feel the need to go with a safer choice like Krueger or O'Hara.
Starters: Naomi Girma, Tierna Davidson
In the squad: Emily Sonnett
On the bubble: Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook
Longshot: Abby Dahlkemper, Emily Madril, Lilly Reale, Sarah Gorden, Katie Ling, Paige Nielsen, Sam Hiatt, Sam Staab, Emily Menges, Tatumn Milazzo
First of all, is Emily Sonnett even a centerback? Is she a fullback? Is she a defensive midfielder now? This is something the next coach needs to decide, but right now we're slotting her in at centerback because the USWNT has few proven options there. We've also given her a confirmed spot in the squad because on a small Olympics roster, having a player who can fit multiple positions is incredibly valuable.
It might seem a bit harsh to drop Alana Cook from being on the World Cup team to fighting for a spot for the Olympics, but she didn't play at all during the tournament and, in the lead-up to the World Cup, Cook didn't really do enough in games to have earned a spot. An injury to Becky Sauerbrunn and a too-late recovery from Tierna Davidson seemed like the catalyst.
With Julie Ertz retired, clear starter Naomi Girma could use another veteran alongside her, and Sauerbrunn is still not playing 90 minutes since her pre-World Cup injury. Davidson fits the bill. Abby Dahlkemper only recently returned from a long layoff for a back injury; she needs more games under her belt, but it's a promising return for the former USWNT centerback.
Starters: Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Andi Sullivan
In the squad: Ashley Sanchez, Savannah DeMelo, Sam Coffey
On the bubble: Jaedyn Shaw, Kristie Mewis, Taylor Kornieck
Longshot: Jaelin Howell, Olivia Moultrie, Samantha Mewis, Morgan Gautrat, Dani Weatherholt, Lo'eau LaBonta, Chloe Ricketts, Korbin Albert
The go-to trio of Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan feels like it shouldn't change -- unless the USWNT changes its formation and configures its midfield differently. (Let's face it, the USWNT probably needs to change its tactical system based on the players it has, but that's a whole other conversation.) Regardless, these are three players who should be at the Olympics.
Sullivan has taken a lot of criticism for not being Ertz, basically, but under the right tactical setup (i.e., the too-late formation shift against Sweden at the World Cup), she is a solid defensive midfielder. We don't know what tactical setup the USWNT will have under the next coach, but there isn't a tactical system in which Sullivan suddenly doesn't have any role with the USWNT.
Outside of these three, however, it's time for the USWNT to go younger. Ashley Sanchez, 24, didn't play at all at the World Cup, and she should've. With the sensational season that 25-year-old Savannah DeMelo was having, it seemed unfair to name her to the World Cup roster without a USWNT cap to her name. She had no time to build chemistry with the players around her or figure out where she fit in, and we didn't see her at her best.
Sam Coffey, 24, should be the USWNT's next defensive midfielder. Jaelin Howell, 23, is currently injured, but is an interesting alternative to Coffey.
Starter: Lynn Williams, Trinity Rodman
In the squad: Alyssa Thompson
On the bubble: Margaret "Midge" Purce
Longshot: Mallory Swanson, Cece Kizer, Melanie Barcenas, Christen Press, Tobin Heath
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Mallory Swanson is listed as a long shot right now only because she's injured. (If Swanson had been healthy, the USWNT's World Cup probably would've gone much better.)
No one on the USWNT right now provides the service and creates the chances that now-retired Megan Rapinoe used to, particularly on set pieces. In a sense, that makes this position feel more open than the relative strength of the player options suggests. The USWNT needs wingers who can play provider -- the World Cup, where it seemed like the USWNT's wingers were just strikers, proved that.
Lynn Williams is a dependable player who will press relentlessly, create chances, track back to defend and do all the things the USWNT needs. She might not be the best at everything, but she is good and well rounded. Trinity Rodman, under the right setup, will flourish on the wing. Rodman didn't flourish during the World Cup, but that's why the Olympics can't be the same lineup as the World Cup was -- almost no one flourished. Move some pieces around Rodman and change her role slightly, and her effectiveness should be unlocked.
Even after making the World Cup team, Alyssa Thompson's inclusion seems more about building toward 2027 rather than winning an Olympics. If you want to follow the model of former coach Jill Ellis, who bombed at an Olympics but then won a World Cup, this makes sense. She barely played at the World Cup and should've seen the field more.
Starter: Sophia Smith
In the squad: Alex Morgan
On the bubble: Jaedyn Shaw, Mia Fishel, Ashley Hatch
Longshot: Catarina Macario, Kristen Hamilton, Bethany Balcer
Sophia Smith has played as a winger on the USWNT, including at the World Cup, but that tournament proved Smith should be playing in front of goal. She's an elite striker in the NWSL, and asking her to play out wide means some of her best attributes don't translate and get lost. Her World Cup was bad, and you can place some of the blame on her role.
Alex Morgan has been a great striker for the USWNT and in the NWSL, but she struggled badly at the World Cup -- her failed penalty kick in the opening game of the tournament became an omen for her first World Cup without scoring a goal. Is she still effective? Probably: she wasn't getting the best service during the World Cup. But with an eye toward the next World Cup, it might suit 34-year-old Morgan to come off the bench instead.
The big question is what happens when Catarina Macario comes back from injury -- she still hasn't played in a game since last year, but played as both a striker and a midfielder for the USWNT. (I'd argue with her excellent vision, service and ability on the ball, playing as a winger could suit her -- especially with a lack of wingers in the player pool with her skills.) Macario is the kind of player who needs to be on the field -- once fit, at least.
Another question: Should 18-year-old Jaedyn Shaw be a central attacking midfielder, or a striker? She says she prefers to be a No. 10 playmaker, but the USWNT player pool might have more room right now for another striker and, well, she's good at both. Either way, she is a player whose development is worth keeping an eye on. If the next coach goes full bore on the next generation for the Olympics, Shaw could even take Morgan's spot.