The SheBelieves Cup, hosted by U.S. Soccer every spring, may not be a World Cup or an Olympics, but it has still become one of the most important events on the calendar for the U.S. women's national team. That's because the tournament has served as a valuable testing ground for new players on the USWNT, helping the next stars of the team secure their spots.
Look no further than midfielder Rose Lavelle, who made her USWNT debut at the 2017 SheBelieves Cup. The USWNT played poorly overall, coming in last place, but Lavelle sparkled in that tournament and has been a mainstay ever since, eventually winning the Bronze Ball at the Women's World Cup two years later. Defender Tierna Davidson has a similar story: She joined the 2018 SheBelieves Cup with just one cap to her name but proved herself at the highest level and eventually secured a spot on the 2019 World Cup-winning squad.
Now, with World Cup qualifiers this summer and the World Cup next year, USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski has made it clear he will be using the 2022 SheBelieves Cup starting this week to find the next stars of the team again. Veterans such as Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Tobin Heath have been left off the roster in lieu of players who Andonovski says deserve a closer look.
"I want to give them maximum minutes or whatever minutes they earn so we can evaluate every aspect of their game, in the training environment or game setting," Andonovski told ESPN, adding: "If in SheBelieves we call any of the senior players, then we're not going to be able to see the younger ones."
There are some younger players on the roster who have already found their breakthrough and are trying to keep or re-earn their spot, such as Catarina Macario and Mallory Pugh, who have appeared in past Olympics or World Cups. But who are the newer players who could use this SheBelieves Cup as a launching pad to the 2023 World Cup and follow in the footsteps of Lavelle and Davidson?
Trinity Rodman | FW | Washington Spirit | Age: 19 | Caps: 0
Rodman has said she looks up to Heath, the USWNT winger known for her flashy style of play, as well as Press, the former target striker who has transformed herself into a crafty wide threat. But if Rodman's SheBelieves Cup goes well, she could find herself taking a spot from Heath or Press, if not someone else.
Rodman has never played with the senior national team, but she's played against many of the players on the USWNT in the NWSL. Rodman led the NWSL in assists last season, and according to Opta data, she was also in the top 10 for expected assists, which measures the likelihood that a pass should turn into a goal. Her ability to set up her teammates is a nice complement to her nose for goal. Rodman typically attacks down the right side for the Spirit, but it's common for her to flip to the left side, making her a diverse attacking threat. On a World Cup roster in which flexibility is valuable, that should only help.
At 19 years old, Rodman clearly has a long and bright future ahead of her. She recently signed a $1.1 million, four-year contract that her agency says will make her the highest-paid player in the NWSL. She was also named U.S. Soccer's Young Female Player of the Year for 2021.
Sophia Smith | FW | Portland Thorns | Age: 21 | Caps: 10
Smith made history as the first teenager to be drafted into the NWSL at 19 years old -- her record was later beaten by Rodman, who was drafted at 18 -- and while she's got the speed and finishing ability that are prerequisites for any good striker, Smith stands out for her work ethic and tenacity.
No one won the ball more in the final third last season in the NWSL than Smith, according to Opta stats. She had the fourth-highest expected goals, or xG, in the NWSL last season of anyone in the league -- only Lynn Williams on the SheBelieves Cup roster finished with a higher xG. There's something to be said about the level of service Smith was receiving at the Portland Thorns -- the best chance creator last season was Thorns wing-back Meghan Klingenberg -- but the 21-year-old Smith's composure in front of goal and her willingness to take defenders on have been impressive.
Mark Parsons, her coach at the Thorns, put Smith's stellar season into perspective last summer: "She continues to move forward and nudge forward, but you've seen nothing yet. If this was a 100-meter sprint, she's just starting to get out of the blocks. She's not even upright yet and got out over 10 meters. This is nothing compared to what you're going to see."
Emily Fox | DF | Racing Louisville FC | Age: 23 | Caps: 8
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The USWNT hasn't had an optimal solution at left-back in years, and the spot is there for Fox to take. It's true that Crystal Dunn has been a very effective left-back for the Americans -- arguably, her stellar performance shutting down Kadidiatou Diani was as much to credit with the U.S. reaching the semifinal of the 2019 World Cup as Rapinoe's clinical finishing -- but Dunn, as she has openly talked about, isn't a natural defender and could potentially offer even more elsewhere on the pitch.
Now that Dunn is pregnant and will be out for the foreseeable future, the U.S. needs another solution anyway. In the past, the USWNT's backup left-back has been its starting right-back, Kelley O'Hara, which is not ideal either. At the next World Cup, Dunn would turn 31, O'Hara would be nearly 35 and the next left-back option, Casey Krueger (nee Short), would be almost 33. Andonovski has to look into the future with Fox.
Fox ranked in the NWSL's top five last season in recoveries, which is when a player wins the ball back after her team has lost possession. (No. 1 overall was midfielder Morgan Gautraut, nee Brian, who has earned her first call in more than two years for this edition of the SheBelieves Cup.) Based on last season's NWSL stats, Fox's ability to generate expected assists was almost as good as that of O'Hara, who won the NWSL championship with the Washington Spirit.
The question for Fox is whether she'll be able to improve the attacking side of her game in order to fit the profile of the USWNT. After all, USWNT full-backs tend to be expected to get forward and provide service in the attack every time the USWNT has the ball. In Dunn, the U.S. essentially had an attacker who also defends; Fox brings a different profile.
Ashley Sanchez | MF | Washington Spirit | Age: 22 | Caps: 2
Sanchez is a central attacking midfielder who can play as a No. 10 or a false nine, but she can also be effective when she floats into wider positions -- her average heat map via Opta is just sort of all over the final third. She ranked in the top five last season in the NWSL for "big chances" created, which refers to chances that are expected to result in goals.
She also once did this:
This Ashley Sanchez assist on the Spirit goal is one of the most absurd assists you will see pic.twitter.com/p340xA104F— Henry Bushnell (@HenryBushnell) July 6, 2020
Margaret 'Midge' Purce | FW | NJ/NY Gotham FC | Age: 26 | Caps: 9
Although Purce has nine caps with the USWNT, many of them have come outside the forward position she's listed as for this SheBelieves Cup roster. Starting under former USWNT coach Jill Ellis, Purce has been stuck in the purgatory of playing as an attacker for her club but being profiled as a possible defender -- either a full-back or wing-back -- for the national team.
It's easy to see how that happened. The forwards she would've had to try to replace included the likes of Morgan, Rapinoe, Press and Heath, not to mention the now-retired Carli Lloyd. All five of them were superb leading up to the last World Cup and during the tournament, and Pugh in her best form was stiff competition as well. With the USWNT's veteran attacking line now aging -- Morgan is the youngest, and she'll turn 34 during the next World Cup -- there's an opening for a player like Purce, whose work rate and versatility make her an enticing option for a 23-player roster.
Of players with more than 15 shots in the NWSL last season, no one had a higher shot-to-goal conversion rate than Purce at 20%. Her 45 attempts resulted in nine goals, and her six game-winning goals were the most in the league.
Ashley Hatch | FW | Washington Spirit | Age: 26 | Caps: 4
Hatch has certainly made sure USWNT fans noticed her recently, scoring in the first 24 seconds in November against Australia. But anyone who has watched Hatch in the NWSL wouldn't be surprised: Hatch led the NWSL in scoring in 2021 without needing a single penalty to boost her stats. She's been incredibly consistent, never suffering a scoring drought longer than three games. She scored as much with her right foot as her left, and can score in a variety of ways from different parts of the field, but she's best running onto service face-up in the box and taking goalkeepers on directly.
It's all the more reason Hatch is an enticing prospect for the USWNT: She plays like she would fit right in with how the USWNT already operates. Her heading and the ability to win duels aren't as far along as the rest of her game, but even as players like Morgan and Press have improved their heading over the years, the USWNT hasn't had a clinical, reliable header they've counted on since Abby Wambach retired.
What Andonovski will no doubt be evaluating is just how she fits in when she is not with her Spirit teammates such as Rodman and Sanchez, who have also been stellar, giving her plenty of opportunities to convert. Hatch has been in the NWSL since 2017 and never had as productive of a season as she did in 2021.