Where the USWNT Roster Stands After New Zealand Friendlies

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The countdown to the 2023 World Cup is officially underway, with the U.S. women’s national team’s first friendlies of the year in the rearview mirror. Traveling to New Zealand, Vlatko Andonovski’s squad got acquainted with the World Cup cohosts ahead of this summer’s tournament, taking on the Football Ferns in Wellington and Auckland.

Handily defeating the Ferns, 4–0 and 5–0, in back-to-back shutouts, the USWNT learned some valuable lessons as players made a case for their inclusion on Andonovski’s final World Cup roster. Per the head coach, the technical staff has narrowed down the number of players in consideration for the final roster from 40 to 32. So, who made the most out of their January trip, and which players need to show more in the run-up to July?

Here’s where the USWNT’s roster stands after the January camp:

Julie Ertz’s replacement

The USWNT midfield has suffered mightily in Ertz’s absence, with the veteran No. 6 out since 2021 after giving birth to her first child with husband, Zach Ertz. Looking to fill a formidable gap at the defensive midfield position, Andonovski has experimented with a range of personnel to compensate for the loss of a physical and reliable star. Washington Spirit captain Andi Sullivan has emerged as the logical heir apparent, but the 27-year-old has yet to make the role her own—and, in fairness, that isn’t entirely her fault, with Sullivan often found isolated and exposed deep in midfield.

Sullivan played significant minutes in New Zealand in the USWNT’s January camp. 

In the latest iteration of the No. 6 experiment, Andonovski kicked off the USWNT’s New Zealand campaign with Taylor Kornieck at the position. The bold choice didn’t necessarily pay off, with the attack-minded player rarely able to help distribute and advance the ball from such a deep position—and was ultimately replaced by Sullivan after a lackluster opening 45 minutes. Portland Thorns star Sam Coffey, who was a part of the January camp, didn’t get any minutes against the Ferns but is a more natural defensive midfielder, playing the position as a consistent starter for her club.

Only six months out from the biggest tournament of his USWNT tenure, Andonovski needs to lock down a definitive No. 6—and fast. At this point, the role looks like Sullivan’s to lose.

The rest of the midfield is less of a puzzle, with Rose Lavelle, who was arguably the team’s standout player of the friendlies, stepping up in a variety of roles. Lavelle played deeper in the second match to account for the absence of captain Lindsey Horan, who had to cut her trip short to return to French club Lyon. Ashley Sanchez and Kristie Mewis round out Andonovski’s midfielder pool with both looking to make an impact ahead of the summer. 

The return of Lynn Williams 

Williams returned to USWNT action for the first time in nearly a year after a hamstring injury left her sidelined for the entirety of the 2022 NWSL season. The star forward didn’t miss a beat, scoring after replacing Mallory Swanson in the first game against the Ferns. Williams’s return comes in Sophia Smith’s and Megan Rapinoe’s absences, with both missing the January trip due to injury. Joining Williams on the wing was Midge Purce, who had been left off Andonovski’s previous roster due to a perceived dip in form. The NJ/NY Gotham FC striker appeared to take that personally, making the most of the minutes she was awarded and fielding two impressive performances.

United States women’s soccer forward Mallory Swanson celebrates her goal with Trinity Rodman and Lindsey Horan.

The USWNT scored nine goals across two games against New Zealand last week. 

Purce and Williams will have to contend with a winger pool that is incredibly deep, with a red-hot Swanson, who scored three goals over the week, and Smith as the presumed starters. An explosive and precise Trinity Rodman and veteran Rapinoe also wait in the wings, making the frontline one of the most competitive spots on the roster.

Ashley Hatch was also awarded a critical opportunity when starter Alex Morgan pulled out of the USWNT’s second matchup due to muscle tightness. On the fringe of Andonovski’s roster, Hatch needed to make a statement, and that she did—scoring the second game’s opener by finishing off a dime from Rodman. The Spirit forward will need to continue fielding performances like that as she fights to find a place at a position that has been dominated by Morgan, and Catarina Macario, who is on the mend and expected to return soon from an ACL tear.

Who is Vlatko Andonovski’s starting backline?

Andonovski continued to try out a series of defensive lineups, but one player got the start in both games, with Naomi Girma quickly emerging as the key to the USWNT’s backline. The 2022 NWSL Rookie of the Year can slot next to veteran Becky Sauerbrunn or fellow Stanford alum Alana Cook at the center back position, cleaning up balls played in behind and distributing out of the back with remarkable accuracy. Emily Sonnett also got some minutes at center back, but with Tierna Davidson—who was critical for the team at the Tokyo Olympics—returning from injury, her path to a World Cup roster spot will be a tough one.

On the flanks, Crystal Dunn’s return from maternity leave has imbued the outside back pool with renewed depth. The veteran defender shared minutes with Emily Fox and Sofia Huerta, with both players adept at spurring the attack from out wide and distributing quality balls into the box. With experienced players like Kelley O’Hara working back into the fold, Hailie Mace—who didn’t get much playing time this trip—still has some work to do to stamp her World Cup ticket.

As far as a starting lineup, Andonovski will need to solidify a core group soon to give players time to gel. Right now, Girma and Sauerbrunn appear to have earned their starting roles, while Huerta, Fox and Dunn fight for the starting fullback spots.

The USWNT will next take the pitch in February’s SheBelieves Cup, hosted on home soil.

This post was originally published on Sports Illustrated

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