We’re just under 18 months from the 2023 Women’s World Cup, and when the USWNT run out to play the Czech Republic in the SheBelieves Cup on Thursday the team will look very different from the one that has dominated for the last decade.
This is a roster largely devoid of the stars who have won two World Cups and an Olympic title in the last 10 years. Marquee names from Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan to Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz, and Christen Press won’t feature against New Zealand, Iceland or the Czech Republic. Just seven players from the victorious 2019 Women’s World Cup roster and four of that starting 11 are in this 23-player camp.
It’s a necessary change in a program moving away from its veteran stars just as the center of gravity in women’s soccer shifts toward Europe. Indeed, public interest and financial investment has accelerated across Europe. The belief that US domestic leagues and international tournaments like SheBelieves will feature top competition for the US no longer rings true. When it first started, the SheBelieves Cup attracted European giants like England, France and Germany to the United States. Now those teams are hosting their own tournaments on their side of the Atlantic – a tour of the US is perhaps no longer the ultimate test of an international team’s ability.
That’s the same in club soccer. Players looking to hone their talent with the best clubs on earth may consider life in Lyon or Barcelona. Those looking to make top dollar (or euro) may want to look at France. Historically, Canadians and Australians sought development in the US. But in recent years they’ve departed in droves to try their hand in England.
Looking at those changes, the inquisitive mind may wonder how dominant the USWNT really are.
One way to answer that question is to consult the Guardian’s Top 100 Women’s Footballers for 2021. The United States maintains the highest number of players of any nation on the list. You’ll need to dig past the top 50 to find most of them, though. Only three come earlier than that and the first of them (Sam Mewis) comes in at No 20. In contrast, five of the top 10 come from Spain alone. In a testament to Barcelona’s program, all of them play at Camp Nou.
The Guardian’s rankings are subjective of course, but they illustrate the fact that, while the USWNT have strength in depth, they no longer have the very best players in the world. And many of the USWNT’s most prominent players – such as Rapinoe, Press, Morgan and Heath – are in their 30s. That’s where Vlatko Andonovski’s SheBelieves roster comes in.
Equipped with a roster full of fresh talent – most of them with fewer than 50 caps – Andonovski says this tournament is the continuation of a trial in which players can make their case for their place in the team. It’s a trial he began in November with two friendlies in Australia. A very similar roster performed well there with standout performances from Ashley Hatch, Sophia Smith, Catarina Macario and Mallory Pugh. Andonovski called upon those names in particular (with Pugh the only one of that group with more than 15 caps), suggesting we’ll see them play a more important role going forward.
The veterans left off the roster are not banished for good, though. Some, like Mewis and Lindsey Horan, are out due to injury. Crystal Dunn is expecting a child in May. Press took time away from the game to focus on her mental health.
Others, though, are out due to their form. For this group Andonovski is making a point. No player – no matter their past achievements – is guaranteed a spot on the team. “They need to perform, they need to play in their markets, they need to play well in their markets, and show that they can still contribute and be valuable for the national team,” Andonovski said.
Julie Ertz is navigating the long journey back to form after recovering from yet another knee injury. Andonovski referenced Ertz’s situation a few times, saying her focus needs to be at the club level first. “We all know how good she can be when she is fit,” he said.
Heath is fulfilling a childhood dream trying her hand at Arsenal. She has shown flashes of her ability but is not in top form. Rapinoe, meanwhile, ranked third in the NWSL for average goals per 90 minutes in 2021, and scored key goals for the USWNT at the Olympics. But she has shown signs of slowing down with the national team. Rapinoe will turn 37 in July and if she travels to Australia for the 2023 World Cup, it may be in a leadership role, passing the torch while playing a less central role on the pitch.
Rapinoe’s long-time USWNT teammate Morgan has not performed to her abilities since the 2019 World Cup. After giving birth in 2020, she embarked on a short-lived career at Tottenham Hotspur before heading back to the NWSL. While showing moments of brilliance and notching four goals for Orlando, she is far from her best.
Asked about Morgan, Rapinoe, Press and Heath in particular, Andonovski told the media: “There’s a reason Mia Hamm is not in camp. We’re not calling Mia Hamm and Julie Foudy in camp.”
The USWNT, then, are in an era of transition. But Andonovski is a savvy leader who understands the need to evolve. He spoke enthusiastically of a new collective bargaining agreement for NWSL that frees national team players to pursue contracts abroad. He was effusive in his support of players like Macario and Horan seeking challenges abroad in Lyon. And importantly, he’s shown an understanding for the importance of developing the future roster while holding star players accountable.
The old guard may not be done quite yet, but we can look forward to a lot more of the likes of Macario, Smith, Hatch and Pugh.