Honestly, when was the last time we read that more than half of the USWNT roster had no qualifying experience? Other than the first World Cup qualifiers Ever In Haiti before the 1991 Women’s World Cup, my best guess is never to expect it.
In fact, these 13 eligible entrants all have 27 caps or less, including eight in the single digits: Alana Cook (9 games), Ashley Hatch (8), Ashley Sanchez (7), Casey Murphy (4), Trinity Rodman (3), Naomi Germa (1), Aubrey Kingsbury (1) and Taylor Cornick (0).
What does that tell you about the coach Vlatko Andonovsky, who has chosen him at this moment? He tells me that the youth turnaround is official, and Andonovsky didn’t need the upcoming USWNT friendlies against Colombia on Saturday and Tuesday to know what direction the team would take. So much so, that Kristen Press, even before the AFC Champions League was torn apart, wasn’t even on the final 23-player roster. And given the high-profile play that the younger group had at NWSL this year, if I were Andonovsky, I’d trust them too.
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Certainly, it was a setback and a huge disappointment when Catarina Macario recently ripped up the AFC Champions League due to her season with Lyon, helping them win the Champions League and Ligue 1 title by scoring 23 goals across competitions. But Sophia Smith and Mal Pugh are equally charismatic with their respective NWSL teams, and with Alex Morgan seemingly scoring as he pleases for the San Diego wave, leading the league with 11 goals, that three-man showdown from Smith, Morgan and Buff would be a handful for every CONCACAF opponent. .
The midfield sitting behind them – if he’s healthy (finalists in a year like this) – should be Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Andy Sullivan, although I know more than just San Diego Wave fans are excited to see what Taylor Cornick can do. . She does at that level, given her dominance on the wave.
It’s the back line where I think most of the question marks fall. With Tierna Davidson injured in the ACL and Abby Dahlkemper’s injury bouts going, Alana Cook and Naomi Girma may be given the nod once again as the center-choice duo, as they were in previous USWNT matches in April.
But with Becky Sauerbrunn back in the fold healthy, will Andonovsky choose to bring the veteran captain to the starting lineup 11? I think it probably goes with the same starting lineup he used in the last USWNT friendly against Uzbekistan – Sofia Huerta was on the right, Cook and Jerma in central defence, and Emily Fox on the left.
This rare positional battle where a veteran might cling to a spot faced by a novice is where friendlies against Colombia before the qualifiers can affect Andonovsky’s style. His focus is clearly on the qualifying tournament at the beginning of July, and his roster selection shows he’s intent on pushing the team to a younger age – but nevertheless, Colombia’s friendlies are his last stop on the qualifying road in Mexico, and we should see him test his on-field partnerships.
The only reason many fans were so impressed with the list announcement was the fact that Megan Rapinoe had made the final list. And I say “head scratching” because Rapinoe has never played much for her team OL Reign. She was just coming back from injury and played a total of 154 minutes for the entire season.
Given Andonovsky’s insistence that all national team call-ups must prove themselves at club level, the reason for the call-up suddenly becomes crystal clear: It’s Megan Rapinoe.
Andonovski called Rapinoe because he loves the bragging that a player like Rapinoe brings. I don’t think he’s planning to give it a lot of minutes, but he wants it there as an option to take off the bench if they need a goal, if they need a lift, and mostly, to give this young group confidence. It is her drive and mentality that he seeks more than anything else.
Yes, you get that leadership and veteran experience with players like Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelly O’Hara and Alex Morgan, but there’s only one Megan Rapinoe when it comes to that bravado. And I take you back to the first point above: With no more than half the team running in the playoffs, Rapinoe brings stability more than anything else. I’ve done it on every level – and the brighter the lights, the more they shine. This confidence is contagious.
Remember, this CONCACAF W qualifier is especially interesting because it doubles as an Olympic qualifying tournament.
With four CONCACAF teams claiming an automatic place in the 2023 World Cup thanks to an expanded 2023 World Cup field, qualification for the World Cup should be a foregone conclusion for the United States. The USWNT simply has to finish in the top two of its group which are Haiti, Jamaica and Mexico, which means that reaching the semi-finals of the tournament is enough to qualify for the 2023 World Cup. They don’t have to win the semi-finals to qualify for the World Cup – all they have to do is reach to there.
But to get to the Olympics, this is where things get interesting: The United States must either win this CONCACAF W Championship outside the right or finish in second or third place to earn the right to play a playoff to reach the Olympics. Only two CONCACAF teams will compete in the 2024 Olympics in Paris.
So buckle up: There may or may not be turmoil when it comes to these playoffs. Given how young this group is, you never know. This is a variant that I absolutely love.