This is the point in the four-year cycle when the World Cup starts feeling real. The major continental tournaments of summer are in the books, teams have qualified, rosters are starting to get more consistent and opponents for friendlies are becoming more challenging. The 2023 Women's World Cup begins in just over nine months. The draw? That's six weeks from now.
Now, the pressure will ratchet up for players in the coming months as they try to make their dreams reality and position themselves higher up the depth chart with strong performances for club and country -- or else, they will fall out of roster contention if form dips.
The U.S. women's national team head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, spent the past year overturning the core of a roster that won the past two World Cups to usher in a new generation. So which Americans will be on the plane to Australia and New Zealand in search of a three-peat?
ESPN will answer that question on a rolling basis throughout the next nine months, starting now with our USWNT Big Board, Vol. 1. A team loaded with so many bona fide stars offers some certainties, but the recent turnover within the team leaves plenty of roster spots up for grabs on the 23-player team. Add in the handful of potential starters who are recovering from injuries, and the field is further clouded.
How we're doing this
Let's start with the obvious: The team of 23 going right now will not be the team of 23 going to the World Cup (and for all we know, this could become a 26-player roster like the men's edition in Qatar).
Injury situations guarantee impending changes, but form will also ebb and flow, the team's needs will change, and other injuries could take place. Basically, nothing is official until it is on paper in FIFA's hands and the roster deadline has passed.
This is a ranking, by position, of how things stand right now. That means players with long-term injuries would not be on the roster if the World Cup started today. Plenty will change in the coming months as some of these players face competition unlike any they've faced before, including an Oct. 7 showdown with European champions England at Wembley.
Within each position, we've made tiers of players to add nuance to where things stand:
Tier 1: Roster locks. These players are either clear starters or pushing to be one, and as of today, would be on the plane for the World Cup.
Tier 2: The bubble. Players on both the right and wrong side of it, because if you aren't a lock, you are part of the bubble where nothing is certain.
Tier 3: Outside looking in. Players who have had a passing look with the team without tangible progress, players performing well for club but who haven't gotten a look, or players who were once integral but no longer seem part of the plans.
Wait and see: Former locks racing against time. This is a special category to account for injuries and absences -- these are players who were once locks, but now need to recover quickly enough and regain their status for a spot on the plane. There are enough of them that it needs its own category because an injured starter can't be Tier 1 right now, but we expect they should have a clear path to return to that tier -- if they get back to 100% in time.
Roster locks: Alyssa Naeher, Casey Murphy
The bubble: Aubrey Kingsbury
Outside looking in: Adrianna Franch, Jane Campbell, Bella Bixby, Phallon Tullis-Joyce
Wait and see: None
The No. 1 goalkeeper job remains Alyssa Naeher's to lose. Casey Murphy made a strong run at it earlier this year on the heels of some stellar performances in 2021, but she has struggled at times this NWSL season for the North Carolina Courage, a team whose erratic form frequently allows multi-goal thrillers -- not exactly a goalkeeper's dream game.
If anyone is going to challenge Naeher, it's Murphy, but there is work to be done. Naeher is a two-time World Cup champion and was the starter for the 2019 triumph. After that, Aubrey Kingsbury is in a bubble of her own as the choice No. 3 right now, a position which she has had locked down for the entire calendar year.
Bella Bixby and Jane Campbell are the last goalkeepers to receive call-ups outside of that trio, and those came for relatively experimental games in Australia last November. Adrianna Franch hasn't played for the U.S. in nearly a year following her emergency duties at the Olympics, where Naeher got hurt in the semifinal. Andonovski spoke on multiple occasions this year about learning from that moment, which is why Murphy has earned significant minutes this year, including at World Cup qualifying. Kingsbury still only has one cap.
Andonovski wants two options who are ready to be the No. 1 come the World Cup and right now, his trio is as set as it could be.
On the plane right now: Naeher, Murphy, Kingsbury
Roster locks: Emily Fox, Kelley O'Hara, Sofia Huerta
The bubble: Hailie Mace
Outside looking in: Carson Pickett, Imani Dorsey, Caprice Dydasco, Kristen McNabb, Merritt Mathias
Wait and see: Crystal Dunn, Casey Krueger, Emily Sonnett
Ah, full-back: The position of eternal questions for the U.S. men's and women's teams alike.
Emily Fox is clearly the starting left-back right now and has been all year. Andonovski tabbed her for that role last year, when she was an NWSL rookie, and he said he would spend the year building up her minutes to get her ready for the World Cup. That is exactly what happened and Fox offers the U.S. pace to go with a unique attacking profile in the position.
Of course, left-back was previously the position held down by Crystal Dunn, who gave birth to her first child in May and has not played yet this year. She trained with the USWNT in the most recent camp and expects to play some minutes for club and potentially country before the end of the year. Yes, she can play in the midfield, but her services are of greater need for the USWNT at full-back. At her peak, Dunn is the best the team has at the position.
By the time the World Cup kicks off, the question might not be Fox vs. Dunn, but rather who gets which side? As for now, Dunn is still trying to get back on a pitch during a game, so we'll revisit that.
Right-back is where were find more questions. Kelley O'Hara (recently, but not significantly injured) is the incumbent there and continues to show why when healthy. The health caveat is an important one that has been a factor for some time. Emily Sonnett's injury is significant enough to have been season-ending for the Washington Spirit, or she would otherwise be Tier 1 based on how she has rotated into Andonovski's lineups.
USWNT's Sofia Huerta crosses the ball in that Ashley Hatch capitalizes on to up their score to 4-0 over New Zealand.
Sofia Huerta has earned her most extensive trial as a U.S. international after making the one-time switch from Mexico, a dream she thought she had lost after blowing her initial opportunity in the previous cycle. Huerta continues to make her argument as the best crosser from wide areas in the entire USWNT pool, and her defensive game has largely improved.
She did misplay the ball that led to Nigeria's goal on Tuesday and ended the USWNT's 880-minute shutout streak, but she was stellar on both sides of the ball and played a role in two goals in the first game against Nigeria, a 4-0 win. Whether Huerta is the starter remains a question, but right now she is solidly part of Andonovski's plan. How she plays against England will tell how ready she is for a World Cup.
Casey Krueger also gave birth to her first child and has not played this year. She was used semi-frequently as a reserve full-back in 2021. The wild card, though, could be Hailie Mace, who only joined the USWNT for games against Nigeria as a replacement for O'Hara, but impressed enough in training to earn looks off the bench in both matches. Mace is in her best form ever in the NWSL as a wing-back for the Kansas City Current, who play a 3-5-2, but she had not been in camp in over four years prior to last week.
For all of the above players, there's still time to get on the roster -- especially at this position.
On the plane right now: Fox, Huerta, O'Hara
Roster locks: Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma
The bubble: Abby Dahlkemper
Outside looking in: Sam Hiatt, Alex Loera, Sam Staab, Emily Menges
Wait and see: Tierna Davidson
Center-back is also a curious position right now. Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook and Naomi Girma have been the three players rotating into those two spots almost exclusively since Tierna Davidson tore her ACL in March. Cook is the preferred starter alongside Sauerbrunn, who is the captain, but Girma has the skillset to claim the starting role.
Is there even a bubble after that? The most likely candidate for that is Abby Dahlkemper, but since returning from broken ribs earlier this spring, she has fallen out of favor as the starting center back alongside Girma at San Diego Wave FC, and the calls from Andonovski have stopped, too. Dahlkemper needs to get back in the XI for San Diego before she gets back into a USWNT camp, and does have the potential. She played every minute for the USWNT at the 2019 World Cup and has a passing range to rival any center-back.
From there, the rest of the talent pool is inexperienced, with Cook and Girma still early into their international journeys. A peek at the 55-player preliminary roster for the CONCACAF W Championship suggests that any of Alex Loera, Sam Hiatt, Emily Menges or Sam Staab are in Andonovski's peripheral thoughts. Combined, they have zero caps.
Davidson's return will be the most important to this position, and she could double as an emergency No. 6. Sonnett and even Mace also provide versatility between full-back and center-back, which is always a helpful trait when deciding on bubble spots. As it stands today, the USWNT is one more injury away from a major depth problem.
On the plane right now: Sauerbrunn, Cook, Girma
Roster locks: Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan, Andi Sullivan
The bubble: Ashley Sanchez, Kristie Mewis, Taylor Kornieck, Sam Coffey
Outside looking in: Morgan Gautrat, Savannah DeMelo, Jaelin Howell, Lo'eau LaBonta, Vanessa DiBernardo, Mikayla Cluff, Emily Madril, Dani Weatherholt
Wait and see: Sam Mewis, Julie Ertz
Midfield features the most interesting bubble section. Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan are Andonovski's starting trio as the Nos. 10, 8 and 6, respectively, but there are at least three spots behind them wide open for the taking, although Ashley Sanchez is looking more likely and should claim one of those reserve spots. Plus, what happens when Sam Mewis returns?
Lavelle is undroppable and in form, and Horan is best as a two-way midfielder when asked not to shoulder too much of the defensive responsibility, which can also be said for Mewis. Catarina Macario might also be part of this conversation, but we'll get back to that.
Sam Coffey earned her first cap on Tuesday and played the entire match in the No. 6 role. As debuts go, it was solid if not necessarily spectacular, which is about as much as anyone could ask for in a thankless role. As wild as it seems to go from first cap to World Cup, Coffey's case for inclusion right now is as good as anyone else's in the position, especially on form.
Julie Ertz previously defined the No. 6 role, so much so that it has been difficult for observers to evaluate any of her replacements. Ertz gave birth to her first child earlier this year and her playing future is unclear. Andonovski might know more about that, but for now, he must plan for life without Ertz.
Lindsey Horan credits Megan Rapinoe, Becky Sauerbrunn and Kelley O'Hara's experience in helping her grow as a leader with the USWNT.
Kristie Mewis has filled in at the No. 6 in a pinch, but it has largely looked forced. NJ/NY Gotham FC is rounding out an awful season, which has not helped her club form. Still, her ability to play in any of the three positions is to her benefit. Morgan Gautrat played her best club season to date in 2021, earning a recall to the USWNT, but she only played 45 minutes at February's SheBelieves Cup and has not played for the Chicago Red Stars since April 2 due to injuries.
Savannah DeMelo will have something to say about all this, and Racing Louisville FC teammate Jaelin Howell might still, too. For now, though, it's possible the final midfield spot comes down to Coffey and Taylor Kornieck. Given current injuries and the numbers game of roster composition, they both go as of today.
Also, at what point does Lo'eau LaBonta's NWSL form warrant a look in camp? She played for Andonovski at FC Kansas City, so there is familiarity there and a precedent set by Kristie Mewis' return to the USWNT following a great league campaign.
On the plane right now: Lavelle, Horan, Sullivan, Sanchez, K. Mewis, Coffey, Kornieck
Roster locks: Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh, Megan Rapinoe
The bubble: Margaret "Midge" Purce, Trinity Rodman
Outside looking in: Christen Press, Morgan Weaver, Tobin Heath, Ally Watt
Wait and see: Lynn Williams
Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh are NWSL MVP candidates and have the starting winger positions on lock for the U.S. national team. There really is not a debate. Both reiterated against Nigeria how dynamic they can be and why they are threats to any defense they come up against. The largest remaining criticism is their conversion rate at times, but that's also a matter of setting realistic expectations for any forward -- each is averaging better than a goal every other game in 2022.
Megan Rapinoe is also a lock as far as Andonovski's plans go. Such a firm position sparked controversy when she returned to the team ahead of World Cup qualifying, which Andonovski said was always going to be the plan. There were some external concerns about that being too much of a choice based on leadership and not form, but those have since been squashed.
Rapinoe continues to affect games off the bench, as she did on Tuesday when she assisted Lavelle's game-winning goal only 73 seconds after entering the match, and she is back to being a 90-minute player for OL Reign, notching four goals and three assists in four games in August. In short, Rapinoe is going to a fourth World Cup with sights set on winning a third straight.
Right after Megan Rapinoe comes onto the pitch, she crosses one to Rose Lavelle for the header.
Trinity Rodman might be next in line off the bench. In 2021, she put in an NWSL Rookie of the Year campaign that nearly doubled as worthy of MVP talk. She hasn't quite had a sophomore slump, but the Washington Spirit's generally horrible form has not helped Rodman's case. Smith and Pugh are also playing extremely well, so Rodman's role remains that of a reserve.
Margaret "Midge" Purce is in the mix after missing out on last year's Olympics. Lynn Williams is the player who could disrupt the depth chart upon her return, but that likely won't be until 2023. Elsewhere, Morgan Weaver will need a solid stretch run with the Portland Thorns to push her name back into the conversation, as would Tobin Heath, who was once a sure starter on the USWNT's World Cup-winning teams but hasn't been in the picture in nearly a year.
Christen Press' absence from the CONCACAF W Championship roster was the most surprising given her form. She tore her ACL two days before the public announcement of the roster, but had already been informed she would not be on the roster. The necessary recovery time for that injury likely puts her back on the field around the start of the 2023 NWSL season, which would make for a tough timeline to get back into the mix for a third World Cup.
On the plane right now: Smith, Pugh, Rapinoe, Purce, Rodman
Roster locks: Alex Morgan
The bubble: Ashley Hatch
Outside looking in: Mia Fishel, Bethany Balcer, Kristen Hamilton, Cece Kizer, Jessica McDonald
Wait and see: Catarina Macario
Alex Morgan is once again the clear No. 9, as if nothing changed at all. That is not true, of course. Earlier this year, Andonovski began building the team around Macario as the false nine who seamlessly interchanged with Lavelle in the attacking midfielder role, which left Morgan on the outside, not earning call-ups.
The results with Macario were brilliant at times even if they featured growing pains against lesser competition. But Macario's injury coincided with Morgan's career-best form, and Morgan handily beat out Ashley Hatch in the competition for the starting role in the meantime.
Assuming Morgan stays in this form and Macario picks up where she left off, Andonovski has a champagne problem. He is not going to move away from the 4-3-3, and he isn't going to drop Lavelle. So one of Morgan or Macario would have to sit, and they would rotate as needed in the World Cup (how's that for a super-sub in either case). Otherwise, Macario could become part of a "double-10" alongside Lavelle -- that would trigger a question of who as a pure No. 6 would then carry the defensive load, all while Macario would take a spot in an already crowded midfield depth chart.
Meanwhile, Mia Fishel remains in top form for Tigres as one of the best forwards in Liga MX, but Andonovski said last week that he has not had any conversations with her. Given the general lack of depth right now at the No. 9 position, and that Liga MX plays through the winter (when the NWSL is off), there remains an opportunity for her to change that.
On the plane right now: Morgan, Hatch