Nine months from the 2023 World Cup, the U.S. women's national team is at an inflection point.
A recent trip to Europe produced a 2-1 loss to England followed by a 2-0 loss to a Spain team missing 15 of its best players as part of a wider dispute with the federation. The USWNT was without several starters even beyond the long-term injuries they have dealt with for most of the year, but the loss in Spain especially raised serious questions about the trajectory of this U.S. team.
Individually, poor performances across the board should mean nobody's place in the starting lineup is a lock. Of equal concern is how England bossed the U.S. midfield, and how a relatively inexperienced Spain team comfortably played out of pressure and restricted the U.S. to just two shots on goal. A pair of home games against Germany loom in early November, and the USWNT absolutely needs to produce more confident performances, at minimum, before the team's long winter break arrives.
Will there be fresh faces in camp as part of the search for solutions? Will head coach Vlatko Andonovski make bigger changes to the entire system the team plays? Those questions will shape the final roster heading to Australia and New Zealand next summer.
Throughout the build-up to the World Cup, ESPN will look at the USWNT's depth chart, and the various movement taking place within it. This is the USWNT Big Board, Vol. 2. Since our first Big Board in September, we now have the notable addition of 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson and a search for answers in midfield and defense. Crystal Dunn is also officially back -- and she is needed.
How we're doing this
Just as with the previous Big Board, the 23 players going to the World Cup right now will probably not be the team of 23 going to the World Cup. Of this, I am very confident. That's because injuries and recoveries guarantee impending changes, as will dips and boosts in form.
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This Big Board is again 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, with recent results also likely to dictate further trial and error.
Within each position, we've made tiers of players to add nuance to where things stand:
Tier 1: Roster locks. Clear starters or players pushing to be starters, 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, 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 -- players who were once locks, but now need to regain their status for a spot on the plane. This scenario 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, Katie Lund
Wait and see: None
Not much has changed here since last time. Alyssa Naeher is the No. 1, but Casey Murphy continues to get minutes as part of the U.S. coaching staff's desire to make sure it has a goalkeeper with experience ready to step in should Naeher get injured.
Naeher and Murphy split the October trip to Europe, with Naeher in net for the 2-1 loss to England and Murphy suffering the 2-0 defeat to Spain. Neither player necessarily did anything to greatly help or hurt her case, as defensive breakdowns in front of them left them exposed (and England's game-winner came from the penalty spot).
There remain valid questions about whether goalkeepers outside of the bubble deserve a better look.
Adrianna Franch is atop that conversation, with her stellar shot-stopping ability on display again in the Kansas City Current's 2-1 playoff victory over the Houston Dash on Sunday. The biggest criticism of Franch might be her comfort level with the ball at her feet, but that is not a strength of many in this U.S. pool.
On the plane right now: Naeher, Murphy, Kingsbury
Roster locks: Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, Sofia Huerta
The bubble: Hailie Mace, Carson Pickett
Outside looking in: Imani Dorsey, Caprice Dydasco, Kristen McNabb, Merritt Mathias
Wait and see: Kelley O'Hara, Casey Krueger, Emily Sonnett
The most drastic changes from Vol. 1 of the USWNT Big Board come at full-back. Crystal Dunn is officially back in the squad after giving birth to her first child in May. If Dunn can play, she is going to the World Cup. Hailie Mace and Carson Pickett each started against Spain after Emily Fox took an early hit in the England game and went into concussion protocol.
Dunn's return is a welcome one for U.S. fans, especially with Kelley O'Hara still sidelined by a hip injury that has kept her out of two straight camps and the end of the NWSL season. Given O'Hara's uncertainty, she slides into the "wait and see" category, while Dunn returns as a lock.
As I wrote in Vol. 1, the question by the time the World Cup arrives might just be about whether Dunn is on the left and Fox on the right, or vice versa. Sofia Huerta will have something to say about that. For all the critics of Huerta's defensive skills -- there is no denying her ability to create from the full-back position, especially on the cross -- she was defensively sound against England.
Hailie Mace absolutely thumped this ball in for the equalizer! #NWSL (🎥 @NWSL)pic.twitter.com/cV9xp78W2B— AllForXI (@AllForXI) September 18, 2022
Mace is back with the U.S. after a four-plus year absence. She entered the England match at left-back for the injured Fox in the opening half-hour and quickly conceded the penalty, a high boot that was called by a VAR check some time later. Against Spain, she started at right-back.
Mace's strengths are clear in the attack and her recovery speed is superb, something this U.S. team has been lacking in general. Sometimes, she needs that as a matter of her own making -- she's too aggressive to step to her attacker at times and gets pulled out on the flank. It's been a while, but Mace has played center-back, where the USWNT is lacking depth, and that versatility could come in handy.
Pickett flew to Spain two days before the match, to replace Fox, then started in her first start for the U.S., and held her own as pressure swelled on the USWNT. The performance elevates Pickett into competition on the bubble alongside Mace. Given the injury to O'Hara, Andonovski would have to take one of them if the World Cup started today, which shifts the positional balance of this Big Board. Mace can offer help centrally in a pinch.
On the plane right now: Fox, Huerta, Dunn, Mace
Roster locks: Becky Sauerbrunn, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma
The bubble: None
Outside looking in: Abby Dahlkemper, Sam Hiatt, Sam Staab, Emily Menges, Tatumn Milazzo, Alex Loera, Elizabeth Ball
Wait and see: Tierna Davidson
Center-back is a position of concern right now. It's increasingly clear, as it has been for months, that Naomi Girma provides the USWNT with the passing range, agility, and one-on-one defending that the team otherwise lacks both in the position and in several areas of the field. It is unclear, however, if Girma is a starter today.
It was Girma alongside Alana Cook against England. Cook failed to clear the cross on England's opening goal, after the U.S. was too easily broken down on the flanks, and allowed Lauren Hemp space around the top of the 18-yard box.
For the second time this season, @naomi_girma is the @ally Rookie of the Month! pic.twitter.com/30Qlb21S9B— National Women's Soccer League (@NWSL) October 14, 2022
Sauerbrunn, who is the USWNT's captain, paired with Cook against Spain as Girma rested ahead of the NWSL playoffs. The U.S. was generally poor across the field in Spain, including lost marks on the two goals conceded -- first on a corner kick and then in open play. Who should be the starting pair? And who else is even behind the trio on the depth chart?
Abby Dahlkemper, who has not been called in since spring, appears to have another significant injury. Tierna Davidson is still recovering from a torn ACL, and the given the questions in midfield, her return could be equally important to the No. 6 conversation. She'll likely be more needed as a center-back option, though.
By way of a position with a pool that has not expanded much, and given recent performances, I'm adding to the third tier Tatumn Milazzo and Elizabeth Ball, based on their NWSL play, because the USWNT needs to find answers. There's an argument they belong in Tier 3, but it's hard to say uncapped players are even on the bubble right now.
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
Of all the concerns confirmed by the October trip to Europe, the composition of the midfield is the most pressing. Individually, Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan are plenty talented. Lavelle is among the best No. 10s in the world when in form, as she has been for OL Reign all year, and for stretches with the USWNT. Horan is ideally a box-to-box midfielder. Sullivan continues to fill big shoes in the holding midfield role.
In their current roles, things have not clicked lately as a unit. They did at times during the spring and at the CONCACAF W Championship, and there was a fair grace period for the team at large during this generational transition. Yet England and Spain were the first big tests, and they did not go well.
Sam Coffey is an intriguing option who Andonovski clearly rates -- he said recently he thought she should be in the conversation for NWSL MVP based on her rookie season with the Thorns. But a lone No. 6 increasingly looks like a tall order in this system for either Sullivan or Coffey. Will Andonovski change the team's shape?
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The answer to that question could mean changes across every line on this depth chart. Among those on the outside looking in, Vanessa DiBernardo just wrapped up her best season yet with the Chicago Red Stars, primarily in a holding role. She can play in several midfield roles.
Keep an eye on how Taylor Kornieck fits into this equation, too. Kornieck missed the trip to Europe due to an ankle injury but was healthy enough to play 103 minutes for San Diego in Sunday's NWSL playoff game. Kornieck only earned her first call-up for the CONCACAF W Championship earlier this year, and her game is still a bit raw for the international level, but in San Diego she continues to show how useful she can be as a midfield target to play out of pressure.
She's also the tallest field player (6-foot-1) in U.S. women's national team history, and Kornieck is not averse to hard tackles -- while those need to come in moderation, this U.S. team could use some more tone-setting bite right now.
The midfield group on the plane is unchanged, for now -- but expect some movement around the bubble after November. Also, the impending return of Sam Mewis looms large.
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, Alyssa Thompson
Outside looking in: Christen Press, Morgan Weaver, Tobin Heath, Ally Watt, Jaedyn Shaw
Wait and see: Lynn Williams
The addition of 17-year-old Alyssa Thompson for this camp was a surprise. The general feeling was that it would be a good opportunity for the wunderkind to experience the senior international level, but then she appeared off the bench in both games. Thompson added a needed injection of life to the U.S. in that Spain game, even if it already felt lost.
Thompson made the trip to Europe at the expense of Margaret "Midge" Purce, and she perhaps got the nod over fellow 17-year-old Jaedyn Shaw because Shaw was preparing for her first NWSL playoff campaign with San Diego. Thompson is still finishing high school. Based on the evidence we have, though, Thompson is suddenly in the picture. That could change, and U.S. Soccer should avoid adding pressure to her, but if she's good enough to get the call and earn minutes away against England and Spain, she has to be in the World Cup conversation.
One of the bright spots of the England game was Trinity Rodman, whose would-be equalizer was called back thanks to an inconclusive offside call by VAR earlier in the play. Rodman was effective on the wing and made things happen one-on-one when the USWNT really needed an outlet.
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Mal Pugh's absence, due to what U.S. Soccer called a "family commitment," was greatly felt in Europe, especially because Alex Morgan missed the trip due to injury, forcing Sophia Smith into the No. 9 role for both games. (Morgan is back from her injury, having scored the extra-time game-winner for the San Diego Wave on Sunday in front of a record crowd in the opening round of the NWSL playoffs.)
Smith was solid in the central role for the USWNT in Europe, even if she should be faced up at defenders rather than asked to have her back to goal to get the most out of her game. Smith is a starting winger, and currently she also looks like the back-up No. 9.
Megan Rapinoe struggled to track back against England, a matter compounded by Fox's early exit from the match at left-back.
On the plane right now: Smith, Pugh, Rapinoe, 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
Morgan's absence in Europe really highlighted the thin depth at No. 9 right now. Catarina Macario won't return from her torn ACL this year, and Ashley Hatch only played the final 45 minutes against Spain.
Even with Morgan missing the most recent camp, Andonovski went for an internal solution with Smith at the No. 9, so we didn't get any new insight into potential added depth.
On the plane right now: Morgan, Hatch