Analyzing the USWNT's World Cup roster: Surprises, snubs, more

The roster that will lead the U.S. women's national team through the Women's World Cup this July has been decided, and it certainly is not without gambles and surprises.

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In announcing his World Cup roster on Wednesday, coach Vlatko Andonovski balanced conservative, expected picks -- Alex Morgan as striker and Lindsey Horan in the midfield were obvious -- with riskier choices, including a slew of young players making their first World Cup squad. When Andonovski had the choice of sticking with players he was very familiar with or rolling the dice on someone new, he wasn't afraid to take a chance.

Now Andonovski has ended up with a roster that has the usual mix of veteran experience and young talent but leans more on younger or untested players than the previous two World Cups, which the USWNT won.

Three players -- Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Kelley O'Hara -- have made their fourth World Cup team, and 14 players will be competing in their first World Cup, compared with 11 debutants in 2019 and eight in 2015. And unlike those previous two tournaments, most of the debutants are expected to be the USWNT's starters, with the likes of Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman or Lynn Williams figuring to lead the USWNT's attack with Morgan up top, and the core of the USWNT's defense being two new center-backs, Naomi Girma and Alana Cook.

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So, with all of that in mind, let's take a closer look at the big surprises of the roster, and the conundrums that Andonovski's squad selection leaves behind to be answered only in the USWNT's tournament opener on July 21.

Pressure's on Alex Morgan without a backup striker

In the simplest terms, Morgan's role for the USWNT is part goal-scorer and part distraction.

With Morgan as the target striker up top, the USWNT is often trying to feed her the ball so she can score, something she has been doing a lot lately for her club, the San Diego Wave. She has five goals in her past 10 club games this season, after a league-leading 16 goals in 19 games last year.

But Morgan is also a magnet for defenders, and she's sometimes relegated to the unglamorous role of pulling apart defenses off the ball so her teammates can score. On the ball, Morgan's holdup play and her ability to provide service to the wingers around her is an underrated part of her game that she has developed over years as the USWNT's lone center-forward in its current system.

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And on this roster, the USWNT is really going to be counting on Morgan to be both the goal-scorer and the non-goal-scorer up top because there is no direct replacement. The only other dedicated striker who has had significant minutes for the USWNT up top over the past couple of years is Ashley Hatch, and she didn't make the cut.

Hatch came off the bench for Morgan or started in 15 of the USWNT's past 25 games, including five of the USWNT's seven games in 2023. Ultimately though, as good as Hatch has been in NWSL, her contributions for the USWNT were far less compelling.

So who is Morgan's backup? Who is going to come on for her late in games when the USWNT needs to push for a goal with fresh legs? Players such as Lynn Williams and Sophia Smith can play as center-forwards, and they have experience playing up top for their clubs. But they've primarily played on the wing for the USWNT, meaning Andonovski is going with a lesser-tested option than if he had simply brought Hatch.

Another wrinkle is that Smith is probably going to be a starter throughout the tournament, and Williams has a strong case as well. If those two aren't Morgan's backups, then Andonovski is looking at a player who really is -- for club and country -- primarily a winger or a midfielder. Could Andonovski be considering midfielder Ashley Sanchez or winger Trinity Rodman as backups for Morgan? We'll see.

Perhaps Andonovski looked at what former coach Jill Ellis did in her 2019 World Cup-winning run and decided he could make better use of the extra roster spot Ellis used on a backup for Morgan. In 2019, Morgan's backup was Jessica McDonald, a striker who played only 45 minutes the entire tournament. Carli Lloyd, a midfielder, started playing as a free-roaming, withdrawn striker instead, negating the need for another dedicated striker.

But in a scenario where Morgan gets injured, this decision could have major implications for how the USWNT plays.

The least surprising 'surprise' inclusions: Julie Ertz, 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson

If you've tended to follow the USWNT only in actual competitions -- like, say, last year's double-qualifiers for the World Cup and Olympics, or the recent SheBelieves Cup invitational -- you might've assumed Ertz was still out of the national team picture -- having stopped playing soccer after the 2021 Olympics -- and you might not even be familiar with Thompson.

But the USWNT's last two friendlies before Andonovski picked his roster -- a pair of relatively comfortable wins over Ireland -- changed what the USWNT squad looked like. First, after a 610-day absence from soccer, Ertz made a surprise return and picked up where she had left off, running pocket to pocket in the midfield and flying into tackles. Then, Thompson got her first start (third cap overall) and, despite being just 18 years old, she looked as if she belonged at the senior USWNT level.

For Ertz to make this roster, Andonovski had to change his standards and go against his word: he had insisted repeatedly that players would earn call-ups based on their club form, but Ertz had been without a club since late 2021 when Andonovski called her into the USWNT's final camp before selecting his World Cup roster. The mere fact she was called in at all felt like an admission that Andonovski needed her too much to stick to his word. It felt like, by calling her in at all, he planned to select her for his World Cup team.

In truth, the USWNT had missed Ertz ever since she stepped away from the game -- her marauding, bruising brand of midfield enforcement was not something any other player possessed. Andonovski has tried shoehorning other midfielders there, such as Lindsey Horan, but it limited what made them great. He tried a double pivot, essentially asking two players to do the work Ertz used to do alone, but it left the USWNT unbalanced going forward.

Andonovski seemed to settle on Andi Sullivan, but her deep-lying, distributing style as a defensive midfielder lacked the bite the USWNT sorely missed. With Ertz's return, Andonovski got his solution, and she could be a starter in New Zealand for the USWNT's opening game.

For Thompson, a starting role seems less likely, but her form in the NWSL right now is indisputable. She's been scoring audacious goals, which only punctuate her pacey explosiveness and her ability to weave her way through defenders with the ball stuck to her foot.

At 18, Thompson is the youngest player on the roster and the second-youngest in USWNT World Cup history, and she plays with a fearlessness that is hard to beat. That is probably also what makes her so compelling for Andonovski: with her talent, she should be part of the USWNT for years, and allowing her to experience her first World Cup is an investment in her development.

If Ertz's lack of club form forced Andonovski to go against his word when he selected her, Thompson's selection allows Andonovski to proclaim he did what he promised: Thompson's club form demanded a World Cup spot.

The real surprise inclusions

World Cup rosters tend to lend themselves to surprises. With everything on the line, high stakes and each roster spot undergoing the utmost scrutiny, coaches tend to go with their guts.

Ellis, who won back-to-back World Cups during her tenure, revealed some big surprises in 2019, bringing in defender Ali Krieger and midfielder Morgan Brian (now Gautrat) despite neither having been involved in the USWNT leading up to the tournament. In Krieger's case, she didn't even get a camp invite for two years until Ellis abruptly brought her in for the final camp before the World Cup.

Yet Ellis was going back to players she knew well, veteran players she had seen play in World Cups. In the end, she didn't trust the new players she had brought in and wanted to stick with what she knew. As she put it during her roster announcement in 2019: "Some of the players you don't ever know until that moment that they're in the pressure-cooker of a World Cup quarterfinal or semifinal."

That's what makes Andonovski's roster surprises so different and perhaps riskier. He called up Savannah DeMelo, a player with zero appearances on the international level, and Aubrey Kingsbury, who earned one cap in 2019.

DeMelo, a midfielder, was first called into a camp in September 2022 as a replacement player when Rodman got injured for two games against Nigeria. She was then called into camp in October 2022 for games against England and Spain. But she didn't get a single minute across any of those matches.

Kingsbury, a goalkeeper, was called up several times through 2022, but she never played a minute and hasn't had a call-up in 2023. Her inclusion means that Adrianna Franch, the backup goalkeeper Andonovski called in for every USWNT camp this year and was far more familiar with, stays home.

Andonovski is making these two decisions, it seems, based on their play in the NWSL, which is the league where almost all of the USWNT's roster competes. DeMelo and Kingsbury have been sensational in their respective positions for their clubs in 2023. DeMelo was named NWSL Player of the Month for May, about the time Andonovski was surely narrowing down his roster.

It's also worth noting that calling in an uncapped player isn't without precedent. Defensive midfielder and U.S. Soccer Hall of Famer Shannon Boxx made the 2003 World Cup team based on club play. Debbie Keller made the 1995 World Cup squad too, but, well, things were different in 1995 -- there were no clubs, so it had to be based on college play, and her college coach at UNC was also the outgoing USWNT coach.

Let's be clear: Andonovski is rolling the dice here. It's unlikely Kingsbury, presumably the third goalkeeper behind starter Alyssa Naeher and backup Casey Murphy, would ever get on the field. But DeMelo is taking a roster spot that could've gone to a midfielder such as Taylor Kornieck, someone who played in 10 of the USWNT's past 17 games. Or that spot could've gone to a backup for Morgan, or another defender...

A defense lacking veteran experience without Becky Sauerbrunn ... and Tierna Davidson

Center-back and USWNT captain Becky Sauerbrunn was on the USWNT roster until sometime last week, when Andonovski accepted that she would not be able to recover from a lingering injury in time. Losing her so close to the start of the tournament is a serious blow to the USWNT.

On and off the field, Sauerbrunn is a leader and role model. At 38, she would've been the oldest player on the USWNT roster, offering an experienced, calming presence, having been through three previous World Cups. She's also been a confidant of Andonovski, who has openly talked about seeking her advice.

With 216 appearances, she would've been the most capped player on the roster and anchored the back line. But now, a relatively young duo -- Naomi Girma (15 caps) and Alana Cook (24 caps), each of them competing in her first major tournament -- will probably be the starting center-back pairing.

Despite the lack of World Cup experience without Sauerbrunn, Andonovski has opted not to bring in Tierna Davidson, the most experienced natural replacement he had available. With 48 caps, including the 2019 World Cup and the 2021 Olympics, under her belt, Davidson would've been arguably the most like-for-like swap for Sauerbrunn.

Instead, it appears the lone backup for Girma and Cook will be Emily Sonnett. She certainly has experience -- with 74 caps, including the 2019 World Cup and the 2021 Olympics -- but much of it has been at fullback, given her role as a utility defender. Of 630 possible game minutes in 2023 for the USWNT, just 45 of them came at center-back for Sonnett. Her club, OL Reign, has even tried her out at defensive midfielder this season.

Sonnett's "jack of all trades, master of none" profile along the back line could be concerning. Her ceiling as center-back isn't as high as Davidson's is at her best. And if Sonnett doesn't work out or injuries happen, Andonovski might need to ask Ertz to reprise her former role from the 2015 World Cup or ask a fullback to step into the central defense.

There are probably two reasons Andonovski went with Sonnett over Davidson. The first is that Davidson hasn't been playing that well in the NWSL. Part of it is just that her team, the Chicago Red Stars, has been struggling, but her individual performances haven't been her best.

The second reason is that Sonnett's versatility gives Andonovski more options. World Cups aren't always about the best 11 players but rather the best 20, and having players who allow for extra contingency plans can make all the difference. Andonovski needs to squeeze as much depth as possible out of 23 roster spots (with three required to be goalkeepers), and having a player like Sonnett, who can play anywhere along the back line in a pinch, might have made it hard for him to discount her as a call-up.

Injuries and roster absences change the USWNT's World Cup -- and the team's chances

You might notice that a lot of the talking points from this roster involve contingency plans and worries about lack of backups. That's partly because a World Cup requires such an examination, but it's also a testament to how the USWNT has been devastated by injuries.

In addition to Sauerbrunn's late exit, consider the injuries to Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario. The two of them were without a doubt the USWNT's best attacking players over the past couple of years, and you can't easily replace the two best players on a roster.

Macario was so good that Andonovski was building the team around her, even pushing Morgan out for a while. Swanson was so good that she accounted for 20% of the USWNT's goals over the past two years -- she entered the game in which she suffered her World Cup-disqualifying injury on a six-game scoring streak.

Then consider that Samantha Mewis, the USWNT's key midfield linchpin at the 2019 World Cup, has also been out with an injury. On top of that, look at Rose Lavelle, who did make this roster but hasn't played since an injury with the USWNT in April. Only then does it become clear why we are talking so much about contingencies and surprise inclusions.

The Americans are far from the only team slammed by injuries -- England and France are two favorites that especially look hampered -- but it's hard to look at this roster and not wonder: Are the players who aren't there going to decide the USWNT's chances?