U.S. Women’s World Cup Roster Reflects a Team in Transition

Here’s a sentence you see every four years: The United States is a favorite to win the Women’s World Cup.

Why shouldn’t the public believe the hype this time?

The United States’ résumé is top of its class: It is the No. 1-ranked women’s soccer team in the world and the two-time defending world champion. And unlike any other women’s team, it has four tiny golden stars sewn above its jersey crest to show the program’s pedigree of four World Cup titles.

The team’s World Cup roster was announced on Wednesday, and the Americans are set to arrive at this summer’s tournament in Australia and New Zealand with a meticulously curated mix of players with and without experience on soccer’s biggest stage.

Nine players on the team have lifted the championship trophy before. For three of those players — forwards Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe and defender Kelley O’Hara — this will be their fourth World Cup. For two other players — goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher and midfielder Julie Ertz — this will be their third. Morgan said she is “just as excited and anxious” for this World Cup as she was for her first one.

But knowing what it takes to win and doing it with one of the most inexperienced teams the United States has ever taken to a World Cup are very different things. Of the 23 players named to the team, 14 will be World Cup rookies, including a pair of young forwards, 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson and 21-year-old Trinity Rodman.

One of those rookies, midfielder Savannah DeMelo, has never even played for the senior national team before. The last time an uncapped player like DeMelo was on the U.S. Women’s World Cup roster was 20 years ago.

Yet Coach Vlatko Andonovski said he was confident that this team had the talent to win a record third straight Women’s World Cup title, saying in a statement that the United States has “a roster with depth and versatility, and that will help us take on all the challenges that will be coming our way.”

In a video call with reporters, he added: We want to do something that has never been done before, and we believe in the quality of the team.”

Andonovski, who coached the team to a bronze medal at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, spent the past few years trying to rebuild his squad as this tournament loomed, easing out veterans and introducing new talent in an effort to construct a roster that he thinks can win this summer and succeed into the future.

He was faced with a few surprises as he tweaked the roster, which made a hard process even harder. Just last week, he lost his captain, defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who was ruled out with a lingering foot injury. Injuries also cost him the services of Sam Mewis, a midfield fixture of the 2019 World Cup champions, and more recently the presence of two valuable attacking options, Mallory Swanson, who appeared to be peaking at the perfect time, and Brazilian-born Catarina Macario.

Still, Andonovski had a core of stalwarts he could count on, including stars like Morgan and Rapinoe, who bring years of international experience as well as their gravitas as two of the most famous and most outspoken female athletes in the world. He also had midfielder Rose Lavelle, the breakout star of the 2019 tournament after she made scoring look all too easy. Lavelle and Lindsey Horan will offer a familiar combination of grit and flash in midfield.

There will be many new stars, including Sophia Smith, 22, who was last year’s most valuable player of the National Women’s Soccer League, and Rodman, the 2021 N.W.S.L. rookie of the year and daughter of Dennis Rodman, the former N.B.A. All-Star.

The Americans’ first game will be July 22 against Vietnam in Auckland, New Zealand — 9 p.m. Eastern time on July 21. That will be followed by the team’s biggest game since the last World Cup: a rematch with the other 2019 finalist, the Netherlands, that will probably leave the winner with a much easier path in the knockout stage.

Andonovski might have surprised himself with some of the names he had penciled in. But as with several other top teams, injuries forced him to alter his plans.

Sauerbrunn, 38, announced last week that she would miss the World Cup with a foot injury. She was not only a dogged central defender for years, but also a revered role model for her teammates: the team’s Zen master of confidence and calm, not to mention the anchor of its back line as it won the past two World Cups.

Her announcement came only weeks after Swanson, who had been Andonovski’s most dangerous forward this year, tore the patellar tendon in her left knee. Other players with World Cup experience, including Mewis, Abby Dahlkemper, Christen Press and Tobin Heath, have been out with injuries or are still coming back from surgeries. Macario, whose international career is on a steep upswing, simply ran out of time to get back up to speed after tearing the anterior cruciate ligament in her knee last year while playing in France.

There will be, however, many familiar and experienced players when Andonovski and his team gather for a training camp next week in California. Ertz, 10 months after having a baby, has stepped directly back into the team’s midfield. Crystal Dunn, who gave birth to a son 13 months ago, will continue to be a rock on defense, as will Emily Sonnett. A versatile player, Dunn can be moved to other positions, including midfielder. Both Dunn and Sonnett played in the last World Cup.

Casual fans will have to learn some new names. In her World Cup debut, Naomi Girma, a 23-year-old defender for the San Diego Wave, former Stanford team captain and daughter of Ethiopian immigrants, will be in line to replace Sauerbrunn. DeMelo is having a strong year for her N.W.S.L. team, which is partly why she was given this chance. And three young forwards — Smith, Rodman and Thompson — have what it takes to push Morgan, Rapinoe and Lynn Williams up front.

Thompson was called up after Swanson’s injury; she is only the fourth teenager to be named to the United States’ World Cup team and will become the youngest U.S. women’s soccer player at the tournament since 1995. The first draft pick in this year’s N.W.S.L. draft, Thompson has the energy, skill and phenomenal speed to be a generational player. But she is also just out of high school.

We just have such a great group,” Smith said. “I think no matter who you put out there, we’re going to get the job done.”

About Thompson, Smith said: I’m so excited for Alyssa. I think she’s so deserving of this and she’s proven herself. She’s ready for this, and I just can’t wait to kind of go through this with her.”

With all the new players mingled with the old, it remains to be seen if the team that shows up in New Zealand will have the swagger of previous ones. The team’s pre-eminence in the women’s game has been under threat from the growing investments, and the growing power, of rivals in Europe. Last fall, the United States lost three games in a row for the first time since 1993.

That the defeats came against three European opponents — Germany, England and Spain — was an unmistakable message to outsiders: The United States still ranks among the favorites. But its margin may be finer than ever.

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