Andonovski, USWNT mulling World Cup depth decisions at SheBelieves Cup

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The U.S. women’s national team beat Japan 1-0 on Sunday with a vastly different starting lineup than the one that beat Canada 2-0 on Thursday at the SheBelieves Cup

So what does that mean for the World Cup roster?

U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski and his staff have the stressful task of whittling down a large pool of talented players to a 23-player roster that will travel to New Zealand and Australia for this summer’s World Cup, which begins July 20. FIFA recently confirmed that the rosters will remain at 23 players and not increase to 26 — as it did for the men’s World Cup in Qatar last fall.

Andonovski told reporters recently that he has narrowed the group down to 32 players, but the USWNT only has four more games before heading Down Under for players to solidify those spots.

The U.S. coach got a decent look at different personnel in Sunday’s match against Japan, making five starting lineup changes from the group that played against Canada on Thursday. This included switching Casey Murphy for Alyssa Naeher in goal, Naomi Girma and Sofia Huerta on the back line for Becky Sauerbrunn and Crystal Dunn, Kristie Mewis in the midfield for Andi Sullivan, and Lynn Williams on the wing for Trinity Rodman

Andonovski also made six substitutions in the second half as well, and there could very well be a completely different rotation on Wednesday in Frisco, Texas when the USWNT faces Brazil in its final match of this tournament.

Before getting into who might have helped their case against Canada and Japan, it’s important to remember there are still a handful of players who are in the final stretches of recovering from injuries and aren’t with the team right now. Sophia Smith (foot) and Catarina Macario (ACL) are locks to make the roster and probably start at the World Cup. Andonovski said they’re both in “return to play protocol” and should be back with the team during the FIFA window in April.

Then there’s Kelley O’Hara (hip), Tobin Heath (knee) and Christen Press (ACL), all of whom have valuable World Cup experience that would serve an otherwise inexperienced American team well. They are also in “return to play protocol,” but their respective roster statuses are not as clear.

It’s also known now that Julie Ertz (maternity leave) and Sam Mewis (knee) will not play for the national team this summer.

Tierna Davidson (ACL) returned to train with the team in Orlando. Rose Lavelle has not played in the SheBelieves Cup yet due to a knee “knock” she sustained during training, but she should be ready to start at the No. 10 spot when healthy.

This leaves wiggle room for players on the bubble to make the final argument as to why they should be on the final World Cup roster and get playing time.

The U.S. had plenty of rotation against Japan, which included Andonovski giving Williams her first start in 15 months. Williams severely injured her hamstring last March and has been on a 10-month layoff after surgery. She played 64 minutes on Sunday before coming off for Rodman.

Andonovski highlighted what Williams offered defensively from the top line against Japan’s high press.

“One of the things that Lynn is very special at and is probably one of the best defenders from the attacking players and there’s no hesitation when she goes into press and drives the intensity of the team and sets up a good rhythm,” Andonovski said. “At the beginning of the game we were trying to figure out [Japan’s shape] and the areas we had to cover. At times that made it harder for Lynn. But in the beginning of the second half, we made adjustments and I thought she was very good.”

The forward pool is incredibly deep, however. Williams plays on the wing — so do Smith, Rodman, Megan Rapinoe and Mallory Swanson. It’s a crowded group and will be a tough spot to snag.

Kristie Mewis, who is Sam’s older sister, made her first start and played the full 90 minutes for the first time in a year. She played centrally alongside Lindsey Horan and Ashley Sanchez, in what was a uniquely difficult game for the midfield because of Japan’s organized 3-4-3 style.

“It was a tough game for the midfielders because they had to solve problems consistently and every time we saw a problem, there was a different challenge,” Andonovski said. “For Kristie to come in this game and constantly solve those problems was really good for us to see how she’s gonna adjust in those moments. But also in possession, I thought she was really good and had clean touches on the ball. She connected very well with the players around her and did bring a little calmness on the team, which I thought was very important at different times of the game.”

There’s been a lot of controversy as far as how Andonovski will organize his midfield at the World Cup. Right now, the safe assumption is that the U.S. will deploy a midfield trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan most of the time.

The SheBelieves Cup is valuable because it mimics the World Cup group stage and knockout rounds with the U.S. playing three games in seven days against three completely different types of opponents. Each match presents a different challenge and one day it might make sense for Sauerbrunn to start while the next game might make more sense for Girma. Other games maybe Andonovski will pair them together at center back, for example. 

Even Murphy, who earned her 13th cap, could potentially start over Naeher at some point this summer if the moment dictates. Murphy was resilient against Japan’s attack and showed she’s capable of making big saves (she was credited with two) like she did in the final 10 minutes.

“It just shows what this team is all about,” Andonovski said. “I mean, every position is going to be a battle regardless of where they are on the field.”

And those battles will continue all the way up until Andonovski has to make his final decision.

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of “Strong Like a Woman,” published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

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