The US women's national soccer team is in a period of transition.
Coaches will have to choose between veteran stars and new faces ahead of next year's World Cup.
Julie Foudy, Rose Lavelle, and Julie Ertz spoke to Insider about the future of the USWNT.
With the Tokyo Olympics in the rearview mirror and the World Cup just 18 months away, Vlatko Andonovski is weighing all of his options.
The US Women's National Team head coach has opened up the pool of players in the mix for a spot on his squad's roster. From battle-tested veterans and megawatt superstars to in-and-out role players and starry-eyed newcomers, a wide array of the country's top players are still in contention just six months ahead of World Cup qualifiers.
The former group — the Megan Rapinoes, Alex Morgans, Becky Sauerbrunns, Tobin Heaths, and Christen Presses — are proven entities as World Cup champions and Olympians many times over.
But those who are new to call-ups to the national team or have not suited up for the Stars and Stripes in years are more of a wildcard. They're not as experienced, to be sure. But as USWNT legend-turned-ESPN analyst Julie Foudy told Insider, "there's a lot of upside."
"There is something to be said about that youthfulness — there's just a new spark," Foudy said. "So it brings an element that's been missing, and that's needed."
The world got a glimpse at the next generation of the USWNT during a recent trip to Australia
Foudy, a longtime national team captain, was encouraged by what she saw from the youngsters during their recent trip Down Under. With an average age of 26.2 and a whopping six newcomers without a single cap for the national team, the 23-player roster Andonovski brought to Australia for two November friendlies against the Matildas was full of fresh faces.
And the budding stars delivered, earning a 3-0 win and a 1-1 draw against a "really good" Australia squad playing in front of record crowds in Sydney and Newcastle.
"For us to walk away in their Sydney stadium 3-0 up was a tremendous result," Foudy said. "I think [the players] all would say that wasn't even scratching the surface, because it's such a new group and there's so much to learn and grow from. But it had to be exciting for Vlatko [Andonovski] and the staff to say, okay, look at the potential."
Current USWNT star Julie Ertz — whose hustle and grit has made her an instrumental member of two World Cup squads and two Olympic rosters — got a glimpse of that potential while watching the Australia matches from back home in the states. Since reinvigorating a knee injury at the Tokyo Olympics, Ertz has steered the soccer field — and USWNT camps — to rehab in Arizona.
And though she's eager to rejoin the national team and begin the push to the World Cup, the 29-year-old defensive midfielder recognizes "the importance of growing and having younger talent" on the USWNT.
"Continuing to want the success of the national team is really always first," Ertz told Insider. "Being with the team for nine years, you understand the cycle of younger players coming in and developing."
Meanwhile, Rose Lavelle — the crafty midfielder who burst onto the international soccer scene with a stunning left-footed goal that capped the USWNT's 2019 World Cup victory — got a first-hand look at the newcomers as one of the most tenured players to take the late-fall trip to Australia. Though she admitted that taking on a leadership role for the national team was "new territory" for her, Lavelle was really excited by what she saw from the new group.
"We came with a very new lineup. We didn't have a lot of time to prepare. We played a really, really good team," Lavelle told Insider. "So to come away with those two results while also keeping in mind that we could be so much better was really exciting."
"It was a good experience for a lot of players to get their first cap or come back into the mix after being gone for a while," she added. "It was really cool to get that group together and then come away with the results that we did."
That group, full of players unfamiliar to most casual national team fans, features some of the brightest talent and biggest names in the National Women's Soccer League. Both Lavelle and Ertz have spent most of their professional careers playing for clubs within the US-based league, so both are intimately familiar with the talent coming up the pipeline to the USWNT.
"It's so funny because... people will say 'new faces' and I understand they're new faces to the national team, but I've been able to see and watch the progression of many of these players in the league," Ertz, who was recently traded to Los Angeles-based NWSL expansion club Angel City, said. "To be able to see them on this stage, to me, is no surprise."
"It shows how much the league matters," Lavelle added, reflecting on what it was like to see current and former club teammates get called up to the national team. "I was just excited for them to all get rewarded. And then for all of them to get to play, too, and have some big moments was obviously really exciting."
A handful of USWNT newcomers left strong impressions on Foudy, Ertz, and Lavelle
Ashley Hatch, who played alongside Lavelle for the Washington Spirit from 2018 to 2020, was top of mind as someone who "had an amazing season" in the NWSL last year.
"It was amazing to see her get rewarded and get called up," Lavelle added.
The 2021 NWSL Golden Boot winner made her first national team appearances in several years during the trip Down Under, and she quickly lived up to her reputation as a prolific scorer.
Hatch scored twice in two starts against the Matildas. And both times, she found the back of the net in the first five minutes of play.
"I was really excited for Ashley Hatch," Ertz said. "She got a couple goals as well. To get your first start and also first score in the first minute is pretty cool. I'm sure that was a special moment for her."
"She did really good and just came in and seamlessly fit in," Lavelle added. "Two starts and two goals is just even more icing on the cake."
Lavelle also mentioned current OL Reign teammates Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta as players who performed well with the USWNT after stellar NWSL play. Foudy, for her part, liked the pairing of Cook and Tierna Davidson on the back line.
And both were impressed with Emily Fox, the top pick in the 2020 NWSL Draft who Foudy deemed "really good in that outside back position" through 123 minutes in Australia.
"We got to see what she could do at the international level," Lavelle added. "She's so fast and aggressive on defense. Great 1-v-1. She was great."
But no one made a stronger case for themself than Casey Murphy, the 25-year-old goalkeeper who used what Lavelle called "two unreal games" to introduce herself as the national team's goalkeeper-in-waiting.
The North Carolina Courage star became the seventh netminder in USWNT history — the first since incumbent starter Alyssa Naeher — to record a clean sheet in her first cap. She added eight saves, several of which were acrobatic and awe-inspiring, to keep the national team out of trouble for the full 90 minutes and earn Budweiser Woman of the Match honors.
Andonovski stuck with Murphy for the second game of the two-part series. And once again, Murphy did not disappoint. She and the USWNT's defensive unit held the Matildas scoreless through the first 87 minutes of regulation, but an unlucky deflection in the final moments of regulation resulted in Murphy's first — and only, to this point — goal against in her senior national team career.
"Casey had a tremendous trip," Foudy said. "Someone said to me on an ESPN hit I did: 'Does that create a goalkeeping controversy?' And I said 'I wouldn't call it a controversy. I'd call that a great problem to have.'"
"That's a healthy, competitive position," she added. "When Naeher gets back from injury and [Adrianna] Franch is back, I mean, that's gonna be fun to watch."
Goalkeeper is far from the only position where the competition will be fierce in the coming months. At nearly every spot on the field, Andonovski has more worthy players than he can possibly keep.
"And you're still missing a whole crop of players in Trinity Rodman and Mal Pugh," Foudy noted. "Sam [Mewis] wasn't there. Julie Ertz isn't there. Crystal Dunn is pregnant. And we haven't even gotten to that veteran group — [depending on] how many are gonna stay or continue on — but Press, Heath, there's so many."
Once again, the USWNT has an embarrassment of riches. And once again, there are some difficult choices to make.
In the next 18 months — and perhaps even sooner with World Cup qualifiers on the horizon — Andonovski will need to whittle down the field and select a core group for soccer's most prestigious competition. And while each player will warrant consideration on her own individual merits, Andonovski's larger decision will be between two distinct paths.
On the one hand, Andonovski could stick with the old guard that helped the US win back-to-back World Cups but showed some considerable vulnerabilities at last summer's Olympics. On the other, he could opt for fresh faces who offer tons of upside but lack the experience that has proven so valuable in major international tournaments.
Even with two World Cup victories and a pair of Olympic gold medals under her belt, Foudy isn't sure which route is best.
"It's gonna be interesting when they get 'em all back. There's some decisions for sure," she said. "But I mean, even Becky Sauerbrunn said it's definitely a different and awesome energy with that younger group, because there's a hunger in everything they're doing."
"And it's not saying that the veteran group is complacent, because you never could say that about any national team player. It's in our DNA," Foudy added. "But now suddenly [a call-up] means a lot more to the veteran players, too."
"It's a good motivator."
There are few wrong decisions in a pool as strong as this one; while the USWNT's starting XI is widely regarded as the best on the planet, its backups are considered a close second.
As the top team in FIFA's women's national team rankings, the US is the favorite to hoist the World Cup in 2023 for the third consecutive time. And though that's unlikely to change regardless of which path Andonovski takes with his roster, the rest of the world's national teams will happily take any opportunity to gain some ground.
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