This is not the USA women’s team you think it is. Yes, USA are in search of an unprecedented third successive World Cup title. Yes, USA are still ranked No 1 in the world by Fifa. And yes, there is a target on their collective back as one of the perennial favourites at any major tournament. The players who won in 2019 though? They are mostly absent.
Just nine of the 23 named in USA’s World Cup squad were part of the triumph four years ago, of whom only five also took part at the 2015 tournament. News of captain Becky Sauerbrunn’s foot injury, which will keep her out of what would have been the 38-year-old’s fourth World Cup, only underscores the dramatic turnover that has played out during the past 18 months. If USA are to “threepeat”, they will do so with a vastly younger and less experienced group.
“I don’t want us to feel like we have something to lose; we only have something to gain,” Sauerbrunn said before her injury. “I don’t want us to feel like we’re defending championships. We’re actually attacking this new one.”
Four years ago the US were clear and undeniable favourites. They hit their peak at the perfect moment for a tournament that arrived at the wrong time for otherwise talented teams such as Spain and Australia. The US were the only non-European team among the last eight and picked off four consecutive European opponents in the knockout stages to claim the title. This time around, however, the squad is filled with questions and potentially risky solutions.
Injuries have decimated the plans of the head coach, Vlatko Andonovski, at every turn. At the start of the squad overhaul in early 2022, playmaker Catarina Macario was set to be the focal point of the attack. The only question was if she would be better as the withdrawn centre-forward or the No 10. Macario tore an anterior cruciate ligament last spring and has not yet returned to the field.
Sam Mewis, a starting central midfielder in 2019 and a standout for Manchester City soon after that, has not played in over a year due to a knee injury. Christen Press, the electric forward who scored a crucial goal in an unexpected semi-final start against England four years ago, has not fully recovered from a torn ACL.
Then came the more recent, gutting blows: Sauerbrunn’s injury and Mallory Swanson’s torn patella tendon suffered in an April friendly against Ireland. Swanson scored seven goals in the first six games of the year for the United States, at times dragging the team through moments of struggle.
“It can’t be emphasised enough how big of a loss Becky Sauerbrunn was, because it is a young and inexperienced group. You need leaders and Becky is that,” the former US international Heather O’Reilly tells the Guardian.
Sure, there are familiar names – Alex Morgan, the 2019 Golden Ball winner Megan Rapinoe, and defender Kelley O’Hara (another player limited by injuries this spring) are back for their fourth World Cups. Rose Lavelle is a better, more established midfield presence now after her breakout 2019 World Cup, although she spent nearly three months sidelined by a knee injury this spring.
Much of the squad, however, is far less experienced on the international stage. Midfielder Savannah DeMelo is only the third player in US history to make a World Cup squad before her first cap. The 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson, who is effectively Swanson’s replacement, is the second youngest player to be selected by the US for a World Cup.
Several first-time World Cup participants will play prominent roles. There is Sophia Smith, the 2022 National Women’s Soccer League MVP, who will patrol one of the wings alongside Morgan. Then there is the centre-back Naomi Girma, the No 1 pick in last year’s NWSL draft who, as a rookie, was named the league’s best defender.
“The benefits that go with [inexperience] are that you’re just wide-eyed and fearless,” says O’Reilly, who will be an analyst for Fox at this World Cup. “Throughout my career, I was way more fearless when I was younger because you don’t realise the magnitude of things.”
An injection of youth (and their subsequent inexperience) is not reason alone to be down on the US’s prospects. It was the process undertaken for this generational shift, and the lack of clear results, that begged questions. Consecutive losses to England, Spain and Germany last autumn produced the team’s first hat-trick of defeats in 30 years.
The midfield was one of the more concerning elements of those defeats, particularly since their opponents served as the first elite tests of this new American group.
For 18 months after the Tokyo Olympics, speculation surrounded the midfield: how can Julie Ertz be replaced? The obvious answer of “she can’t be” eventually yielded an ironic conclusion: only she could replace herself.
Ertz, who gave birth to her son in August 2022, surprisingly announced her return to playing in March. She came off the bench in the April friendlies against Ireland then signed with Angel City for the opportunity to play in less than a dozen club matches before the tournament.
Ertz will almost certainly be the starting defensive midfielder in Australia and New Zealand, but will she be anything close to the 2019 version of herself, arguably the best and most irreplaceable player in the world? Andonovski has made the bet that she can be, despite limited time to test the theory.
There are questions for the US to answer in every department of the team, creating at least the perception of a historical giant on unstable footing. In that regard it should be remembered that eight years ago, doubts swirled around the team during the group stages only for them to click in the quarter-finals and claim the trophy in Canada.
O’Reilly sees parallels to the last major generational shift in the team, one she witnessed first-hand. She made her debut as a teenager in 2002 and was part of the 2004 team that won an Olympic gold. What followed was a drastic and difficult overhaul as the “Fab Five” – Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, and Joy Fawcett – began to retire. A new wave of players came in and the 2007 World Cup was, by the US’s standards, a disaster. They lost 4-0 to Brazil in the semi-finals and ended the tournament with clear and public division among the team after a controversial goalkeeper change.
Several young players during that era, however, became the core of a group that would win the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, finish runners-up at the 2011 World Cup and win the 2015 edition (before a repeat in 2019). O’Reilly was part of those experiences until 2015.
“This isn’t the first time that this question has been raised,” she says about the mentality of the current group. “There were probably a lot of people that were wondering about this new crop of players, which I was in. This isn’t the first time that these questions have been answered in terms of a transition moment.”
A relatively favourable draw may well help the quest for more global glory. Australia, the stronger of the host countries, are on the other side of the knockout bracket, as are Brazil, Canada, England, France and Germany.
If the US can win their group – which will likely be decided by the 2019 final rematch with the Netherlands – there is a pathway to the final that would take in a last-16 encounter with either Italy or South Africa and, potentially, a semi-final date with Sweden. That, too, shares parallels with 2015, when knockout games against Colombia and China allowed the United States to grow into the tournament.
To pretend World Cup preparations for the US have been anything like those for the past two cycles would be disingenuous, however. Never before has this much of the squad looked so uncertain.
If the US are to win a fifth World Cup it will be a grind. Talent and potential are abundant among the group, but World Cups are about timing. This one might be too soon for a juggernaut still undergoing a remodel.
Data and graphics by Julian Amani.