Early on in the US women’s national team’s march to their second consecutive World Cup title last summer, fullback Ali Krieger hailed her team’s luxury of talent by proclaiming:
“We have the best team in the world, and the second-best team in the world.”
That fearsome depth was on display again as head coach Vlatko Andonovski (photo above) named his roster for the Concacaf Olympic qualifying tournament which kicks off in south Texas later this month, the first competitive matches of his tenure and the first official step towards Tokyo 2020.
There are only 20 roster slots per team for this event, and even fewer (18) at the Olympics should the USWNT qualify as they have for all six editions of women’s Olympic soccer dating back to 1996, winning either gold or silver in all but the most recent.
So that means disappointment for at least a few of those who took part in the 2019 Women's World Cup triumph and want to help the program find Olympic redemption after their shocking quarterfinal loss to Sweden four years ago in Brazil.
This time it was Morgan Brian, Allie Long and Mallory Pugh, while Tierna Davidson and Alex Morgan are currently sidelined by an ankle injury and pregnancy, respectively. Any of them could start regularly for most any national team in the world. But not much is guaranteed to anyone on the USWNT, where competition is ferocious and a deeply-rooted culture of success sets a high bar.
“Making this roster was highly competitive,” Andonovski told reporters in a conference call following the roster announcement. “The players came in ready physically, mentally to compete for every roster spot, and at the end, the ones that I believe will give us a chance to be successful and will give us the best chance to qualify for the Olympics are the ones that made the roster.”
New coach leaves his mark
As the successor to two-time world champ Jill Ellis, Andonovski faces a stiff challenge himself: Maintain the momentum of the greatest juggernaut in women’s soccer history while gradually refreshing the squad ahead of the 2023 Women’s World Cup cycle.
There are subtle signs of this dichotomy in his selection of deep-lying midfielder Andi Sullivan and striker Lynn Williams, the only two players on this latest roster who were not at the last World Cup.
With such a small roster at the Olympics, versatility is a key factor. Having Sullivan as an option for the No. 6 role allows Andonovski to use field general and all-around wrecking ball Julie Johnston Ertz at center back, while Williams’s pace and poaching abilities are a reasonable facsimile of Morgan and could maximize ageless veteran Carli Llloyd’s effectiveness as a second striker.
“Lynn Williams has something that probably not many players on this team [do],” Andonovski said, “a little more an open-field player where she’s able, with her speed and explosiveness, to get behind back lines. So that will just add another weapon to the team.”
Conversely, the news of the qualifying roster is a setback for Pugh, the slashing attacker who made the 2016 squad as a teenage phenom and turned professional at age 19.
Back then the Colorado native seemed primed for a Christian Pulisic-like rocket ride to stardom, but her progress has slowed markedly as she’s struggled to make a commensurate impact in NWSL play over the past two years. In his conversation with the media, Andonovski gently called on her to build greater consistency, while taking care to note that she’ll train with the team during qualifying, a special dispensation to keep her connected to the group.
That move is emblematic of the new coach’s challenge to find a delicate balance between competition and cohesion with this supremely talented, deeply confident collective.
Andonovski, who was named head coach in October, has earned widespread respect for his achievements in NWSL with Reign FC and FC Kansas City, and his knack for engaging with players on both a cerebral and emotional level. But there’s precious little margin for error at the helm of the USWNT, who live under a hot spotlight and often go months, even years between competitive losses.
Frankly, they face low odds of tasting defeat over the next month. They’ll meet Haiti, Panama and Costa Rica in the group stage of the qualifying tournament at BBVA Stadium, home of the Houston Dynamo, all expected to be one-sided routs, before meeting the second-place finisher from Group B – probably Mexico, but possibly Jamaica – in a must-win semifinal at the LA Galaxy’s Dignity Health Sports Park.
Victory there books Olympic qualification and a tournament final date with the other semifinal winner, and based on past history that will be their longtime rivals, Canada.
The USWNT’s performance level remains sky-high, as do the expectations. From start to finish, only gold will suffice in 2020.