Soccer coaches are faced with countless unenviable problems every day: How to go about training, how to set the team up for matches, how to meld personalities into a single unit. But one problem every coach would love to have is what Vlatko Andonovski is facing ahead of this summer’s Olympics: How to cut some of the best players in the world.
Outside of perhaps the U.S. Olympic basketball teams, I’d argue no team in sports has more depth in talent than the U.S. women’s national team. The four-time world champions are loaded at every position, making Andonovski’s task of trimming his roster to 18 players (five fewer than most FIFA competitions) incredibly difficult — but a problem any other coach would gladly deal with.
The USWNT has three friendlies in June before Andonovski makes his final USWNT Olympic roster cuts ahead of two send-off matches against Mexico in July. The U.S. coach brought in 23 players for matches against Portugal, Jamaica and Nigeria, with a few fringe players very much fighting for a place on the plane to Japan in July, not to mention a few injured stars hoping to maintain their spots.
Andonovski has said he hopes to make his final USWNT Olympic roster cuts by mid-June, meaning these upcoming friendlies are potentially the final chances to impress the coach.
Here are five players fighting to survive upcoming USWNT Olympic roster cuts.
Who Needs To Perform To Survive USWNT Olympic Roster Cuts
At 20 years of age, Sophia Smith is the youngest player on the June Camp roster. The Portland Thorns forward has just four caps and faces stiff competition to be one of the handful of forwards Andonovski takes to Tokyo. Four players in the June camp have 59 or more goals — including two with 100-plus — which is two more than any USMNT player has ever scored.
Smith has had a strong start to the NWSL season, currently leading the league in shots attempted, and her two goals only trail Alex Morgan early in the Golden Boot race. With games every three days in the Olympics, Andonovski might lean more on youth, which could give Smith a leg up over her competition, which includes four players over the age of 31.
For all of the USWNT’s depth over the years, the one question mark has always been right back. While the versatile and indefatigable Crystal Dunn has filled in nicely at left back, Emily Sonnett, Midge Purce and Kelley O’Hara are all fighting for one of the remaining fullback positions (plus the potential addition of Ali Krieger, not in the June camp).
Sonnett has an edge in experience over Purce (51 caps to six), but Purce has been superb in 2021 as Andonovski tries to turn her from a forward to a fullback like Dunn. Sonnett needs to reassert her claim to one of the fullback positions in the upcoming friendlies if she wants to keep a roster spot ahead of Purce.
With just 18 roster spots, Andonovski will only take two goalkeepers to Tokyo. Alyssa Naeher remains the undisputed No. 1, but the No. 2 spot is up for grabs. Jane Campbell continues to be solid with the Dash (and great at stopping penalty kicks, should the need arise) and Ashlyn Harris (not in the June camp) is always a great veteran option.
Despite her wealth of experience at the club level — two-time NWSL keeper of the year — Franch has only received four international appearances. The 30-year-old hasn’t always impressed when given an opportunity to represent her country, but a start against Portugal, Jamaica or Nigeria could provide the opportunity she needs to prove she can replicate her Portland Thorns form with the national team.
As much as 2020 sucked for most of the world, it was a super year for Kristie Mewis. Often the overlooked older sister of midfield powerhouse Sam Mewis, Kristie helped lead the Dash to the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup title and worked her way back into the national team setup for the first time in six years.
Kristie Mewis has taken full advantage of her recent USWNT opportunities, scoring against the Netherlands, Colombia and Argentina in the last eight months. Despite this form, she could find herself staying at home once again while her sister competes for a major international title, such is the talent available in midfield. That is, unless she can prove she is invaluable over the upcoming friendlies.
Among active players, only all-time leading scorer Christine Sinclair of Canada has more international goals than Carli Lloyd. But at 38, the New Jersey native could find herself on the outs when it comes to the final USWNT Olympic roster cuts.
Lloyd has pushed back retirement (and having a family) to make the Olympic roster, and history tells us it’s a bad idea to bet against her. She scored her 124th USWNT goal in February and has a desire to win that can’t be understated. And yet she’s not a lock to go to Tokyo this summer, having made a slow start to the 2021 NWSL campaign with Gotham FC and facing stiff competition for the limited number of roster spots.
In the past, Lloyd could rely on her ability to play as a No. 9, No. 10 or in the midfield to maintain her spot on the USWNT. Recently naturalized Catarina Macario is a remarkably similar and versatile talent — only she’s 17 years younger and doing great things with European superpower Lyon. Lloyd will have to fight for her ticket to Tokyo — and she’s always up for a fight.
While the aforementioned players are fighting to make the Olympic squad, there are others who are fighting a different battle: against injuries. Tobin Heath had an injury setback a couple of months ago but joined the USWNT for the June camp even though she won’t be involved in any matches. Similarly, Julie Ertz recently suffered an MLC injury and is racing to return to health in time for the Olympics.
There’s also the possibility of an outsider breaking into the national team before July. Mal Pugh has all but disappeared since playing at the 2019 Women’s World Cup but has been one of the NWSL’s top performers this season with two assists and one goal. And you can never count out a surprise inclusion of a youngster (think Julian Green for the USMNT in 2014). Could the door open for Jaelin Howell, Trinity Rodman or Mia Fishel? Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe both seem like locks, but with only 18 spots nothing is certain.
Vlatko Andonovski doesn’t have an easy task in making USWNT Olympic roster cuts to get down to 18 players. He will be able to include four alternates, but even with 22 players he’ll have to make some tough calls. I don’t envy him, but just about every other coach at the Olympics will.