To indulge a badly overused cliche: Vlatko Andonovski is currently facing the problem every coach wants to have.
With a plethora of top talent to choose from, the U.S. women’s national team boss will somehow have to pick just 18 players for his Olympics roster this summer.
It will be especially cruel for the final five cuts, who would have otherwise made the 23-player roster that most other tournaments use, including the World Cup.
There is no doubt that some big names will not be going to Japan. The only question is who those unlucky players will be. Here, Goal takes a stab at Andonovski’s 18-player roster for Tokyo.
- MAKING THE CUT: Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris
- MISSING OUT: Jane Campbell, Adrianna Franch, Aubrey Bledsoe, Casey Murphy
Naeher is rock solid as the team’s starter but the picture has grown quite murky behind her.
After years as the team’s clear backup, Harris was omitted from the SheBelieves Cup roster, a decision Andonovski insisted had nothing to do with her recent adoption of a baby along with her wife, USWNT defender Ali Krieger. That omission came after Andonovski bypassed Harris in favor of giving Campbell a start against Colombia in January.
Campbell again started for the U.S. against Argentina in the SheBelieves Cup, but just like in the game against Colombia, she faced zero shots on target. The Houston Dash goalkeeper is clearly gaining on Harris, but the veteran is still the backup until Andonovski says otherwise.
- MAKING THE CUT: Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O’Hara, Crystal Dunn, Emily Sonnett, Tierna Davidson
- MISSING OUT: Midge Purce, Casey Krueger, Ali Krieger, Alana Cook, Emily Fox
The team’s starting back four of Dunn, Sauerbrunn, Dahlkemper and O’Hara has not changed in recent years and will remain the same heading to Tokyo, barring injury (a particular concern for O’Hara).
That likely leaves two more defensive spots. Andonovski has seemed to rate Sonnett as his top backup at fullback, though the Washington Spirit defender did not have a strong SheBelieves Cup. She can also play center-back.
Davidson, another versatile player who was a World Cup winner at age 20, gets the nod ahead of Purce, who is cruelly left off due to the U.S. having cover at both of her preferred positions, fullback and forward.
Julie Ertz can also play center-back but she has become indispensable at her holding midfield position. If possible, Andonovski will want to keep her out of the backline.
- MAKING THE CUT: Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Kristie Mewis
- MISSING OUT: Andi Sullivan, Jaelin Howell, Morgan Gautrat
As mentioned, Ertz is the team’s linchpin and perhaps its most important player. Sam Mewis has developed into one of the team’s best players, while Horan’s world-class ability to control games and Lavelle’s playmaking mean they are both locks if healthy.
That leaves Kristie Mewis as the final inclusion. Starting from far outside the USWNT picture a year ago, the elder Mewis sister has worked her way up the depth chart by making a major impact in nearly every game she has featured in.
Do not count out Howell just yet, as the 21-year-old has a big future and may be the best true backup for Ertz at the holding midfield position. Similarly, Sullivan could make a late charge if she gets healthy.
Both are just outside this roster for now though, with Sam Mewis and Davidson able to fill in as a No.6 if required.
- MAKING THE CUT: Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Lynn Williams, Christen Press
- MISSING OUT: Carli Lloyd, Catarina Macario, Jessica McDonald, Ashley Hatch, Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh
We will save the most room for the forward position, because it is the spot where it is a certainty that some big names will be chopped from the roster.
The number of headline-making cuts at forward will depend on whether Andonovski sees Macario as a forward or midfielder. Though she has played in both spots for the USWNT, Macario, a natural attacker, has looked better in the front three and should be viewed as a contender for one of the forward positions.
For now, the extremely promising Lyon attacker is on the outside looking in. Macario has shown flashes in her brief USWNT career but not enough to force Andonovski to take her to Tokyo at the expense of a more proven star. She does, though, have a handful of games left to force her coach’s hand.
Morgan, Press and Rapinoe can be considered locks if healthy, based on past performances and recent displays. Rapinoe and Morgan, in particular, have recently answered a lot of questions about their sharpness after long absences.
Heath is a big question mark due to a serious ankle injury that will likely keep her out until April or May. The winger should have around two months to regain her form and fitness before the tournament in Tokyo, which is enough time to keep her on the right side of the cut for now.
Andonovski, though, will be wary of bringing any player who isn’t 100 percent after his predecessor Jill Ellis was burned by bringing a hobbled Rapinoe to Rio five years ago.
That brings us to our final major call: Williams or Lloyd? Williams has not inspired a huge amount of confidence with her finishing ability, though she does create a high volume of chances.
Where she really has the edge, though, is in her pressing. Andonovski has noted repeatedly how important Williams is to the team’s suffocating high press, and her energy will be even more crucial than usual in a tournament with short turnarounds like the Olympics. For Andonovski, bringing at least one forward younger than 30 seems like a prudent move.
And so, Lloyd is the odd woman out.
It would be extremely cruel on the 38-year-old, who is showing precious few signs of ageing as she nears 300 USWNT caps. However, the need for Lloyd as a backup target forward is diminished by the inclusion of Press, who has played the position before and is currently featuring there at Manchester United.
Lloyd, Macario, Pugh and Smith. On most teams, that is a front four good enough for medal contention. For the USWNT, it is a group who could be doing what all the rest of us will be come summer: watching the Olympics.