The U.S. women's national team kicked off a 10-match tour de preparation ahead of the Women's World Cup on Saturday against the 2019 tournament host, France, in Le Havre. The match (in which the U.S lost 3-1 and recorded its first loss since 2017) and the others to follow have a definite purpose to serve, as the favored reigning world champions look to fine-tune their tactics and test themselves against elite competition prior to taking on the best the planet has to offer in June (and ideally July).
Next up comes a date with Spain; a SheBelieves Cup gauntlet vs. Japan, England and Brazil (all in the top 10 of FIFA's latest world ranking); and friendlies against Australia, Belgium, South Africa, New Zealand and Mexico. Of the 10 opponents, eight will be taking part in the Women's World Cup–a third of the field–with only Belgium and Mexico missing out. In addition to whipping the squad into shape, manager Jill Ellis has another chief objective over the next five months: whittle the player pool down to 23.
Not every active player that either helped the U.S. win in 2015 or qualify for the 2019 World Cup will necessarily get the chance to bask in the competition's glory this summer, and there are always stories of last-cut heartbreak that are largely a product of it being strictly a numbers game. The vast majority of the squad is all but set in stone given the large nucleus developed over the last few years, but there are definitely some roster battles to be watching in the coming months. So where does Ellis's team stand now ahead of, for some, a de facto 10-match tryout for a ticket to France?
Here's a projection of a USWNT 23–featuring 11 players who won it all four years ago–one that could be slightly altered based on performances and injuries going forward:
Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns)
Naeher is the presumed starter this summer–the first non-Hope Solo goalkeeper the U.S. will have start in a World Cup since 2007–and will be backed up by Harris, a veteran with few opportunities as a starter on the international level.
That leaves the fight for the third goalkeeper spot. The 28-year-old Franch, the two-time reigning NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year, holds a slight edge over the younger Jane Campbell (23), but both were included on the trip to France and Spain, indicating a battle that is far from won.
Crystal Dunn (NC Courage), Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals), Kelley O'Hara (Utah Royals), Abby Dahlkemper (NC Courage), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars)
Dunn (left back), O'Hara (right back) and Sauerbrunn (center back) are all effectively givens in Ellis's preferred starting XI. Dahlkemper and Davidson–one a past NWSL Defender of the Year, the other its most recent No. 1 overall draft pick–figure to battle for the second starting center back berth next to Sauerbrunn, while Sonnett and Short have accrued the caps necessary over time to make them reliable substitutes if called upon. For Dunn, being a roster lock is a far cry from where she was four years ago as the last player cut from the team that went on to win it all in Canada. There's enough versatility among the group to only bring seven defenders, while Julie Ertz, who was a revelation at center back in the 2015 Women's World Cup, could also slide back from the midfield if necessary.
Morgan Brian (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Allie Long (Seattle Reign), Samantha Mewis (NC Courage), McCall Zerboni (NC Courage)
Another group that appears set is the starting trio of Horan, Ertz and Lavelle, though there is ample depth behind them. There's a question regarding the 31-year-old Long, who has been in and out of the picture with some injury problems and was not part of January camp or World Cup qualifying (for which there was a 20-player roster). Her experience and familiarity with the set-up and stage are valuable commodities, she's a popular presence on the squad and can also add an element of precision in the midfield. Zerboni, meanwhile, was trending toward making the World Cup qualifying squad before suffering a broken elbow in September. She can still play her way to France, though.
Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Utah Royals), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Mallory Pugh (Washington Spirit), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign)
Morgan being flanked by Heath and Rapinoe should be a common theme in France, with Press, Pugh and Lloyd not much of a drop-off in reserve. For Lloyd, the star of the 2015 triumph in Canada, being a substitute is not in her makeup, but she's shown well in that role over the last year and will be hard-pressed to displace any of the presumed starters (unless Ellis eases into the World Cup given the first opponent is Thailand, a team the U.S. beat 9-0 in their last meeting in 2016). If form and fitness are at their optimum levels, then the 20-year-old Pugh could well have the international breakout plenty have predicted for her.
ON THE BUBBLE
The third goalkeeper spot will come down to Franch or Campbell in one of the calls that should be least impactful on the squad as it relates to gameday fortunes. Elsewhere, defenders Jaelene Hinkle (though her case is a bit more complex), Merritt Mathias, Sofia Huerta, Emily Fox and Hailie Mace; midfielders Danielle Colaprico and Andi Sullivan; and forwards Jessica McDonald and Lynn Williams all figure to be on the cusp, either being a dip in form or injury away from shooting up the list. Should they get opportunities in any of the upcoming matches, they'd be wise to make the most of them and give Ellis something to really ponder.