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  • The celebrations will go on for the coming days, weeks and months, but at a certain point, the U.S. women's national team will have to turn the page and begin focusing on preparations for the Olympics and the 2023 Women's World Cup cycle. Here's who could–and may not–be part of the picture as it strives for five.
By Avi Creditor
July 09, 2019

The bubbly is still being poured, though on this side of the Atlantic Ocean now, and Ashlyn Harris is still moonlighting as the greatest videographer that ever lived, but it's never too early to look ahead at what the future holds for the U.S. women's national team.

The 2019 Women's World Cup champions are home, and they're ready to celebrate at Wednesday's parade through the Canyon of Heroes in downtown Manhattan. They'll deservedly be saluted by the masses before heading out west for the ESPYs Wednesday night in Los Angeles. The victory lap will undoubtedly continue with more mainstream TV appearances and celebrations with friends and family. At some point, they'll sleep. From there, they'll return to their NWSL clubs while also preparing for the victory tour of friendlies that will follow the addition of the fourth star to the team crest. The dates have already been set for that five-match coronation, which begins Aug. 3 at the Rose Bowl–20 years after the 99ers won the USA's second title there. It may take days, weeks or months, but eventually, the successes of 2019 will be put to be bed and the focus will return to figuring out how to keep staving off the increasingly more competitive foes from around the world.

Just who will be tasked with that challenge remains to be seen. Change, which happens after every World Cup cycle, is in the offing. It most certainly is at the very top, where U.S. Soccer is hiring a new CEO and appointing a first USWNT general manager. Manager Jill Ellis's contract expires at the end of this month but has an option to be extended for another year through next summer's Olympics in Tokyo. Ellis has given no indication one way or another of what the future holds for her, but it's rare for managers to hang on for three World Cups, even if her tenure began at the end of the 2015 cycle. That said, there's unfinished business left behind after the debacle in Brazil in 2016, and with little time to fully prepare, a manager change between now and then could be quite jarring.

Then there are the players. Of the most recent group of champions, 12 of the 23 players were part of the 2015 championship squad, meaning there was a roster turnover of 11 from one World Cup to the next. That number could be around the same or even higher come 2023. As much quality as there was on the 2019 squad–and it's arguably the greatest collection of U.S. talent from top to bottom ever–there wasn't a ton of young talent.

Of the players on the 2019 roster, 11 are 30 or older, though Alex Morgan just turned 30 during this competition. But only five were 25 or under, meaning they will be the only ones under 30 by the time the next Women's World Cup rolls around. That's not to say that 30 is when every career goes south. Look at what the likes of Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe have been able to accomplish after 30, for instance. That's not generally the prime of a player's career, though, and there's no equating what exceptions to the rule like Lloyd and Rapinoe have been able to do with how others adjust to aging.

So much can happen in four years' time. FIFA doesn't even know where the next Women's World Cup will be played or how many teams will be playing in it, for starters. But here's a practical look at the current U.S. player pool and who may be sticking around to go for an unprecedented three peat at destination TBD:

GOALKEEPERS

Who knows what the future holds here? Adrianna Franch was the youngest of the trio in France, at 28, and she could easily wind up as a starter in four years if she maintains her NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year-type form. At 35, Harris will almost surely ride off into the sunset as a two-time World Cup champion and an emerging People's Champion. Her post-World Cup display on Instagram has been legendary. 

That leaves Alyssa Naeher, the semifinal hero who answered all her critics and was not the liability plenty thought she might be in her first major competition as a starter. She'll be 35 in 2023, and with younger talents like Franch and NWSL standout Jane Campbell rising in the ranks, she'll have to fight to keep her job. Starting in Tokyo next summer, though, is a likelihood.

DEFENDERS

At 34, Becky Sauerbrunn is awkwardly aged at the end of a cycle. She can clearly still play at a high level and should marshal the back line in Tokyo next to Abby Dahlkemper, whose star figures to keep rising. But then what? We might not see rampant international retirements after this World Cup, but after the Olympics is when some real roster churn may start to kick in.

On the flanks, Kelley O'Hara (30) and Crystal Dunn (27) should have staying power, but is Dunn's future at left back? She was immense against some of the best right wings the world has to offer, but even she'll admit that's not where she wants to play. Any turnover up top–or perhaps another coach that views her differently–could alter her international trajectory. Tierna Davidson (20) and Emily Sonnett (25) have the makings of being squad mainstays, and up-and-comers Hailie Mace (22) and Emily Fox (21) should get their chances, while Ali Krieger (34) will surely go out as a two-time champ along with her fiancee, Harris.

Rico Brouwer/Soccrates/Getty Images

MIDFIELDERS

Sam Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Julie Ertz figure to be at the heart of the nucleus going forward, and that should strike fear into every team on the planet. If the USA remains in a 4-3-3, one of the four will have to be content with a reserve role. In France, it was, surprisingly, Horan, the reigning NWSL MVP who had been a preferred starter in the lead-in to the competition, only to be displaced by the very in-form and deserving Mewis. Perhaps Ertz slides back into central defense to replace Sauerbrunn when she eventually makes way, ensuring all four see the field together as much as possible, though neither Horan nor Mewis really should be limited to defensive, destroyer duties.

Regardless of who starts, this area will remain a strongsuit. It would be surprising if Allie Long, now 31, remains in the upper echelon for much longer, though Morgan Brian, 26, remains a wild card. She was influential in 2015 before injuries and inconsistency threw her off course in the build-up to 2019. She was selected for the squad anyway, played sparingly in France and still has the tools and knowhow to be a factor going forward–provided she stays fit. The Washington Spirit's 23-year-old Andi Sullivan, one of the last cuts for this team, stands a good chance at entering the fray. 

FORWARDS

At the 2023 Women's World Cup, Morgan will be 34–the same age Rapinoe is now–and should still be primed to be a contributor. If she remains healthy and part of the program, she could be on course to break Abby Wambach's (and potentially soon Christine Sinclair's) all-time record for international goals (currently 184–Morgan is on 107). It would take a prolific cycle in the presumed downslope of her career, but with the amount of national team games played per year and her prolific ability, it's not impossible.

Rapinoe will be 38, and it's hard to see her playing in another World Cup. Riding out while going for Olympic gold, however, makes entirely more sense for a player who put herself into the Ballon d'Or discussion with her performance in France. Her late-career renaissance has been remarkable. Lloyd, 36, has already made it clear that this was her last World Cup. Whether she makes the Olympic team–or makes herself available for it–will determine whether it was her last official competition. Regardless, she's one of the most fierce competitors and prolific players this program has ever known, and her legacy is secure.

Tobin Heath (31), Christen Press (30) and Jessica McDonald (31) are in that tweener phase. McDonald hardly played in France and is a longshot for the Olympic squad, given it's an 18-player roster. Heath, a mainstay starter, and Press, who has the skills to be but got caught playing in the Age of Rapinoe, could easily remain in frame for the next cycle, provided health and form remain at top levels.

That leaves Mal Pugh, who has been forced to wait so patiently as the entrenched stars ahead of her remained fit and never lost their peak form. She may finally get a chance to shine in this next cycle. Talent has never been the question for the 21-year-old, who, along with Lavelle, should become part of the face of the national team as it strives for five. 

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