The U.S. women's national team is Olympic-bound after putting the finishing touches on another romp through Concacaf's qualifying tournament.
Following Friday's berth-clinching win over Mexico, Sunday's 3-0 win over Canada cemented a 5-0-0 run, with the U.S. scoring 25 goals and not conceding one (though Haiti has a fair gripe about that latter figure). That's about on average with the USA's all-time performance in the competition. Now comes another quadrennial given for the USWNT: brutal roster cuts.
Olympic rosters are capped at 18, leaving managers with more tough calls to make than usual, the more versatile players in advantageous positions and a slew of big-name and experienced players on the outside looking in. By definition, at least five players who were on the 2019 Women's World Cup qualifying team won't be going to Tokyo, and at least two who helped punch the ticket won't bear the fruits of it.
Between full national team and talent ID camps, Vlatko Andonovski has already had 50 players under his watch, and he's quite familiar with an even more expanded slice of the player pool due to his time in NWSL. When it comes to the USWNT, club form has rarely had much to do with national team status. Time will tell if the new manager values club play in a different light. Beyond that, he'll have nine more international matches in the next five months from which he can assess his players and draw more conclusions.
There's the three-game gauntlet in the SheBelieves Cup next month against England, Spain and Olympic host Japan. As SI's Grant Wahl reported, there will be two friendlies apiece in April, June and July, with to-be-announced games vs. Brazil and Germany among them. That's four top-10 teams in the world and a Spain side (13th) that pushed the U.S. harder than just about anyone at the Women's World Cup last summer. By the end of it all, Andonovski should have a clear vision of the 18 players best-equipped to try to do the unprecedented: follow a Women's World Cup title immediately with Olympic gold.
As it stands, here's who is likely a safe bet–unforeseen injuries notwithstanding–to have a seat on the plan to Japan, and who is on the roster bubble:
GOALKEEPERS: Alyssa Naeher, Ashlyn Harris
Two goalkeepers will go to Japan, and Naeher will presumably start after backstopping the U.S. to a World Cup title and a first-place medal in Olympic qualifying. Harris received the only other non-Naeher minutes in the qualifying tournament vs. Panama despite Andonovski indicating beforehand that there would be a heavy rotation in goal during the group stage.
DEFENDERS: Becky Sauerbrunn, Abby Dahlkemper, Kelley O'Hara, Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson
Barring a significant tactical change between now and July, the first four names will be the preferred starters, while Davidson offers youth and flexibility, able to slot in at center back or left back and allow the versatile Dunn to push further up the field if need be. Davidson missed out on Olympic qualifying with an ankle injury, but the 21-year-old has the makings of becoming a future anchor in the back for the team, which is important considering the current anchor, Sauerbrunn, will be 14 years her senior by the time play begins this summer.
MIDFIELDERS: Julie Ertz, Sam Mewis, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle
Ertz and Lavelle are automatic starters, with Mewis and Horan battling for the other place, presuming that Andonovski decides that a 4-3-3 that is certainly not broken does not need fixing. The friendly competition between Horan and Mewis was evident in Olympic qualifying, with the former scoring a team-high six goals and the latter adding four of her own.
As for Ertz, her ability to play across the back if need be only accentuates her value–and perhaps gives Andonovski the flexibility to take more forward-pushing players in the process.
FORWARDS: Megan Rapione, Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Carli Lloyd
There are two starting wing spots for the first three players listed here, but they'll all be making the trip provided they're healthy. Rapinoe and Heath are still the likely starters, but Press is coming off a golden-ball performance at the qualifying tournament and appears to be in the form of her life. If that trajectory continues, she could push her way into the XI.
Lloyd, meanwhile, started the Andonovski Era on fire, but her finishing was uncharacteristically off during qualifying. The lack of a consensus replacement at target striker with Alex Morgan still out gives her the inside track to appear at a fourth Olympics, but it's not as much of a given as it may have seemed in November.
ON THE BUBBLE
GOALKEEPERS: Adrianna Franch, Jane Campbell
With only two keepers going to Japan and a clear top-two order established, it would likely take an injury for either of the next two in line to make the trip this summer. Franch is quite clearly in third, though she was the only one of the 20 players on the Olympic qualifying squad not to see the field during the last five games.
DEFENDERS: Ali Krieger, Emily Sonnett, Casey Short, Midge Purce
Davidson's injury re-opened the door for Krieger, who displayed her ability to play centrally during qualifying. That extra bit of versatility–to feature out right or in the middle–could produce a ticket to Japan. Her new club teammate, Sonnett, also has those capabilities, making Orlando Pride games all the more intriguing at the start of the new season. It's highly doubtful there's room for both given six nominal defenders is typically the cap for a U.S. Olympic squad.
MIDFIELDERS: Andi Sullivan, Morgan Brian, Allie Long
Top-tier midfield depth isn't at a surplus, nor is a shakeup to the starter nucleus required, but Sullivan would be next in line to go evidenced by her role on the qualifying squad. Brian and Long were left off the qualifying roster after playing roles on the World Cup team, and both have hills to climb to get back in frame.
FORWARDS: Alex Morgan, Jessica McDonald, Lynn Williams, Mal Pugh, Sophia Smith
Morgan is the ultimate wildcard. Due to give birth in April, she is adamant about being ready for the Olympic stage three months later. The unpredictable nature of childbirth and postpartum recovery makes her situation impossible to peg, but her appearance in camp last week as a special guest suggests she's not changing her goals.
Morgan's situation could have a domino effect. If she is truly ready and goes, does Andonovski still take Lloyd, knowing how she felt about being a backup at the World Cup? Does he dedicate two of his spots to players who can only really play one–albeit an important one–role?
Elsewhere, Williams showed something extra during qualifying, scoring three goals and giving Andonovski food for thought, while McDonald probably needs Morgan to be unavailable to have a realistic shot.
Pugh is another wild card, an ubertalented winger who was on the 2016 Olympic team but was left off the qualifying squad this time around due to simply being lower in the pecking order. The start to her NWSL season, playing alongside a motivated Lloyd amid her fresh start at Sky Blue FC, could wind up being incredibly important, and perhaps doubly influential for both players and their Olympic dreams.