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USWNT Takes Youthful Approach to Start of World Cup, Olympic Qualifying Year

A number of veterans have been left out of January camp, despite the qualifying tournament for two big events taking place in six months.

Six months out from the tournament that will determine whether the U.S. women's national team qualifies for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics, a number of the squad's household names are missing from camp. But, as coach Vlatko Andonovski explains, that's by design.

The U.S. women gather in Austin, Texas, for their annual January camp starting next Wednesday, and while it won't feature any matches, it will still be a proving ground. A post-Olympics transition process that began in the fall will be accelerated in earnest, as a number of younger—and in one significant case, new—players take to the stage. 

Out are the likes of Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe (Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Ertz and Crystal Dunn are out as well, but for medical reasons), while Trinity Rodman gets her first call-up after her breakout campaign in the NWSL to headline the group called in.

“Without any matches that we need to taper for, we can get in some more intense trainings and full-field scrimmages, which is great as we need to give this group as many chances as possible to play together in a national team environment,” Andonovski said in a statement. “We understand that some of the players are coming off a break, so we’ll keep that in mind as we hit the ground running in 2022 for what will be a very important year for these players and our team.”

That important year will continue next month with a watered-down version of the SheBelieves Cup (Czech Republic, Iceland and New Zealand are not quite the Brazil-, Germany-, France-, England-level of opponents that have traditionally been part of the competition) with an eye on July's W Championship, a new Concacaf event that combines the qualifying process for two marquee global events into one competition.

The U.S. and Canada received byes to the final stages of the tournament, while 30 other nations will compete in a group stage starting next month, with the winners of each of the six five-team groups joining them in the eight-team competition.

The W Championship is split into two groups of four, where the top two teams in each group qualify straightaway for the 2023 World Cup in New Zealand and Australia, while the two third-place teams go into FIFA's intercontinental tournament. Separately, the winner of the competition qualifies automatically for the 2024 Olympics, while the second- and third-place finishers go to a playoff for the region's other berth in Paris.

Trinity Rodman, Sophia Smith and Emily Fox are all in USWNT January camp

When asked Wednesday, Andonovski didn't indicate whether he was or wasn't a fan of the new setup, but it does put more emphasis on rounding out his core group and force him to make some pretty immediate choices when it comes to which newcomers to incorporate and which veterans to lean on for matches with multiple layers of pressure.

The true newcomer next week is Rodman, who was vital in the Washington Spirit's NWSL title run. Andonovski isn't placing any immediate expectations on the 19-year-old's shoulders, but with Carli Lloyd retiring and other U.S. attackers aging, there's a role to be seized.

"Trinity, obviously, is one of the most exciting players in the [NWSL] this past season," Andonovski said on a media conference call. "She proved that she can be impactful at the professional level and now with that she earned the call-up for the national team. We don't want to rush anything. We have to be patient, but we do want to expose her to the environment where she can get her feet wet a little bit, get used to the environment and my coaching."

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Naomi Girma and Jaelin Howell, the top two picks in last month's NWSL draft, are also part of the youth movement. Andonovski explained how he laid out a short-term plan ahead of the U.S.'s November camp that the aforementioned veterans wouldn't be included through the winter, saying, "these players are not out of the picture by any means," and should be expected to rejoin the fold as soon as the SheBelieves Cup.

"A lot of things depend now on how well the newer players do," Andonovski added.

As for those not included for pre-planned coaching reasons, Ertz is "not physically ready to perform in camp" after recovering from her knee injury, while the 36-year-old Sauerbrunn had a setback after undergoing a procedure to freeze her eggs. After conversations with her and the medical staff, Andonovski said, "if she gets back fit, healthy and she's able to play minutes, for SheBelieves she will be considered for that camp.

For Dunn, who is due to give birth in May, Andonovski said there have been no discussions regarding her return-to-play plan, indicating that those would take place when appropriate. The importance, he said, is on her having a healthy delivery and baby before the player and medical and high-performance departments discuss the future. But he did fully expect her return at some point down the line, presumably well after the W Championship.

One other player omitted was Catarina Macario, who was initially going to be included. But after her club, Lyon, drew PSG in the round of 16 of the Coupe de France, it was decided that she should remain at her club and play in the high-intensity environment that will provide.

As a result, here are the players who will compete in camp, looking to further cement their places for the matches of great importance this summer:

GOALKEEPERS: Aubrey Kingsbury (Washington Spirit), Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

DEFENDERS: Alana Cook (OL Reign), Abby Dahlkemper (San Diego Wave FC), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Emily Fox (Racing Louisville FC), Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC), Sofia Huerta (OL Reign), Kelley O’Hara (Washington Spirit), Emily Sonnett (Washington Spirit)

MIDFIELDERS: Morgan Gautrat (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Jaelin Howell (Racing Louisville FC), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign), Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Samantha Mewis (Kansas City Current), Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)

FORWARDS: Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit), Mallory Pugh (Chicago Red Stars), Margaret Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns FC), Morgan Weaver (Portland Thorns FC), Lynn Williams (Kansas City Current)

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