For the US women’s national team, all roads to the 2023 Women’s World Cup and 2024 Olympics lead through Monterrey, Mexico, where the team will begin qualifying on Monday.
If you’ve never heard of the CONCACAF W Championship, taking place from July 4th to 18th, there’s a good reason: it’s a brand new competition. But it’s a pretty important one, particularly given its new format: it will serve as a qualifier for the two events mentioned above, the first time CONCACAF has opted for a double qualifier format. The stakes have never been higher.
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The tournament should be more forgiving for the Americans. The top four teams in the eight-team tournament will automatically qualify for the 2023 Women’s World Cup, co-hosted by Australia and New Zealand, meaning the USWNT only has to advance through the group stage. However, things get trickier when qualifying for the Olympics: only the winner of the tournament qualifies directly for Paris 2024. The second- and third-placed teams are not out – they compete in a playoff to be played in September 2023 for second place and final CONCACAF spot – but I’m sure the USA would like to get through qualifying if possible.
Here’s a look at the key questions USA are facing ahead of the tournament:
Who will lead the USWNT into the future?
Coach Vlatko Andonovski hasn’t been shy about pushing veterans aside in favor of younger talent who will shake up the National Women’s Soccer League in 2022. Tobin Heath was not called up for those qualifiers and although Christen Press suffered a cruciate ligament rupture just before the squad was announced, Andonovski said he had no plans to call them up anyway.
Instead, newer players like Sophia Smith, Ashley Sanchez and Trinity Rodman are being asked to lead the attack and have looked very capable. (Mallory Pugh isn’t new, but after years away from the national team, she’s back and looking like a new player, too.)
It was a major blow to Andonovski’s projected youth movement when Catarina Macario tore her cruciate ligament last month, but the USWNT showed plenty of threats when they won the SheBelieves Cup in February with a roster largely lacking experienced attackers. However, when it came time to select that squad for qualifying, Andonovski was unable to overtake Alex Morgan, who at the age of 33 had her best start at club of her entire career, scoring 11 goals in 10 games. Megan Rapinoe, 36 (turns 37 on Tuesday), may not be a 90 Minute starter anymore, but Andonovski was aware that he felt she was bringing something special and unpredictable to the table. That veteran presence is apparently still needed.
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So who will lead the way to the next World Cup and Olympics? USA have had the oldest squad at the last two World Cups (and won both), but Andonovski seems determined to pursue a different path. For the first time since joining the team, veterans like Morgan aren’t guaranteed minutes, let alone roster spots, but it will come down to who scores, who leads and who has the most impact.
Is the USWNT ready for their next goalie change?
Alyssa Naeher has been the USWNT’s first goaltender since late 2016, succeeding a role Hope Solo held for nearly a decade. When the 34-year-old injured herself at the Olympics last year, the safe bet was she would be the starter once she recovered. This is still only conjecture, however, as recent USWNT games and Andonovski’s own words have brought little clarity.
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Wherever Andonovski has been able to find a younger player for a role lately, he has taken the opportunity. Defenders Naomi Girma and Alana Cook, who each have single-digit caps in this qualifying line-up, are likely to get crucial minutes in Mexico. Morgan was on fire in the NWSL, but Andonovski still refused to call them on friendlies, opting to give new players a chance. So why should the goalkeeper be any different?
Casey Murphy, the 26-year-old North Carolina Courage goaltender, has made a name for herself in the NWSL and was awarded the contract to represent the USA in the pre-qualifier warm-up game against Colombia.
Can Mexico or Canada spoil USWNT’s chances?
To be clear, USA should definitely qualify for the World Cup when they leave Mexico. The Americans have not qualified for a Women’s World Cup since the FIFA World Cup began, and as world No. 1, it’s certainly not too much to ask for the USA to finish in the top four in Monterrey as well.
The qualification for the Olympics is also within reach. Of the nine previous CONCACAF tournaments the USWNT has participated in, they have won eight. But where they didn’t win in 2010, it gets interesting. The USA suffered a shock defeat against Mexico and could not qualify directly for the World Cup: Back then, the Americans had to play Italy in a two-legged game to secure their place.
Sebastian Salazar believes USWNT’s Trinity Rodman has the potential to become one of the top stars in US soccer.
While Mexico are seen as likely to qualify for the World Cup at home themselves and poised to eventually capitalize on their home league, the Liga MX Femenil, Mexico will be drawn into the same group as the United States, leaving the Americans they won’t even see it in the knockout round.
Instead, the team to focus on here is Canada. After winning gold at the Olympics last year, there is no dispute that Canada should be considered the dominant side in women’s football. Her playing style may be grittier and more defensive than her American counterparts – her road to gold in Japan wasn’t paved with many goals in the knockout rounds – but she can still be extraordinarily effective, especially against teams that like to attack , like the USWNT. Remember that after repeated stumbles, the US had to settle for a bronze medal at the same Olympics.
It’s easy to imagine a Canada-US final with an automatic Olympic qualifying spot at stake, and at this point it could go either way.
https://www.espn.com/soccer/concacaf-w-championship/story/4693837/can-uswnt-qualify-for-world-cupolympics-top-questions-ahead-of-concacaf-w-championship Can USWNT qualify for World Cup, Olympics? Top questions ahead of CONCACAF W Championship