Predicting the USWNT's roster for the 2023 Women's World Cup: Who will make the cut?

Salazar: Andonovski must make brutal decisions on USWNT World Cup roster (2:49)

Sebastian Salazar predicts the USWNT World Cup roster and believes coach Vlatko Andonovski has tough decisions to make ahead of the tournament. (2:49)

The Women's World Cup is now a little more than a month away, and the roster for the U.S. women's national team should be announced within the next three weeks.

Those of us trying to forecast the roster know this is the most unpredictable roster for the USWNT ahead of a major tournament in some time. As head coach Vlatko Andonovski said in April after the USWNT's final international friendlies before the World Cup: "We have maybe 10 to 12 players that are fighting for six to seven spots." That's a lot, and it's also a departure from previous tournaments, for which the squad was pretty much set months in advance.

Why so many question marks? One big reason is the number of injuries that have plagued the USWNT over the past year.

Some players couldn't make it back -- Catarina Macario would've made this roster if she got fit in time from an ACL tear, but she recently announced she won't be ready. Samantha Mewis and Mallory Swanson -- two roster locks when healthy -- are injured, freeing up spots for players who have never competed in a World Cup.

There are a number of players, such as Kelley O'Hara, Julie Ertz, Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger, who are only just returning to the fold after long absences. Will Andonovski give spots to these players and bump the players who took their places over the past year or so? Rose Lavelle has been out since April -- will she make it even if she's not 100%?

This is also a roster that turns the page from the 2019 World Cup in a big way, which Andonovski always promised he'd do. Coaching decisions mean the USWNT has long been without Tobin Heath, Christen Press, Morgan Brian and several others from the 2019 tournament-winning squad, on top of the retirement of Carli Lloyd and injuries to others.

There might be some surprises when Andonovski announces his roster later this month, but here is our roster prediction for who will represent the USWNT when the Women's World Cup starts in Australia and New Zealand on July 20.

Goalkeepers (3)

Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars):

She is the starter, and nothing will change that unless she's physically unable to play. Despite there being goalkeepers who have arguably performed better in the NWSL over recent years, Naeher's combination of experience and her recent reps with the USWNT make it clear she is the No. 1. Remember her clutch penalty kick save in the 2019 World Cup semifinal against England? Naeher has proved she can deliver in big moments.

Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage):

Last year it seemed like she got a passing look as someone who could push for the starting spot, but she never could quite state her case and is now solidified as the No. 2 behind Naeher.

Adrianna Franch (Kansas City Current):

Her consistency and reliability in the NWSL never translated to the USWNT, but her familiarity and experience with the USWNT keeps her in the mix. As the No. 2 in 2021, she was called upon during the Olympics after an injury to Naeher, a tournament that only seemed to push her further down the depth chart.

Center backs (4)

Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns):

She's the captain and a confidante of Andonovski's. Her veteran leadership, experience and temperament mean she will be at this World Cup playing an important role on and off the field. This will be the 37-year-old's fourth World Cup, and she has hinted it might be her last.

Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave FC):

In a position that tends to value experience and maturity, 22-year-old Girma has established herself as a player who should figure prominently in the USWNT's future. She's in the top 10 in the NWSL in duels won, recoveries and all defensive interventions on a per-90-minute basis over the past two years.

Alana Cook (OL Reign):

Cook has also been solid in the NWSL, albeit not at the level of Girma, but the 26-year-old seems like a lock anyway. In the USWNT's past 25 games over 2022 and 2023, Cook has started 20 of them -- given the investment Andonovski has made in Cook, it feels like his mind has been made up for a while.

Emily Sonnett (OL Reign):

Although Tierna Davidson seems to be a consensus pick among pundits and fans, we think this will actually be one of the tougher choices for Andonovski, and we see Sonnett making the roster.

After tearing her ACL last year, Davidson has been working her way back to full sharpness since her return in April, but she and her Chicago Red Stars have struggled this season, conceding the most goals in the league by a good margin. Davidson's current form just doesn't make her an obvious choice. Andonovski insists club form matters, and we have to take him at his word. To be fair, Sonnett's ceiling isn't as high as Davidson's, but she has been in better form lately.

Sonnett can also play as a full-back, a center back or even a defensive midfielder, which is where she has been playing this season for her club, OL Reign. Sonnett's ability to add depth at multiple positions makes her even more of a "utility player" than Davidson, who has played as both a center back and left back for the USWNT. (We're listing Sonnett here instead of with the full-backs because we think she will take Davidson's center back spot.)

Davidson's experience as a starter in the 2021 Olympic bronze medal-winning squad or as a backup at the 2019 World Cup could be compelling, but Sonnett was in the squads for both of those tournaments too. Sonnett didn't play big roles in either tournament, but this is a backup position that shouldn't be expected to play a big role. That's where Andonovski has given Sonnett reps, having her come on as a second-half substitute in five of the USWNT's past six games.

Full-backs (3)

Emily Fox (North Carolina Courage):

In the absence of Crystal Dunn, who spent much of 2022 away for the birth of her first child, Fox has emerged as the USWNT's starting left back. She could also play on the right, and indeed Andonovski has started her there, even if she stays on the left for her club.

Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns):

While Fox fully took advantage of Dunn's absence and grabbed a spot, Dunn's versatility remains far too valuable to keep her off this roster. Dunn can play either full-back position, and she can play pretty much any position other than goalkeeper at this point. Dunn was the USWNT's left back at the 2019 World Cup, and it might make the most sense to keep her there in this go-round, but she can start on the right if needed.

Kelley O'Hara (NJ/NY Gotham FC):

With Dunn and Fox -- two players who normally play left back -- ensuring the left is well covered, now the USWNT needs some coverage with a natural right back, and this is where picking the roster gets difficult.

O'Hara, a veteran who has won two World Cups with the USWNT, seems like the preferred choice, but her recent bout of injuries is a concern. Sofia Huerta, 30, has a similar profile to 35-year-old O'Hara -- better at attacking than defending -- but less experience, including never featuring in a major tournament. Huerta featured in 20 of the USWNT's 25 games in the past two years, while O'Hara has featured in only nine, but that's because O'Hara spent months sidelined with on-and-off injuries, making room for Huerta to play so much.

Assuming that O'Hara has missed recent Gotham games as a precaution and her ankle injury isn't serious, look for Andonovski to lean toward her experience. If not, Huerta is the next best option and should go ahead of 32-year-old Casey Krueger, who can play on the right or left but hasn't had enough time with the USWNT recently after her own absence. Krueger hasn't been having the best season with the Chicago Red Stars either.

How Andonovski structures his roster is also a question that could dictate some of these toss-up positions, but it doesn't make sense for him to bring both O'Hara and Huerta (or Krueger) to occupy the second-choice spot for right back. Relying on depth from Sonnett, who can play anywhere on the back line or in the midfield in a pinch, makes some sense.

Midfielders (6)

Rose Lavelle (OL Reign):

If Lavelle is healthy, she's not only on this roster but is a starter. Worryingly, Lavelle hasn't played for club or country since April 8, when she suffered what Andonovski called "a little knock" at the time. In the USWNT's final match before Andonovski names his roster, she didn't play out of what Andonovski hinted was an abundance of caution, saying, "this is not a game for us to take any chances."

Yet, two months later, she still hasn't returned. Reign coach Laura Harvey had indicated Lavelle was nearly recovered from the unspecified knee injury, but then she suffered a setback. Harvey's last update in late May was less optimistic: "I hope that we get to see her before the World Cup, but honestly right now I don't know."

Lavelle is no stranger to injuries, and with the World Cup not beginning until July 20, and the USWNT's opener on July 22, she'd have another month of recovery time once the roster is named. We have to assume that even if Lavelle isn't 100% she will be on that roster given her quality, and for all we know the Reign might be exercising extra caution ahead of the World Cup.

Julie Ertz (Angel City):

For about two years, it seemed like Ertz would not be on this roster as she focused on her life outside of soccer, opting not to sign for any club teams. But 611 days since her last appearance for the USWNT, she made a surprise return in April and catapulted to the top of ESPN's USWNT Big Board. It's unclear if Ertz can possibly match her stellar form at the 2019 World Cup, but to make this squad she doesn't need to. Her ball-winning, crunch-tackling, attack-stopping ability as a defensive midfielder has been irreplaceable.

Lindsey Horan (Lyon):

She can do a bit of everything in the midfield, on and off the ball, and she can impact the game in a variety of ways. With Ertz likely the defensive midfielder and Lavelle the playmaker, Horan will play a more all-around box-to-box role.

Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit):

If Ertz didn't make the roster, Sullivan would've been the USWNT's starting No. 6, or defensive midfielder. But with Ertz returning, it seems Sullivan will instead be relegated to a backup role.

Ashley Sanchez (Washington Spirit):

Given the question marks around Lavelle, having a viable backup in that role becomes all the more important for the USWNT, and luckily Sanchez has long looked ready for the job. She can play that creative No. 10 attacking midfield role with perhaps not the finesse of Lavelle, but she can certainly be aggressive and dangerous, which is what the USWNT will want.

Kristie Mewis (NJ/NY Gotham FC):

Now this exercise is getting difficult. Does Andonovski even bring six midfielders? He might not, in which case Mewis won't make it. But with the USWNT playing a system that requires three central midfielders and Lavelle's lingering injury to account for, it wouldn't hurt to bring one extra player as an insurance policy.

This battle for an extra spot seems like it's between Taylor Kornieck and Kristie Mewis (her sister, Samantha Mewis, who was so excellent at the 2019 World Cup, is injured). Mewis gains the edge because of her versatility -- she has played throughout the midfield and as a full-back, making her a coveted utility player. Such players who can offer depth at multiple positions can be vital for a tournament like the World Cup, where sometimes it seems to be less about which team has the best starting 11 and more about which team has the best depth. Mewis also was part of Andonovski's 2021 Olympics squad.

Wingers (5)

Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns):

With Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario both injured and missing out on this World Cup, Smith is going to have to carry a big load as a goal scorer. Fortunately, she took a big step forward in the NWSL last season, is in good form now and looks poised to have a breakout tournament.

Lynn Williams (NJ/NY Gotham):

She wouldn't have been a starter for the USWNT if Swanson was still in this squad, but now there's a spot on the wing for her to grab. She's a solid goal scorer and an excellent presser, and her experience with the USWNT at the 2021 Olympics makes her a choice that Andonovski might feel more confident in. Her good form in the NWSL right now also bolsters her case.

Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit):

She's not going to offer the goal scoring that the other wingers on this roster will -- at least not at the international level, where she hasn't had as much success compared to her NWSL exploits. But her passing and ability to set up her teammates offers something different. Andonovski played her in the USWNT's past seven matches throughout 2023, and it feels like he was making sure she's ready.

Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign):

She took the 2019 World Cup by storm, but that's probably not going to be how the 2023 tournament in Australia and New Zealand will play out. Rapinoe will be 38 years old and she has become more injury prone, meaning she'll likely come off the bench to impact games. Even if she's not a 90-minute player anymore, she has come through in the clutch and delivered in enough big moments for the USWNT that there's no question she's the substitute you want if you're trying to close out games.

Alyssa Thompson (Angel City):

Here's where Andonovski could zag a little bit and surprise some people. At 18 years old, Thompson would be the youngest player on the USWNT roster after earning her first cap only eight months ago.

Thompson has only three caps with the USWNT, but her form in the NWSL is hard to ignore. Her ability to slice through defenses with her dribbling and her speed makes her an appealing substitute option. Andonovski could view this as an investment in Thompson's future with the USWNT while still reasonably expecting that she could step up if needed. It would mean Margaret "Midge" Purce would just miss out.

Strikers (2)

Alex Morgan (San Diego Wave FC):

For a while last year, Andonovski seemed intent on finding a replacement for Morgan, and then he came around to the realization that there isn't one.

If Catarina Macario hadn't been injured, there's no question Morgan would be battling with her for the starting spot, but now Morgan is the clear No. 9. Driving at defenders face-up to goal, holding up the ball back to goal, attacking centrally or from wide areas -- Morgan is a handful for defenses. And while that means she is sometimes tightly marked out of getting on the scoresheet, her off-the-ball work opens up scoring opportunities for her teammates.

Ashley Hatch (Washington Spirit):

What do you do with a player who has been excellent for her club but comparatively unremarkable for her national team? That's the dilemma Andonovski finds himself in with Hatch.

Andonovski could decide not to bring a dedicated backup for Morgan at all -- players like Smith and Williams are experienced strikers in their own rights. But with Hatch coming off the bench or starting in 15 of the USWNT's past 25 games, including five of seven games in 2023, it seems like Andonovski would've moved on already if he wasn't convinced.

Hatch could be for the 2023 roster what Jessica McDonald was for the 2019 one: some extra peace of mind but little more. McDonald was a backup at striker that the USWNT didn't really need or use (she played 45 minutes the whole tournament), but in a nightmare scenario where anyone on the front line gets injured, having her available would allow for some continuity and minimal disruption.

The roster construction

As pundits and fans argue over starting spots, coaches are the first to say a World Cup roster isn't about a starting 11 but a full roster. Playing potentially seven games in a four-week period means rotation is necessary, and teams need depth in case of injuries or suspensions. For Andonovski, he needs to squeeze the maximum amount of depth from 23 spots on the roster for his preferred 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formations.

In 2019 under then-coach Jill Ellis, the USWNT had three goalkeepers (as required), seven defenders, six midfielders and seven forwards for a 4-3-3, which is the same roster construction we've predicted here. Drilling deeper, we've got the same number of full-backs, center backs and midfielders, but in 2019 the USWNT had four wingers and three dedicated strikers.

Andonovski's only other major tournament roster, the 2021 Olympics, was a 22-player roster after four alternates were added to the full roster due to the pandemic, and he went with the same configuration as the 2019 roster but with one winger removed.

If our predicted roster is the one that Andonovski goes with, it will offer plenty of depth, with at least three players as viable options per field position. But in the positions where he has similar options -- Kelley O'Hara vs. Sofia Huerta vs. Casey Krueger is the tightest race of this roster -- he has difficult decisions to make.

We'll find out what Andonovski has decided before the USWNT players start departing for their pre-World Cup camp on June 26.