There are 25 U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) players in the mix for 18 Olympic roster sports. Who will make the cut for the Tokyo Olympics?
The answer to that will likely be clearer at the conclusion of the upcoming 2021 Summer Series. Over the next week, the USWNT will face off against Portugal (Thursday, June 10), Jamaica (Sunday, June 13), and Nigeria (Wednesday, June 16).
The USWNT Summer Series roster includes 23 players, though a total of 25 players (including Julie Ertz and Tobin Heath, who are both coming back from injury) are expected to be in the mix for the 18-player Olympic roster.
Ahead of this week’s games, On Her Turf caught up with Danielle Slaton, who was a member of the U.S. women’s national team at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. The upcoming Tokyo Olympics will mark Slaton’s second Games serving as an analyst for NBC.
USWNT Goalkeepers for the 2021 Summer Series (2/3 will likely make 2021 U.S. Olympic roster):
Jane Campbell, Adrianna Franch, Alyssa Naeher
On Her Turf: Let’s start with the goalkeepers. Two-time World Cup champion Alyssa Naeher has established herself as the top USWNT goalie in recent years. With only two goalies expected to be named to the Tokyo Olympic roster, what’s your sense of how Jane Campbell and Adrianna Franch stack up?
Danielle Slaton: You said it. Alyssa Naeher is the clear number one for the U.S. women’s national team. There’s no question there, in my mind. So it’s really going to be a tough battle between Jane Campbell (Houston Dash) and Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns FC).
Both have played incredibly well for their NWSL teams. And in the goalkeeping position, you have to do that. Because when you’re the number two goalie on the national team, you’re not going to get too many minutes in a national team jersey.
During the NWSL Challenge Cup last summer, Houston won and Jane Campbell had a fantastic tournament.
And then at the most recent Challenge Cup this spring, Portland won – and Franch had a huge role in their success.
I think the question is: is Adrianna Franch healthy?
If she’s healthy, I would probably give her the nod. Because she’s had a tremendous amount of success lately.
To me, this is a decision that [U.S. head coach] Vlatko Andonovski will make in training. Training carries a ton of weight, especially for goalkeepers.
We’ll see if either Campbell or Franch gets a start in the summer series games. I think who gets the start against which opponent could be an indicator of which way Vlatko may be leaning.
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USWNT Defenders for the 2021 Summer Series (6/8 will likely make 2021 U.S. Olympic roster):
Alana Cook, Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara Midge Purce, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Emily Sonnett
On Her Turf: Moving on to the defenders… who feels like a lock at this point?
Danielle Slaton: The reality is: you don’t change your backline that much. To me, the clear center backs are Abby Dahlkemper and captain Becky Sauerbrunn. There is no doubt in my mind that they are the two starting center backs.
So then the question is: who’s going to be the substitute for that position? I think it comes down to Alana Cook and Tierna Davidson.
Davidson has more experience, but we haven’t really had the opportunity to see Cook. She wasn’t able to play with the USWNT in April because her club team – Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) – didn’t release her. The great news for Cook is she’s gotten really good competition playing for PSG, and they’ve had a lot of recent success [including ending Lyon’s streak of 14 consecutive titles].
If Cook performs out of this world at these upcoming games, maybe she bumps Tierna Davidson and makes the Olympic roster. If not, Cook is certainly someone to consider for the future. I expect her to have a very successful women’s national team career.
When you look at the outside backs, you have Crystal Dunn on the left and Kelley O’Hara on the right. Those seem to be the two outside backs that Vlatko tends to lean towards. So the question becomes: is the substitute for that position Emily Sonnett or Midge Purce?
Sonnett has a lot of experience; she was on the 2019 World Cup roster. But Purce provides an attacking weapon out of the back.
Another advantage for Purce is that she is so versatile; she’s an attacker for her club team, Gotham FC. Purce would give Vlatko some flexibility, especially given that the Olympic roster is only 18 players.
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USWNT Midfielders for the 2021 Summer Series (6/7 will likely make 2021 U.S. Olympic roster):
Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Catarina Macario, Kristie Mewis, Samantha Mewis, Andi Sullivan
+ Julie Ertz, who was ruled out of the summer series due to an MCL injury
On Her Turf: Moving on to the midfield. There are six players on the USWNT roster for the 2021 Summer Series but that doesn’t include Julie Ertz, who is out with an MCL injury. While is sounds like Ertz could return in time for the Olympics, how does her absence impact what the roster might look like?
Danielle Slaton: Yeah, that’s the biggest question. Julie Ertz has been rock solid for the U.S. women’s national team at the number six position (defensive center midfielder) – and maybe, a little bit, to the detriment of the team.
In the past, there hasn’t been a question about who was playing that position because Ertz owned it – so there’s not a lot of depth and experience behind her. So the fact that she is currently out has really forced Vlatko to ask some hard questions about who could replace her there.
I think that’s why Andi Sullivan was brought into this camp. In my mind, Sullivan is the like-for-like substitution for Ertz.
That’s the biggest thing I’ll be watching for in this next three games: how is Andi Sullivan performing?
I know Sullivan is talented, but is she ready to step up? How does she do in this moment?
And if she is not performing, what is Vlatko’s Plan B? Plan C? Plan D?
Maybe those options include bringing Sam Mewis back to be more of a defensive presence. We’ve also heard Vlatko mention that Emily Sonnett or Tierna Davidson could fill in for Ertz. Keep in mind that Ertz was a defender at the 2015 World Cup who made the transition to midfield, so perhaps he believes either of those players can make that adjustment as well. I wonder if it will be an option we’ll see during this summer series.
Thursday’s game against Portugal is the game I’m most eager to see because Portugal can move the ball. So that midfield presence is going to be very important.
On Her Turf: In terms of evaluating a player who is coming back from injury… including a player who is not at 100% on an 18-player Olympic roster is a lot riskier than adding them to a 23-player World Cup roster. What’s your sense of how those decisions are made?
Danielle Slaton: Yeah, when you carry 18 players on a roster, there’s not a lot of room for error. I think Vlatko is going to have to make some hard decisions in that regard because health is probably the number one factor of whether or not you’re going to be on this Olympic roster or not.
What gets tricky is: what does it mean to be healthy? 70%? 80%? 90%?
I think back to the Rio Olympics, when Megan Rapinoe was coming off of an ACL injury and she made that roster. And in the quarterfinal game against Sweden [where the U.S. was ultimately eliminated], she subbed in, but then was subbed out after less than 30 minutes. So was it the right call for her to be on that roster? Maybe yes, maybe no.
On Her Turf: As you mentioned earlier, Crystal Dunn has established herself at left back for the national team. But she plays midfield for the Portland Thorns. Could she be an option to fill in for Ertz?
Danielle Slaton: Yeah, Crystal Dunn can pretty much play any position except for goalkeeper. And honestly, she’s so athletic that if she had to play in goal, I might take it for a few minutes here or there.
So she can play in the midfield, she can play up front. She is very, very talented. That’s one of the things she brings to this team and one of the things that Vlatko probably likes about her: she brings a lot of versatility.
So sure, she could play that defensive center back position. But then the question becomes: if you move Crystal Dunn out of left back, the U.S. isn’t really that deep at left back. So who fills that role? Where does the waterfall stop?
Personally, I would solve the midfield problem with the midfielder rather than solving it with Crystal Dunn. But in a pinch, can she move there? Certainly.
On Her Turf: So in terms of filling out the other midfielders around that number six position…
Danielle Slaton: To me, there’s no question that Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, and Sam Mewis make the Olympic roster. And ultimately, I do think Julie Ertz is going to make the roster, too.
So that leaves two spots.
If there’s a question about whether Ertz can play consistently like she has in the past, you need to bring a player like Andi Sullivan.
So then it’s down to one spot between Kristie Mewis and Catarina Macario.
To me, I think Catarina Macario has a higher ceiling than Kristie Mewis, but right now, Kristie Mewis might be playing better football. Macario has been a little bit up and down; she has had some really great moments, but there have also been moments when she’s kind of disappeared.
On Her Turf: What have you thought of Kristie Mewis as she has reclaimed a spot on the national team over the last in the last eight-or-so months?
Danielle Slaton: It’s been really fun to see Kristie’s progress. It would be fun to see Kristie and Sam be on the Olympic roster together, so that kind of tugs at my heartstrings. But I think it’s going to come down to fit. Where are the gaps and does a player like Kristie Mewis fill those gaps better than Macario? Or vise versa?
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USWNT Forwards for the 2021 Summer Series (4/7 will likely make 2021 U.S. Olympic roster):
Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, Sophia Smith, Lynn Williams
+ Tobin Heath, who isn’t on the official summer series roster, but is joining camp as a training player as she comes back from a knee injury
On Her Turf: Finally, moving up to the forwards. Right now, there are seven players in the mix for what is likely to be four spots. Who has surprised you in the last few months?
Danielle Slaton: I gotta say, six months ago at the start of January camp, I was like, ‘There’s no way that Carli Lloyd is making that Olympic roster.’
And shame on me for betting against Carli Lloyd. It’s like betting against Tom Brady or LeBron James. You just don’t do it.
Because Carli is a fighter and a competitor. She’s making a very strong case for not only making this roster, but potentially being the starting number nine (striker) on the Olympic roster.
On Her Turf: Going back to early January… At that point, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, and Megan Rapinoe all seemed questionable. Lloyd was coming back from an injury, Rapinoe opted out of both 2020 NWSL tournaments, and Morgan had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and was also still getting limited minutes as she came back from giving birth. But at this point, do you think there’s a chance that all three of those players make the Olympic roster for Tokyo?
Danielle Slaton: A few months ago, I was also thinking it’s either Morgan or Lloyd. There’s no way both of them make this team. But I think the extra year has given Alex Morgan the time she needed to come back from the birth of her daughter. I think she’s been playing particularly well recently, both for the U.S. team and also for the Orlando Pride.
So I think Lloyd and Morgan provide a lot of options, and they both make my roster. Yeah, other players can play striker. But you need somebody who’s going to put the ball in the back of the net. Period. No questions asked. And both of those players can do that.
Scoring a goal is the hardest thing to do in soccer. And yet, both Lloyd and Morgan consistently find a way to make it happen.
And then Megan Rapinoe – she’s been playing well, too. She is somebody who steps up in the big moments and I think she’s got a chip on her shoulder from Rio, where she wasn’t able to participate in the way that she would have liked.
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So I would have all three of them – Lloyd, Morgan, Rapinoe – on my roster. It’s not so much a question of whether they should be in, but it’s that I can’t cross them off.
I guess the question is: how durable are they? Yes they’ve got the experience, but at the Olympics, the games are back-to-back. And because there are only 12 teams in the tournament, you are always up against top opponents. So you’re playing top-level games right from the start. But I feel like all three of them could be on this roster. No question.
And then Christen Press has been fantastic. She’s consistently solid.
My biggest question: is Tobin Heath healthy? She provides something that no other woman on this roster provides: her flair, her creativity, and her soccer IQ.
In a recent interview, Vlatko said she’s on track to be back by the Olympics. He’s a guy who pretty much tells the truth, but I haven’t seen her play. So I don’t know if she’s truly as far along as what’s being said.
Sophia Smith is a very good player, but I think she’s a future player. I think she’s going to be the next generation of the U.S. women’s national team.
And then I know Lynn Williams is highly favored by Vlatko. She’s gotten a ton of minutes in 2021. I think the one thing that’s advantageous for her is that she provides a different look; she’s more direct, she’s more vertical. And she’s obviously got the speed and the ability to get in behind.
I don’t rate her quite as highly as Vlatko does. That might one of those things where you have to agree to disagree with the head coach. He’s the one that makes the decision, I just critique and discuss them.
On Her Turf: Is there anything else that will be on your radar during the upcoming USWNT Summer Series?
Danielle Slaton: The biggest thing for me is just trying to suss out what the starting 11 looks like. And then looking at the bubble players that are performing well and making a case to be on that 18-player roster.
Any one of these women could make the Olympic roster, no question. But there are only 18 spots. I do not envy Vlatko when it comes to making that decision.
I think he can probably go any number of ways and he probably wouldn’t be wrong. Because this is the deepest roster that the United States has ever had.
Follow Alex Azzi on Twitter @AlexAzziNBC