Changes are afoot for the U.S. women's national team. With a new coach set to take the helm between now and the 2020 Olympics, many players who had been shut out by outgoing coach Jill Ellis have a new lifeline into the USWNT pool.
The new coach could just try to bring the World Cup-winning roster to the Olympics intact (minus some cuts due to the smaller roster size), but if the new coach plans to stick around for the long term, he or she may prefer to start building toward the 2023 World Cup immediately.
That's what Ellis did in 2016 – she used the Rio Olympics to build toward the 2019 World Cup – and while it may have cost her the USA's most embarrassing exit in a major tournament ever, three years later she won another World Cup. Maybe that's a trade-off worth making, considering the World Cup is the bigger event for soccer.
With that in mind, here are the NWSL players who have proven they can hold their own against the USWNT World Cup winners with whom they share the field. These are the new players that could break their way into the 2020 Tokyo roster, and into the USWNT's future.
Midge Purce, Portland Thorns
After a couple decent but not speculator seasons in the NWSL, Purce is enjoying a breakout year for the Portland Thorns. With eight goals in 17 games, she has taken to an unfamiliar No. 9 role and proven herself to be an adaptable utility player.
But if Purce wants to break into the USWNT, it will probably need to be in her former role as a wide player.
Purce got looks under Ellis as a potential wingback or fullback, but never managed to break through. But the USWNT remains thin at the position, even as Ellis settled on other options for depth at the World Cup that were makeshift at best. Purce has seemingly won the central striker spot in Portland, and it may be difficult to abandon that role – but she may need to if she wants to carve a niche for the USWNT. Luckily, Purce is only 23 years old and time is on her side.
Sofia Huerta, Houston Dash
Huerta hasn't had the breakout year many might have hoped for, but she also hasn't been playing in a wide role where she’s excelled in the past. That's the challenge for 26-year-old Huerta: Under Ellis, she got looks for the USWNT as a fullback. But she has struggled to find a club willing to consistently play her in that role so she can prove herself.
She requested a trade from the Chicago Red Stars in a bid to find more playing time at outside back, but she landed in Houston, where this season she’s been an attacking central midfielder. After filing a one-time switch and abandoning her Mexican eligibility, the USWNT remains the ultimate goal, but it may be a longshot if she can't find playing time at the USWNT’s biggest positional need.
Casey Short, Chicago Red Stars
How about another fullback option? (Like we said, the USWNT really needs depth there.) Short may have a better shot than most, because the 29-year-old made every roster she was eligible for over two years leading up to the World Cup until Ellis abruptly dropped her in favor of Ali Krieger, in a shock decision.
Short hadn't seemingly done anything to lose her spot – she offered a solid, stable defensive option at fullback as a balance to all the ultra-attacking options Ellis had. And although bombing forward wasn't her expertise, she found her moments to get forward and participate in the attack. Short would be able to reprise her role and slot right in.
Emily Menges, Portland Thorns
For whatever reason, Ellis seemed to move on from Menges quickly after a call-up in November 2016, which still left Menges uncapped. But with 34-year-old Becky Sauerbrunn set to turn 38 by the next World Cup, there's a good chance the veteran and longtime USWNT starter might retire and open up a spot along the back line, which doesn't have a ton of depth to begin with.
The center back position, more than any other besides goalkeeper, seems to especially benefit from experience and Menges, 27, can offer that. She made the NWSL Best XI in 2016 and the Second XI the past two seasons. She hasn't spent much time in U.S. Soccer's system, however, which may make a coach reticent to give her a shot – but the federation's youth scouting is far from perfect.
Lynn Williams, North Carolina Courage
The USWNT attack doesn't jump to mind as an immediate need, but when a player consistently has the seasons that Williams has, it's worth considering. Williams, 26, has 7 goals in 15 games so far this season and in her past three NWSL seasons she's averaged nearly 13 goals. The problem is her form hasn't quite carried over whenever she's had a chance with the USWNT, and her finishing hasn't matched the composure she offers in league play.
But looking to the next cycle, the American attack – as good as it is – is an aging one. Alex Morgan will be 34 at the next World Cup, and she has had her share of injuries over the years. The backup to Morgan right now is Carli Lloyd, who will almost certainly retire well before the next World Cup. Grooming a backup for Morgan now makes sense, and Williams could be an option.
Danielle Colaprico, Chicago Red Stars
Colaprico looked to be in the hunt for a USWNT spot ahead of the World Cup until a minor injury sidetracked her, and Ellis has seemingly moved on. Now, the 26-year-old will get a fresh start with a new coach, and she can solidify herself as a steady holding midfielder option.
It's not as if the USWNT really needs more central midfielders. With Rose Lavelle, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan and Samantha Mewis all options and all under the age of 27, the central midfield looks set through the next cycle. But anything can happen, and Colaprico offers reliable, smart consistency at the No. 6 position.
Andi Sullivan, Washington Spirit
At 23 years old, Sullivan has had her share of looks with the senior USWNT and hasn't broken through yet – but it seems due to happen sooner or later. She's versatile, has good field awareness and is a deft passer, which is why she can be the engine of a midfield.
Though she's been stuck playing for a struggling Washington Spirit team since being drafted last year, she's had success outside of the NWSL. She won an NCAA championship with Stanford in 2017 and won the prestigious MAC Hermann Trophy, collegiate soccer’s Heisman, that year. She was also on the USWNT that won the 2018 SheBelieves Cup, appearing in one game.
Kristen Hamilton, North Carolina Courage
It could bode well for 27-year-old that she was called up for the USWNT victory Tour due to injuries – but then again, the coach who did it won't be the one picking the Olympic roster. However, Hamilton has had a breakout season in the NWSL with eight goals in 16 games, 12 of them starts, plus three assists. That's more than she's tallied over all of her previous NWSL seasons combined.
This will be Hamilton's debut call-up for the USWNT, after getting her first U-23 call-up a week ago. But Hamilton has already been competing against the USWNT's World Cup winners – and beating them with the North Carolina Courage. With superb finishing and a penchant for finding pockets of space, Hamilton has shown she may be ready for a step up.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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