Toughest Olympic soccer roster decisions for USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski

There will be some terribly difficult calls for Vlatko Andonovski to make regarding the U.S. Women’s National Team he will coach at the Olympic Games, and then some terribly difficult calls to make to those players who will not be taking the trip to Tokyo.

With a 2-0 victory Wednesday night over Nigeria in the last of a three-game exhibition series to help prepare the team – and to separate the leading candidates from those less fortunate – Andonovski has nothing to distract him from completing the lean, 18-player roster for the first major international tournament he will manage with the U.S.

It’s darned close to being an impossible job given the depth of talent in the USWNT player pool, and it’s complicated by injuries that kept two regulars from participating in the team’s recent games.

Andonovski told Sporting News this week it would be difficult to make cuts even if he were permitted to take 23 players, as is the case for the FIFA Women’s World Cup, but in that case it would mostly be about mitigating the disappointment of the two or three players who nearly made it. With the Olympics, there’s an ingenuity required to assure the team is covered for any injury or card-suspension scenarios that might develop.

The lineup Andonovski fielded for the Nigeria game suggested he had a firm understanding of his top 11 available players – or 12, considering the almost even playing-time split at center forward between starter Carli Lloyd and sub Alex Morgan. But he can add only six more players, and that includes defensive midfield ace Julie Ertz and veteran forward Tobin Heath, who has owned the right side of the U.S. attack through two World Cup titles.

“I will say that the confidence level going to the Olympic Games is higher than it was before,” Andonovski said, meaning before the team defeated Portugal, Jamaica and Nigeria without conceding a goal. “I feel very good where we’re at, and with where the players are at. In terms of making final decisions, I feel very good. I feel like we have very good knowledge of the players. I’ve accumulated lots of knowledge and data for the players in the last year and a half. When the decision time comes, I believe we are going to make the right decisions for this team.”

These are Andonovski’s toughest decisions:

Defender: Who’s the extra defender?

The starting quartet of center backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper and outside backs Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara started the World Cup final and still is airtight.

Tierna Davidson is the top sub at the center positions and left back. So it comes down to Midge Purce, who has played primarily forward in her most recent NWSL seasons, and Emily Sonnett, who can play right back, central defense and got some run against Nigeria in the defensive midfield spot while Ertz continues to recover.

Midfield: How many Mewises in Japan?

A year ago, Kristie Mewis forced herself back into the national team picture with an extraordinary performance in the NWSL Challenge Cup tournament. Now 30, though, she is running out of time to make the team for a major tournament, something her younger sister Samantha did in 2019 as a starter for the World Cup champs.

Kristie Mewis (below) was the most active U.S. attacking player in the first 20 minutes against Nigeria, but none of her flair produced a goal.

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Ertz is the most indispensable player on the U.S. roster; so long as she is healthy, and that is expected, she will be on the team. Lavelle’s absence against Nigeria demonstrated how important she is to the ingenuity and cohesion of the attack. Sam Mewis performed poorly Wednesday but remains an important attacking player. Lindsey Horan played mostly out of position in the three games, covering for the absence of Ertz, and showed at least some promise in the role. Her value as an attacking player is unquestioned.

That leaves room for either Kristie Mewis or promising young Catarina Macario, who is new to professional soccer and the USWNT, but who figures to be a future star with both.

Forward: Can they wait for Heath?

Perhaps the most skilled player on the roster, Heath played eight games for Manchester United in the Women’s Super League season and scored four times. So she’s still Tobin Heath. But she hasn’t played since April because of a knee injury and hasn’t appeared for the USWNT at all in 2021.

In her absence, Christen Press (below) might have taken over the starting job. She scored her 61st international goal and became the national team’s No. 9 career scorer with her first-half strike against Nigeria. And Lynn Williams, who doubled that lead and clinched the victory with a clever finish in added time, has forced upon Andonovski his most difficult decision.

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He will keep Morgan and Lloyd at center forward, Megan Rapinoe and Press on either side. But can he lose what Williams has delivered? In eight games this year, Williams has scored twice. She may be the team’s fastest player.

“I’ve talked to Vlatko a lot about the process for him, because it’s his first roster announcement,” Sauerbrunn, the team captain, told reporters Wednesday. “Just telling him how we’ve done it in the past and things that players really appreciate – namely, honesty.”

The honest truth: This isn’t easy for anyone, though it’ll be toughest for those left behind.

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