ST. PAUL, Minn. — When the starting lineup was announced for Carli Lloyd’s U.S. women’s soccer team finale Tuesday night, it was billed on the national team’s social media accounts as “Carli and the kids.”
The turn of phrase, meant to represent the group of young players who would join Lloyd on the field, drew some laughs in the press box and among fans. But downstairs in the Allianz Field locker room, the players embraced it as reality.
“That’s exactly what Carli said to us in the locker room before we went out,” said midfielder Andi Sullivan, a 25-year-old who’s at the forefront of the next wave. “It’s her night, and she said, ‘This is about you guys, and this is your opportunity to make something of this so that you can be on this team in the future.’ … Moments like that where she’s interacting with younger players are so meaningful, and [she’s] just always pushing everyone to believe in themselves and give it their all.”
Upon being told of Sullivan’s remarks, Lloyd said it meant a lot to hear them.
“To hear the impact that I’ve had on so many players, so many younger players, that’s almost more rewarding than anything I’ve ever achieved,” she said. “It’s an honor to wear this crest, it’s an honor to play for your country, and the culture of this team has just been embedded and ingrained in this crest since the start.”
A moment later, she added: “I don’t really think I fully understand the impact that I’ve had, but it’s one of the greatest things that I’ve heard closing out my career.”
As the 6-0 win over South Korea played out, the potential of the newcomers was as bright as the spotlight on Lloyd. Sullivan is a superb tempo-dictator, defending and passing forward from a deep central role. Catarina Macario (age 22) is living up to the hype that has surrounded her playmaking skills for years. Sophia Smith (21) has all the sharp instincts of a top-level striker.
Add them to a group of in-their-prime players including Crystal Dunn (29), Samantha Mewis (29), Lynn Williams (28), Lindsey Horan (27), Rose Lavelle (26), and Tierna Davidson (23), and the message is clear: The future of the world’s best women’s soccer team is in very good hands. And if you need to take “hands” literally, the line of new goalkeepers starts with Adrianna Franch (30).
We will likely see more candidates for big-time futures next month, if the state of the pandemic allows for a long-planned U.S. trip to Australia. That will be the first gathering after the Americans’ post-Olympic tour, for which the players’ collective bargaining agreement mandated (as with similar tours in the past) that all of the tournament squad be called up. Additional players came in because of injuries (Alyssa Naeher, Mewis, and Julie Ertz) and opt-outs (Dunn and Christen Press).
Now manager Vlatko Andonovski can call in whomever he wants, and start to execute one of the mandates he was given when hired two years ago: to launch a generational change in the U.S. program.
Some of the players who might come in already have national team experience, such as Gotham FC’s Margaret Purce (26), OL Reign’s Alana Cook (24), and the Chicago Red Stars’ Mallory Pugh (23). Others are new to the pro ranks but have great potential, such as Gotham’s Brianna Pinto (21), Portland’s Morgan Weaver (24), and the Washington Spirit’s 19-year-old phenom Trinity Rodman. Big-time college prospects include Florida State’s Jaelin Howell and Stanford’s Naomi Girma.
Of particular interest is Racing Louisville rookie left back Emily Fox, the No. 1 overall pick by the NWSL expansion team in this year’s draft. Everyone around the national team is watching to see if the 23-year-old can earn a starting spot at a position where the U.S. has long lacked depth. If Fox does it, she’ll enable Dunn to make a long-awaited move back to an attacking position.
Dunn has played the defensive role so well with the national team for the last few years that if you only watch the national team, you might not know she has rarely ever played left back for her club teams. She plays as an attacking midfielder for the Thorns, and did the same for the North Carolina Courage from 2018-20.
Fox played the entirety of Tuesday’s 6-0 win over South Korea, and was a 68th-minute substitute last Thursday in a scoreless tie to start the two-game series. She looked the best she has in a national team jersey since her first cap three years ago.
“I was very happy with Fox’s performance,” Andonovski said. “I thought first, defensively, she was spot-on. … Also, the ability to attack and get in an advanced position was tremendous, because we knew that we were going to have to break a low block.”
What will happen to Lloyd’s superstar contemporaries, especially Megan Rapinoe (36), Becky Sauerbrunn (36) and Kelley O’Hara (33)? Rapinoe and Sauerbrunn have mused publicly about stepping down from the national team soon. (Rapinoe has pondered it with her fiancée, Sue Bird, who faces the same question in her basketball career.)
O’Hara has said she is ready to commit through the 2024 Olympics, but the team’s starting right back since the 2016 Olympics could now block Huerta and others from coming up. And there are risks in having an older player at a position where covering the full length of the field is essential.
But the final decision rests with Andonovski and U.S. general manager Kate Markgraf. They know that if they want the new era of players to get the lion’s share of playing time before the 2023 World Cup, the time to make the big calls is coming soon.