A USWNT in transition qualifies for the 2023 World Cup. Now comes the tricky part

MONTERREY, MEXICO - JULY 07: Sophia Smith of United States celebrates with teammates after scoring her team's first goal during the match between Jamaica and United States as part of the 2022 Concacaf W Championship at BBVA Stadium on July 7, 2022 in Monterrey, Mexico. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)
Sophia Smith (left) scored two goals in the USWNT's rout of Jamaica at the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship. (Photo by Jaime Lopez/Jam Media/Getty Images)

Nine months before the 2019 U.S. women’s national team conquered all comers, it was already a finished product.

It hadn’t yet clinched a spot at the World Cup it would eventually win, but the 11 players who opened a breezy qualifying campaign on Oct. 4, 2018, became the core that triumphed the following summer. Of the 11, 10 started the World Cup opener; and 10 started the final. They strutted into and out of France with a swagger befitting a team that had been there, done that.

Three years later, on the other hand, the latest iteration of the USWNT is still trying to figure itself out.

On Thursday night, with Megan Rapinoe jetting back from the White House, and a majority of the 2019 core on the bench or absent, the U.S. women qualified for the 2023 World Cup with ease. They romped past Jamaica 5-0 with fresh faces abound. They showcased the talent that will make them World Cup contenders, if not favorites, next summer in Australia and New Zealand. Perhaps they even introduced a new set of fans to a new set of stars — with 21-year-old forward Sophia Smith the brightest of all.

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But a year out, this USWNT remains a team in transition, potentially caught in between a phasing out of the old guard and a phasing in of its next generation. Alex Morgan is fighting to reclaim her starting spot. Rapinoe has embraced her new role as a supersub. Tobin Heath appears to be out of the picture, and Christen Press was on the roster’s outside looking in even before tearing her ACL. Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper are injured. Julie Ertz is pregnant. Crystal Dunn recently gave birth to her first child.

And so, with some top youngsters also sidelined, nobody — not even head coach Vlatko Andonovski — knows what, exactly, the 2023 USWNT will look like.

The only certainty is that it will look different. Andonovski came to that conclusion last year, after staleness bogged the U.S. down at the Tokyo Olympics. He’d clung to a core that had already been the oldest at the 2019 World Cup. He named an 18-woman Olympic roster of 17 2019 holdovers and just one newbie. That USWNT, as Canadian captain Christine Sinclair said after beating her North American rivals in a semifinal, was “ripe for the picking.”

So, after Carli Lloyd’s farewell tour, Andonovski overhauled the roster, and kickstarted what he called “the next chapter.” Morgan and Rapinoe stepped aside for several months. Andonovski used friendlies and second-rate tournaments to integrate the likes of Smith, Trinity Rodman and Catarina Macario, the 22-year-old Brazilian-born attacker who, by early 2022, was widely considered the sport’s best female American player.

This, to some extent, was a standard stage of a national team’s life cycle, with veterans waiting in wings to reclaim spots that youngsters didn’t seize. But Andonovski spoke frankly in February: “It doesn’t mean that all these players that have done well in the past are just going to come back here in the next camp because they’ve done well a year ago or two years ago.”

Thus began the evolution. While Rapinoe battled injuries, frustrations and thoughts of retirement, Macario won a Champions League, and Smith and Pugh soared in the NWSL. “They're probably the two most exciting players to watch right now in the league,” Andonovski said last month of the wingers. “It will be extremely difficult for a player to come in and take their starting spots right now.”

But then Macario, who can play in a variety of attacking roles, tore her ACL. Morgan, at age 33, is enjoying her best start to a club season ever.

“When Cat comes back, we'll see,” Andonovski said this week when asked how he’d find space on the field for one or both. “If Alex plays the way she is, I don't know how someone takes that spot. If Cat does as well as we think she can, then we'll have to find a spot for her somewhere.”

Rapinoe, 37, has returned as well, and can still do things with a soccer ball at her feet that very few women on this planet have ever done.

In midfield, Lindsey Horan has developed into what Andonovski calls a “true leader,” and Rose Lavelle is dynamic as ever beside her. But the exact makeup of the ideal midfield three, with Ertz likely out until next season, is unknown. Andi Sullivan is the first-choice holding midfielder at present. Sam Mewis, her sister Kristie, and Ashley Sanchez offer more individual upside, but would force an attacking-minded player into a more defensive role.

And at the back, the center back of the future, Tierna Davidson, also tore her ACL this spring. Becky Sauerbrunn, the mainstay of all mainstays, will be 38 when the World Cup kicks off next year. Dahlkemper underwhelmed at the Olympics, and both Alana Cook and Naomi Girma are relatively unproven.

Even behind them, the starting goalkeeper job appears to be up for grabs — with 2019 veteran Alyssa Naeher and 26-year-old Casey Murphy the top contestants.

Uncertainty is everywhere. The first true task amid it will be qualifying for the 2024 Olympics. That'll require a first-place finish at this CONCACAF W Championship. Even a loss in the final, potentially to Canada, would send the U.S. to a September 2023 playoff.

Then, the size of the grandest task will set in. Questions will need to start becoming answers. Because the two-time reigning world champs, who epitomize the women's soccer establishment, are anything but an established, polished product.