In college athletics, we get to know players, we embrace them as they become stars, and within four years they're gone. Granted, a World Cup cycle is a little more forgiving -- star players tend to play in at least a couple of Cups -- but it is a similar concept. When a new tournament rolls around, a lot of the vital names have changed.
Change can be a stressful thing. Who knows whether the new generation of key contributors will be as good as the last one? The team has to steadily prove itself all over again. It often doesn't.
What the U.S. women's national team pulled off in France in 2019 was awfully impressive. After winning the Women's World Cup in 2015, the U.S. saw pretty stark turnover. Twelve women had played at least 200 minutes in the 2015 tournament but only five would repeat that level in France: center back Becky Sauerbrunn, defender-turned-midfielder Julie Ertz, wingers Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, and forward Alex Morgan.
At goalkeeper, Alyssa Naeher replaced Hope Solo. Up front, record-setting scorer-turned-super-sub Abby Wambach retired, and 36-year-old Carli Lloyd saw her minutes dialed down. Fullbacks Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger were replaced by Kelley O'Hara and Crystal Dunn, who had played much further up the pitch at the time. In midfield, Lauren Holiday (who retired from international soccer) and the oft-injured Morgan Brian gave way to Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle and Lindsey Horan.
That's a lot of turnover for a team to absorb while continuing to play at a world's-best level. Considering teams have repeated as World Cup champions only twice on the women's side and haven't done it on the men's side since the early 1960s, clearly balancing this turnover is a tall task. That they pulled it off was quite a feat.
No one on either the men's or women's side, however, has ever pulled off a three-peat. Can the USWNT become the first?
We have to wait three more years for the answer to that question, but that doesn't mean we can't begin looking at how the roster might take shape and where turnover might hit the hardest.
World Cup age ranges
If you weight a squad's average age based on the percentage of minutes played, you can get a quick feel for the age of the squad as a whole. For the first couple of World Cups, as women's soccer was getting its footing, U.S. teams were glorified U23 squads -- the average weighted age was 23.1 when they won the first World Cup in 1991 and 24.1 when they placed third in 1995. The oldest contributors on these teams were 30-year-old Carin Jennings-Gabarra in 1995 and three 27-year-olds (April Heinrichs in 1991, Joy Fawcett and Carla Overbeck in 1995).
As the sport began to develop and the pool of potential players grew, the average age predictably ticked upward, to 27.2 in 1999 and 27.9 in 2003. When the key members of the 1999 World Cup championship team filtered out, it left a younger squad in 2007 (26.6). Over the past three World Cups, there has been a clear core of peaking athletes for each tournament. The average age was 28.2 in 2011, 28.2 in 2015 and 28.7 in 2019.
Since 2011, players between the ages of 25 and 31 have occupied 67% of the USWNT's World Cup minutes; 20% of minutes have gone to players over 31, and 13% have gone to players under 25. That's basically two older players and one younger one logging starter-level minutes, and all the other key spots going to players in that 25-to-31 pool. In 2019, Sauerbrunn (34) and Rapinoe (33) were in the older range, Lavelle (24) was younger, and everyone else was in between. Lloyd (36), Krieger (34) and Mallory Pugh (21) did play solid backup minutes.
That said, Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe are both still near the top of their respective games, and Lloyd is still worthy of playing time. (Krieger has remained a contributor for the Orlando Pride, though her minutes have diminished a little with Orlando and a lot with the USWNT.) Athletes from Serena Williams to Tom Brady to LeBron James are maintaining peak form, or close to it, for much longer periods of time, and there's nothing saying this trio won't be involved three years from now.
You don't want to count on that, however, nor do you want to count on Naeher (who will be 35 in 2023), Heath (35), O'Hara (34), Morgan (33) or Christen Press (34) to secure spots. At least, if they do, it should be because they were brilliant enough to fend off healthy challenges from younger players, not because of a lack of sufficient challenges.
That 25-to-31 range is key. Of 2019's major contributors, Dunn, Ertz, Mewis, Lavelle, Horan and Abby Dahlkemper will all fit into that range in 2023. Pugh and Brian will as well.
Best midfield on the planet
The first thing that stands out in that list is that most of those peak-age players are midfielders.
The depth chart in the midfield was so clogged last year that Horan, one of a few players who could be considered for best midfielder in the world status, played only 357 of the tournament's 630 minutes. Brian was healthy for the World Cup but played only once. The talent in central midfield is absurd -- Ertz is another best midfielder in the world candidate, and chaos agent Lavelle continues to improve.
New U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski might have a different idea of what the best combinations are than Jill Ellis did, but the fight for minutes will be just as intense. Since the World Cup, Brian, the OL Reign's Allie Long and the Washington Spirit's Andi Sullivan have all seen solid minutes along with the top four. But it's likely we know who the largest number of minutes will go to when the big matches begin again.
Puzzle pieces up front
Rapinoe, Morgan and Heath may be capable of fulfilling the same roles as they did in 2019, and Lloyd (who has logged the third-most minutes in post-World Cup matches) could still be at a high-enough level to perform well as a sub. Again, though, the USWNT hasn't ever had more than two over-33 stars playing starter-level minutes in a World Cup. Odds are good that someone will be overtaken on the depth chart.
That will require someone to do the overtaking.
Pugh has already scored 17 international goals, plus another 10 (with four assists) in 40 matches with the Washington Spirit. (She was traded to Sky Blue FC earlier in 2020.) She will be in peak age range for two World Cups, and that's likely a very good thing for the USWNT. She's a natural on the wing, but if two of the Rapinoe/Heath/Press trio remain at an elite level, Andonovski might think about moving her inside.
Lynn Williams will also still be in prime age in 2023. She has scored nine times in 28 national team appearances and twice in five post-WWC matches. She's also an option on the wing, but there are lots of candidates out wide. If she indeed ends up at winger, that could open up a chance for someone like the North Carolina Courage's Kristen Hamilton or the Washington Spirit's Ashley Hatch.
This could also finally be Press' time to fully shine. She has been stuck behind Rapinoe and Heath for a while, but no winger has either played more or played better than the 31-year-old Utah Royal. In 10 post-WWC matches, she has scored four times with seven assists. She seems more natural on the left, just like Rapinoe and Pugh, but she could bull her way into the lineup for good, one way or another.
It appears the depth at winger is still strong enough that Dunn could remain at fullback. Ellis played her out of position in 2019, in part because of this otherworldly winger depth. Dunn alternated between solid and brilliant at fullback, and with Krieger aging out of the pool and O'Hara reaching her mid-30s, Andonovski could decide that Dunn is too vital in that position to move her now. That said, Emily Sonnett has recorded nearly 50 caps, and 21-year-old Tierna Davidson seems like one of the most sure-thing prospects in the player pool; either could fill a role out wide if asked, and both are top candidates to replace Sauerbrunn if the veteran actually begins to decline at some point.
A lot will change over the next three years. Andonovski has eased into his role, and the postponement of the 2020 Olympics means he has another year to prepare for the second-biggest tournament on the USWNT's regular schedule.
When international soccer resumes, we might see him implementing some large tactical shifts. With the quality of midfield play, you could certainly make the case for a more possession-based game than the more old-school strategy Ellis usually attempted. We could also see him take more of an "if it ain't broke ..." approach. An incredible generation of athletes is approaching its mid-30s, and we'll see who (if anybody) gets filtered out of the rotation and who holds onto their spot.
No matter what, though, teams like France, England, Germany and the Netherlands will present significant challenges. We'll see how much of a new squad Andonovski might field to meet these challenges.