Emma Hayes' first big USWNT conundrum: Olympic roster cuts

United States women's national team head coach Emma Hayes, left, looks on with forward Alex Morgan (13) as players warm up before facing South Korea in an international friendly soccer game Saturday, June 1, 2024, in Commerce City, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

At times throughout her first two weeks as U.S. women’s national team coach, Emma Hayes felt like “a heart surgeon in the middle of emergency surgery.”

“Not because anything is drastically wrong” with the team, she clarified; but her first training camp overloaded her and players with, well, a lot. There were individual meetings and intense classroom sessions. There were “tired brains” and taxing practices. Hayes, within a week of landing in America, leapt into the USWNT cauldron, and tried, all at once, to build relationships and trust, teach “methodology” and “principles,” establish expectations and, oh by the way, win a couple soccer games.

It’s really, really hard for me to be on the wards, or on the clinics, teaching everyone, and do surgery at the same time,” Hayes said, extending the metaphor.

Now, though, after a second straight win over South Korea on Tuesday night, she’ll have time to breathe — and ponder her first major decision.

Prior to her second camp in early July, she’ll have to pick a team for the Paris Olympics.

And unlike a 23-woman World Cup roster, where fringe decisions rarely prove consequential, Olympic rosters are capped at 18 players.

So Hayes, with only nine days of in-person evidence, will have to balance a somewhat unbalanced USWNT squad.

She has a wealth of talented attackers but a dearth of center backs. Will she take all seven of Mallory Swanson, Sophia Smith, Jaedyn Shaw, Trinity Rodman, Alex Morgan, Catarina Macario and Rose Lavelle? Or, to fortify defensive depth, will she leave one of those stars at home?

At least two players who started Saturday or Tuesday against Korea will have to be cut.

Here’s where the USWNT player pool stands with July 3, the roster deadline, looming.

Hayes will take two goalkeepers and 16 outfield players to France. Contenders for the 16 appear to be:

Locks (10): Naomi Girma, Tierna Davidson, Emily Fox, Jenna Nighswonger, Sam Coffey, Lindsey Horan, Mallory Swanson, Sophia Smith, Jaedyn Shaw, Trinity Rodman

Likely (6): Emily Sonnett, Crystal Dunn, Korbin Albert, Rose Lavelle, Catarina Macario, Alex Morgan

Bubble (3): Casey Krueger, Sam Staab, Abby Dahlkemper

Long shots (3): Lily Yohannes, Olivia Moultrie, Lynn Williams

If Hayes were to simply pick her 16 best players, those top two categories would probably be her roster. And given their versatility, they very well might be.

Those 16, though, would leave the USWNT’s Olympic depth chart four- or five-deep at all four attacking positions and only two-deep, if that, at some defensive positions.

With the 16 players mentioned above, here’s what the USWNT depth chart would look like, roughly:

Left back: Nighswonger, Dunn, Sonnett

Center backs (2): Girma, Davidson, Sonnett

Right back: Fox, Dunn, Sonnett

Defensive midfield: Coffey, Sonnett, Albert

Central midfield: Horan, Albert, Dunn

Attacking midfield: Shaw, Lavelle, Macario, Horan, Dunn

Wingers (2): Swanson, Rodman, Shaw, Smith, Dunn

Striker: Smith, Morgan, Macario

The roster can include four alternates — essentially players on standby as potential replacements in case of an injury.

Alternates, one of which would surely be a center back, somewhat ease concerns about defensive depth — but not entirely. With up to six games in a span of 17 days, in potentially sapping summer weather, with red-card suspensions always a possibility, depth within the 16-outfield roster is necessary. And the USWNT’s defensive depth, as laid out above, would depend entirely on two players: Dunn and Sonnett.

That, in a nutshell, is the case for Staab, a left-footed center back who has excelled in the National Women’s Soccer League, and might suddenly be the USWNT’s fourth center back; or Krueger, or Dahlkemper.

Sam Staab (D) — At 27 years old, a month ago, she’d never even been invited to a USWNT camp. But with Hayes in search of additional defensive options, Staab received her first call-up; then her first appearance Saturday off the bench; then her first start Tuesday night. Has she leapfrogged Dahlkemper?

Abby Dahlkemper (D) — The other option, if Hayes feels the need for another central defender. Dahlkemper, a 2019 World Cup winner who has battled back from a long-term injury, actually started three games for the USWNT earlier this year. In April, she appeared to be the third center back, behind Girma and Davidson. But she was left off the latest training camp roster entirely.

Casey Krueger (D) — Krueger has been dependable and has hung around the fringes of the USWNT for a while now. She’s a very solid 1-v-1 defender, can play either fullback position, and could deputize as a right- or left-sided center back in a back three if necessary — as she sort of did Tuesday, when the U.S. built in possession in something of a 3-5-2/3-4-3 shape.

Krueger would add value to an Olympic roster. But the question, as with Staab or Dahlkemper, is: How do you make room for her?

Alex Morgan (F) — Morgan was on the outside looking in at 23-player rosters this past winter, and seemingly on her way out of the USWNT picture. Then Mia Fishel tore an ACL, coaches called in Morgan as a late replacement, and Morgan proved her persistent worth. Her goals have dried up, but her skill set — as a classic No. 9, a target who can link with teammates, and a grinder who can lead a press — is unique in the player pool. Surely Hayes sees that, and wants that as an option this summer.

Catarina Macario (M/F) — Macario still hasn’t played more than 60 minutes in a game for the USWNT since April 2022. She’s still building back from a multi-year injury layoff. But Hayes, who recruited Macario to Chelsea while injured, clearly likes her — either as a center forward or a No. 10. “I know how she operates in the pockets,” Hayes said after starting Macario in an attacking midfield role Saturday. “She can draw players in, she can escape pressure, she’s quite a press-resistant player. Links really well.”

Rose Lavelle (M) — Lavelle, like Morgan, only fits in one position. But in that position, when healthy and in form, she’s the USWNT’s most inventive player. She hasn’t been all that great for the national team over the past year, and has lost her once-guaranteed starting spot, but she could be great as a spark off the bench in France.

Korbin Albert (M) — Albert plays a much shallower position than the three players mentioned above. But, beyond a brief Instagram apology, she still hasn’t publicly addressed her transphobic social media activity, which came to light in March and sparked plenty of “conversations” within a team that has always supported and championed the LGBTQ+ community. In pure soccer terms, she almost certainly belongs on the Olympic roster; but the controversy adds a degree of uncertainty.

Crystal Dunn (D/M/F) — The ultimate utility player seems perfect for an Olympic roster. She could fill in at left back, right back, central midfield, attacking midfielder, left winger or right winger. Hayes, upon arrival, moved Dunn to forward — because “I know what she can do at left back” — and Dunn promptly scored Tuesday in her first start at the position since 2017. The only scenario in which she’s omitted? If Hayes prefers Krueger as a defender, and concludes that Dunn is unnecessary surplus at forward.

Lily Yohannes is 16 and, with 20 minutes to go in the USWNT’s final game before the roster deadline, had never seen the field. But, when she did appear, she looked remarkably comfortable and clean on the ball. Then, she scored.

She is still a long shot for the Olympics. She has still only played a handful of games at the highest level, and 20 bench minutes against South Korea in a friendly don’t change that fact. But her passing game is unlike any other U.S. midfielder’s. She belongs on the national team — in the long-term and near-term future, and maybe even right now.

The goalkeeper position, meanwhile, is pretty straightforward.

Alyssa Naeher is currently recovering from a thigh injury. “If she wasn’t injured, she would for sure be in this camp,” Hayes said.

If Naeher recovers from her injury in time for the Olympics, she’s the starter, and either Casey Murphy or Jane Campbell is the backup.

If she doesn’t, both Murphy and Campbell will likely go and battle for the starting spot.

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