The USWNT Can’t Afford to Repeat Its Megan Rapinoe Mistake Before the Next World Cup

The sports axiom suggests trading athletes a year too soon and not a year too late, when their skills have faded. Her coach gambled on sticking with Megan Rapinoe and other aging stars at the Tokyo Olympics. Now, Vlatko Andonovski is racing the clock to reshape the United States Women’s Soccer Team roster before the 2023 World Cup.

The USWNT has cast aside Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan, for now

Megan Rapinoe heads a ball during a game against South Korea on Oct. 21, 2021, in Kansas City, Kansas. | Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
Megan Rapinoe heads a ball during a game against South Korea on Oct. 21, 2021, in Kansas City, Kansas. | Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The United States Women’s National Team begins preparations for 2023 World Cup qualifying in earnest Feb. 17-23 with the SheBelieves Cup tournament. The first thing that the soccer community noticed when the USWNT announced the schedule was that the level of competition does not match past lineups. While Iceland, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic all reside in the top 25 on the international rankings, none are in the top 15.

The second eye-catching detail is likely related to the first: Coach Vlatko Andonovski has made some significant omissions on the roster of 23 players invited to training camp. Among those missing are stalwarts Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Christen Press. That trio alone accounts for 532 appearances with the USWNT, securing championships at the 2012 Olympics and the 2015 and ’19 World Cups.

The decision to fill out the roster with multiple new faces is an admission that Andonovski stuck with highly accomplished veterans a year too long. Perhaps the United States would have fared better had the Tokyo Olympics gone off as scheduled, but Sweden pounced on the Americans in the group-stage opener, and the USWNT never recovered. The U.S. had to claw its way to an underachieving bronze medal by beating Australia, 4-3.

The coach has a warning for Megan Rapinoe and other USWNT veterans

The USWNT’s victory over Australia in the bronze-medal game at the Tokyo Olympics last year was a fitting sendoff for Carli Lloyd, who scored a pair of goals and then retired at the age of 39 after representing her country a staggering 316 times. However, the game was also a reminder that Megan Rapinoe, 36, still had some spring in her legs, as she accounted for the other two U.S. goals.

That’s why coach Vlatko Andonovski is not closing the book on the careers of some of the most recognizable faces in international soccer. However, he was blunt in reminding them that performances a year or five years ago aren’t a ticket to the 2023 World Cup.

“They need to perform, they need to play in their (NWSL) markets, they need to play well in their markets and show they can still be valuable for the national team,” he said, according to Sports Illustrated.

The USWNT has not announced a schedule beyond the SheBelieves Cup, but the team will book friendlies in the spring and early summer to prepare for World Cup qualifying in July. Andonovski’s roster for that CONCACAF tournament will be decidedly younger than the squad competing at Tokyo. If he feels he has gone too far with a youth movement, then it’s possible he’ll summon Rapinoe or Alex Morgan for veteran leadership.

The U.S. team is in transition

Coach Vlatko Andonovski’s decision not to invite veterans Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, and Christen Press to the training camp setting the roster for the SheBelieves Cup is the first step toward reinvigorating the USWNT program.

Those players clearly still had something to offer the U.S. last year, but the roster depended too heavily on legs that couldn’t stand up to six games in two weeks. That mistake can’t happen again.

While the value of experience cannot be discounted, the U.S. lineup in the 3-0 loss to Sweden that got the team off on the wrong foot at the Tokyo Olympics included five players with more than 140 appearances to their credit. That didn’t include Carli Lloyd and Megan Rapinoe. Seven starters were holdovers from the Olympiad five years earlier.

By forcing himself to look at emerging talents including Catarina Macario, Sophia Smith, Mal Pugh, Trinity Rodman, and Ashley Sanchez, all of whom are 23 or younger, Andonovski is building the foundation of the team that could represent the United States in the next three World Cups.

He’s learned from his Tokyo mistake.

Like Sportscasting on Facebook. Follow us on Twitter @sportscasting19.

RELATED: Megan Rapinoe and Sue Bird Are America’s Most Successful Sports Couple