FIFA Women's World Cup
'The kids are taking over': Young stars provide a solid foundation for USWNT
FIFA Women's World Cup

'The kids are taking over': Young stars provide a solid foundation for USWNT

Published Aug. 7, 2023 9:51 p.m. ET

MELBOURNE, Australia – Trinity Rodman's eyes were red and watery from wiping away tears. Sophia Smith didn't want to talk to reporters. Naomi Girma had a blank stare.

The United States women's national team was devastatingly eliminated in the World Cup round of 16 after a penalty shootout with Sweden on Sunday, and in the moment, players struggled to process what had just happened.

As the U.S. takes time to reflect on what went wrong and likely make some changes, the program can take solace in at least one thing.

"For this team, the future is bright," U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said.


Even if Andonovski's own future is uncertain – his contract expires this year and the U.S. Soccer Federation will conduct a full review as it does after every major tournament – he's right about the young talent on this roster providing a pathway back to contention.

After being hired in 2019, he oversaw a generational overhaul. He was the coach who gave first caps to youngsters like Girma, who played every minute of this World Cup, and Smith, who started all four matches. He also worked in Rodman, Savannah DeMelo, Alyssa Thompson, Alana Cook and Ashley Sanchez.

There was much to be made about the 14 USWNT rookies who were playing in their first World Cup. Of that group, 10 earned playing time, seven are under 30 and four started every match. This experience will only serve the squad moving forward with the Paris Olympics coming next summer and the next World Cup – which could be co-hosted by the U.S. – in 2027.

"The kids are taking over, which is such a good thing," 38-year-old retiring legend Megan Rapinoe said. "Obviously so many of them in our squad are so young, so talented. They'll all be back and better in just four short years."

Can the USWNT BOUNCE BACK after early exit in World Cup? | SOTU

Before the World Cup began, Alex Morgan joked that the roster age range went "from 18 to Pinoe." Rapinoe, who announced her retirement in July before the USWNT traveled Down Under, is not the only veteran star entering her next phase. What's next for Morgan, 34, is uncertain. The co-captain didn't score a single goal in four matches and said after the loss to Sweden that she was going to "take these next few days to process what just happened."

[Alex Morgan, coming off a rough World Cup, looks to the future]

Julie Ertz, 31, emotionally said the round of 16 match was "probably the last game ever being able to have the honor to wear this crest." Alyssa Naeher, 35, Kelley O'Hara, 35, and Crystal Dunn, 31, have not publicly announced their intentions.

Becky Sauerbrunn, 38, did not make this roster due to a lingering foot injury, but it's unlikely she'll make another run for a major tournament.

They are all part of a special generation of players from around the world who made impactful change on and off the field. Soccer giants like Brazil's Marta, Canada's Christine Sinclair and Germany's Alexandra Popp were also knocked out of this World Cup earlier than expected.

It's part of a global changing of the guard.

"It's sad," Rapinoe said. "We've had some of the best players that the game has ever seen. And now it's time for us to move on and the time for the new ones to cement themselves and we're seeing that in this tournament for sure. And you're seeing that in our squad. We're sort of in a transition period and it's a very exciting future for U.S. Soccer in my opinion."

The team is officially in the hands of the next generation. Think co-captain Lindsey Horan, 29, Rose Lavelle, 28, and Andi Sullivan, 27. Emily Sonnett, 29, was a difference-maker in the midfield when she made a surprise start against Sweden. They will be the leaders the team looks to moving forward.

And lest anyone forget that Andonovski was dealt an unfortunate injury card, this was supposed to be Mallory Swanson's World Cup moment, but the forward ruptured her patellar tendon in April and was ruled out. She's only 25. Catarina Macario is one of the best strikers in the world, but didn't fully recover from a torn ACL in time for this summer. She's only 23.

Those injuries shouldn't have impacted the USWNT's depth as much as they did, which will be something new U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, who re-hired Gregg Berhalter as the USMNT's head coach in June, investigates during his program review. The USWNT has fallen behind when it comes to technical ability – which was evident in matches against the Netherlands and Portugal. Gone are the days that a team can simply be bigger, faster and stronger and win by lopsided score lines. Crocker knows that and it's clear the rest of the world does, too.

The positive here though is that the USWNT has the pieces – now it just needs to develop them properly.

Take a player like Girma, who played every minute of the Americans' four matches at center back. After the first game against Vietnam, Andonovski said it looked like she had played in three World Cups already. She was a calm and confident presence on the back line, rarely made mistakes and won what felt like nearly every tackle she went into.

"I can talk all day about her," Andonovski said. "Naomi Girma is here to stay. I'm very proud of her to step in as young as she is in her first World Cup and taking a defensive test the way she did. It's amazing."

The USWNT next must find ways to sharpen and hone this talent – that's what it will take to get back to the top.

So while the theme around this World Cup has been a solemn goodbye to legends, it's also been a welcome introduction to the rising stars who will dominate the future.

"There's a group here who will make their mark in the future," Andonovski said. "... I know that they will use this moment as motivation in the future so they don't have to go through this ever again."

'This is a whole moment to rebuild' - Carli Lloyd and the World Cup crew on the USWNT's new identity after elimination

Laken Litman covers college football, college basketball and soccer for FOX Sports. She previously wrote for Sports Illustrated, USA Today and The Indianapolis Star. She is the author of "Strong Like a Woman," published in spring 2022 to mark the 50th anniversary of Title IX. Follow her on Twitter @LakenLitman.

FOLLOW Follow your favorites to personalize your FOX Sports experience
United States
FIFA Women's World Cup

Get more from FIFA Women's World Cup Follow your favorites to get information about games, news and more