Predicting the USWNT's final roster for the 2024 Olympics

Emma Hayes is a few weeks into her official tenure as head coach of the U.S. women's national team and she already has a pivotal decision to make: She must narrow a talented pool down to an 18-player roster for the Paris Olympics, where the Americans hope to win a gold medal for the first time since 2012 and move on from last year's World Cup failure. No pressure, right?

It is much harder to choose an Olympic roster than a World Cup roster -- there are five fewer players for the Olympics and only two rest days between games. The tournament, though smaller than the World Cup, is grueling, and major questions loom as Hayes readies to name her official roster in the coming weeks.

Where does veteran striker Alex Morgan -- and her 123 career international goals -- fit into the equation? And what about 16-year-old midfielder Lily Yohannes, who scored minutes into her debut earlier this month?

The need for versatility on a small roster is obvious: Can a defender play center back and fullback? Is a talented attacking player capable of performing on the wing or as a striker, or maybe even a No. 10 midfielder in a pinch? It gets more complicated to think of the entire 18-player roster within the tactics that Hayes hopes to implement, all while gaming out the worst-case scenarios for injuries and replacements.

Hayes has officially been in charge of the USWNT for only two games, and she is a bold coach, so she could have some surprises in store. But here is our prediction of her 18-player roster for the Olympics in France, plus four alternates, justified by the methodology we think she'll follow.

Goalkeepers (2)

Alyssa Naeher (Age: 36 | Caps: 104)

Naeher missed the most recent USWNT training camp because of a thigh injury, but she was back in net for the Chicago Red Stars on Saturday at Wrigley Field, a relieving sight for USWNT fans.

Naeher has been the clear No. 1 for over five years. Her ability to do the spectacular was reinforced in a pair of penalty shootout victories earlier this year. In each, she stopped three kicks and scored one of her own. She routinely makes unbelievable saves, and she is by far the most experienced goalkeeper in the pool.

Casey Murphy (Age: 28 | Caps: 18)

The No. 2 goalkeeper position has been up for grabs, and while Jane Campbell has the edge on Murphy in some advanced metrics in NWSL play -- such as post-shot expected goals minus goals, which suggests superior shot-stopping -- Murphy has held on to the No. 2 spot for a couple of years.

Murphy only reaffirmed her growing confidence in the role with a few high-quality saves in the second friendly against South Korea. (Campbell played in goal for the first friendly.)

Defenders (6)

Naomi Girma (Age: 23 | Caps: 32)

Girma might be the first name on the USWNT roster and starting XI. She was the best and most consistent player for the USWNT at last year's World Cup, and she continues to prove she is the best defender in the pool each time she plays for club and country.

Girma can defend the top forwards in the world and, importantly, generate attacks on the dribble or with precise passing. Her progressive ball from a high area set up the opening goal of the USWNT's first friendly against South Korea.

Tierna Davidson (Age: 25 | Caps: 58)

Davidson's omission from last year's World Cup roster was a product of bad timing as she recovered from a torn ACL in 2022 and the Chicago Red Stars struggled through a wretched NWSL season. Davidson is back in form now and is clearly the preferred central partner alongside Girma.

Davidson's left foot is a unique asset and, like Girma, she can set play with a unique vision. Expect Girma and Davidson to carry the entire Olympic load at center back barring injuries.

Jenna Nighswonger (Age: 23 | Caps: 9)

No player has improved her stock more over the past eight months than Nighswonger. She earned her first call-up in November, right after winning NWSL Rookie of the Year and a league title, and she has thrived as the left fullback asked to effectively play as a winger when the team is in possession.

Her assist to Crystal Dunn in the USWNT's most recent match reiterated why her left foot is such an asset on that wing. Nighswonger perfectly fits the profile of a Hayes fullback, and she can play (and has already) as a more conservative third center back when the system gets changed.

Emily Fox (Age: 25 | Caps: 49)

Like Nighswonger, Fox is an attacking fullback with the pace to get up and down the wing and the defensive abilities to hold her own in several different roles. There was and remains an expectation on Fox to be a long-term solution at fullback. She is easily part of this 18-player squad -- the question is whether she starts on her usual right side.

Crystal Dunn (Age: 31 | Caps: 146)

The second part of that Fox question has to do with Dunn. At last year's World Cup, Dunn and Fox patrolled opposite sides of the back line. With Nighswonger's emergence on the left, Dunn and Fox now appear to be competing for one spot on the right side of defense. Both offer unique abilities to get forward -- Fox more centrally, Dunn in wide overlaps -- and strong recovery defending.

Dunn is the veteran whose experience will be needed on and off the field. She also trained in the most recent USWNT camp as a forward. No player in the USWNT's modern era has defined the term "versatility" better than Dunn, and it will serve her again in this roster selection.

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Emily Sonnett (Age: 30 | Caps: 91)

The theme of versatility rings true again for Sonnett's inclusion in this roster. Like Dunn, Sonnett has been something of a victim of her versatility, unable to settle into any one position throughout her USWNT career. It looked like Sonnett had taken over the defensive midfielder No. 6 role in the fall only for Sam Coffey to emerge as the starter there this spring.

This final defensive spot likely comes down to Sonnett vs. Casey Krueger, and while Krueger is the superior attacking fullback and plenty deserving of a spot, Sonnett's ability to also play as a No. 6 will come in handy since Hayes' midfield pool leans heavily toward attack-minded players.

Veteran Abby Dahlkemper and recent first-time call-up Sam Staab are center backs worthy of inclusion in a vacuum, but they each purely play that role and could be a luxury in an 18-player roster. Sonnett likely prevails here for Hayes due to her versatility.

Midfielders (5)

Lindsey Horan (Age: 30 | Caps: 148)

Hayes recently and regularly lauded Horan, the USWNT's captain, for her leadership and on-field decision-making -- characteristics Hayes has not-so-subtly attributed to Horan's experience in Europe with Lyon.

Horan best fits into the USWNT's combination of midfielders as a box-to-box No. 8 midfielder who complements her more defensive- and attack-minded central partners. She is clearly someone Hayes will lean on to lead the team on and off the field.

Rose Lavelle (Age: 29 | Caps: 100)

Lavelle remains arguably the most creative player in the USWNT's pool. Catarina Macario and Jaedyn Shaw make strong challenges to that claim, but Lavelle has done it for longer and continues to produce moments of pure magic.

She is exceptional on the ball and might be the USWNT's best option at the No. 10 playmaker position. Her challenge has always been staying healthy, and she is right now. She is an easy name to add to this roster.

Sam Coffey (Age: 25 | Caps: 17)

The never-ending question of how to solve the USWNT's defensive midfield hole appears to be solved. Coffey is the obvious answer, and Hayes -- along with interim-turned-assistant Twila Kilgore -- has found the right mix of a hybrid double pivot against certain opponents, or Coffey as the lone No. 6 when the opponent warrants it.

Coffey is a superior ball distributor who keeps cool under pressure. Defensively, she is physical and intelligent when she needs to execute some subtle dark arts, but she isn't a wrecking ball type of defensive midfielder. Hayes will lean on Coffey heavily as the only true No. 6 on this roster, which impacts several other decisions in the 18.

Catarina Macario (Age: 24 | Caps: 19)

There is no denying that Hayes has special insight into Macario's game and trajectory. Hayes signed the attacking midfielder at Chelsea last year and then oversaw Macario's return to the field earlier this year, during the six months of Hayes' double duty as Chelsea coach and impending USWNT coach.

Macario returned to the No. 10 role for the USWNT recently in a friendly against South Korea. Macario can also play as a No. 9 (even a false nine) and looks healthy enough now for inclusion in the team.

Korbin Albert (Age: 20 | Caps: 10)

On sporting merit, Albert's inclusion on this 18-player roster is hardly controversial. Kilgore lauded Albert late last year for the midfielder's ability to come into the USWNT environment and simultaneously learn multiple midfield roles. Albert then started all three Concacaf W Gold Cup knockout games next to Coffey as the pair combined to solidify the team's midfield.

In her last USWNT appearance before Hayes will pick her Olympic roster, Albert had a strong showing in her start against South Korea on June 4. She is reliable as a No. 8, a No. 10 if needed, or another defensive midfielder in a double pivot. She gives Hayes in-game options without needing to make a substitution.

The potentially controversial part of Albert's inclusion would be how she fits into the team's chemistry following the recent uproar around (and Albert's subsequent apology for) her social media activity, which drew condemnation from several USWNT players past and present. Albert reportedly shared anti-LGBTQ+ videos and "liked" a post that mocked an injury to now-retired USWNT veteran Megan Rapinoe last year.

Albert's continued inclusion in the squad in Hayes' first two games at the helm earlier this month, and Hayes' recent pointed comments about a tolerant environment -- which came shortly after the Colorado crowd booed Albert -- seem to indicate the team internally has chosen to move forward with Albert.

Albert's inclusion in midfield would come at the expense of 16-year-old Lily Yohannes, 18-year-old Olivia Moultrie and even the more experienced Andi Sullivan, all of whom have had fewer looks in Hayes' new system.

Forwards (5)

Mallory Swanson (Age: 26 | Caps: 92)

Swanson is nearing a return to her world-beating self of early 2023 before an injury ended her World Cup dreams. That is good news for the USWNT and makes her an easy inclusion on this roster.

She is likely to be one of the team's starting wingers, and she even saw a few minutes in the No. 9 role in recent friendlies. Her ability to interchange with teammates makes her hard to track, and her talents are unique. A healthy Swanson is a problem for opposing defenses.

Trinity Rodman (Age: 22 | Caps: 38)

Rodman is the only player to have played in every USWNT game since the start of 2023. Need we say more?

Rodman is the best two-way winger the team has. She terrorizes defenses with her creativity on the ball and she is defends tirelessly on the wings, tracking back to cover for fullbacks and prevent opponents from transitioning. Rodman is electric.

Sophia Smith (Age: 23 | Caps: 48)

Smith is a lock to be on the roster and is likely to be the team's first option up top at striker as well. It is her best position, and she is especially effective in it with Swanson and Rodman playing beside her.

Granted, the trio entered the game together at the end of the match against a tired opponent, but look at how the USWNT's attack came alive in the second friendly against South Korea when these three played off each other. Smith bagged an impressive goal moments after entering the match. Her recent play with the Portland Thorns shows that she can be effective in wide areas, too.

Jaedyn Shaw (Age: 19 | Caps: 14)

The most talented young player in the USWNT pool -- and in the NWSL -- is Shaw. Figuring out where to play her is the biggest question.

She has thrived for the USWNT and San Diego Wave in central areas, but she has often had to settle for an inverted winger role based on those around her. That flexibility adds to her case to be included in this roster -- scoring in five straight games earlier this year didn't hurt, either -- and the question then becomes how to best utilize her.

Hayes will need to answer that now and in the long term, and the Olympics might be where the solution takes shape.

Alex Morgan (Age: 34 | Caps: 224)

No roster topic has demanded more conversation over the past two years than the status of striker Morgan. Each time she has ostensibly been moving toward the bubble, Morgan has answered the call to remind Hayes and the wider world of her continued value to the team. She did that again with a strong showing in the Gold Cup after joining the team a day before the opener following Mia Fishel's injury.

Morgan bucks the USWNT's trend of versatility as an out-and-out No. 9, but she has several things in her favor. Hayes has lauded Morgan's leadership on several occasions and stressed the need for veterans in the locker room. Morgan is easily the most capped player left in the mix, one with two World Cup titles and the last remaining player from the 2012 gold-medal team.

On the field, her ability to hold up the ball, control play and endure physicality from opposing defenses to win free kicks in dangerous areas makes her stand out as a lone striker. Morgan led the counterattack to spark Dunn's opening goal in the team's most recent friendly.

Morgan's inclusion would come at the expense of a young player at a different position -- or even a healthy Lynn Williams, who was left off Hayes' first and only camp roster to date -- but Hayes has consistently stressed the need to balance veterans and youth.

The alternates (4)

Unlike World Cups, the Olympic Games feature four so-called "alternates" who can be added to the roster in the event of a tournament-ending injury to a player. One of the four must be a goalkeeper.

These aren't throwaway positions -- the alternates will travel to France and train with the team every day. Although alternates were turned into full members of the squad for the 2021 Olympics due to COVID, the 2024 Olympics will see a return to alternates as training players only.

In the past, alternate spots have gone to up-and-comers who weren't ready to make the full squad but who were expected to play a future role with the team. In 2012, for instance, Christen Press joined the gold medal-winning team as an uncapped player, and she later became a staple with the USWNT, winning two World Cups. Sonnett made her first major tournament for the USWNT in 2016 as an Olympic alternate, and she has been a regular in the team since.

Other times, these spots have gone to veterans, like Heather O'Reilly, who in 2016 was named as an alternate for the Rio Olympics in what ended up being her final tournament with the USWNT before she retired.

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So, how do we project Hayes will use these four spots?

Casey Krueger (Age: 33 | Caps: 49)
Lily Yohannes (Age: 16 | Caps: 1)
Olivia Moultrie (Age: 18 | Caps: 4)
Jane Campbell (Age: 29 | Caps: 8)

Deducing the right balance of Olympic alternates is a matter of personal preference for each coach. It's about having players who are ready if needed in emergency situations, while also trying to give young players a preview of life on the big stage.

Yohannes is the most fascinating of the group. At 16 and having just played her first international match, including her on a truncated roster could be risky. (Then again, Hayes loves to be bold.) Yohannes still has not committed to her international future amid public courting from the Netherlands (which she is not yet eligible to represent), but her continued presence in the USWNT environment suggests the relationship between her and the USWNT is developing.

Having Yohannes in the Olympic environment would be the perfect precursor to the 2027 World Cup. Ironically, if she were an alternate who never plays, she still wouldn't be cap-tied to the U.S., meaning she could still opt to play for the Netherlands.

Krueger can serve as the alternate to replace anyone across the back line, and Moultrie has the right mix of currently available talent, potential and familiarity with the system. Campbell looks like the clear third goalkeeper, too.