This year’s U.S. women’s national team is a mix of familiar faces and young talents. A dozen players from the team’s winning run in the 2015 Women’s World Cup have returned, including eight of the 11 players who started the final match against Japan. But this is the first World Cup for some of the team’s key players, like midfielder Rose Lavelle, forward Mallory Pugh and defender Abby Dahlkemper.
But who are they, both on and off the field? We’ve been diving through their stats, interviews and social media musings to put together our guide to the team’s likeliest impact players. The U.S.’s path to a record fourth World Cup starts on June 11. Don’t get caught flat-footed.
As a youngster, Heath was drawn to the Brazilian style of soccer, with its flair and panache. Her favorite player growing up was Ronaldinho, the Brazilian legend who played as if the ball were glued to his foot. Heath took her ball with her everywhere, sending it through the legs of chairs in her house — and also her mom. That informed the style that would become her hallmark with the Portland Thorns and the national team.
One of the most technically proficient players on the team, the 31-year-old Heath tends to create space out of nowhere thanks to those crafty dribbling skills. Fans call her the Nutmeg Queen because of how often she humiliates defenders by passing the ball through their legs to bypass them. Nutmegs are sadly not a stat tracked by any data-keepers, but Heath’s dribbling is among the world’s best, standing sixth in international play in completed dribbles per 90 minutes since 2017. Some of them surely went through the five-hole.
Morgan is the most marketable and famous member of the team, with an off-the-field empire — a movie, a streaming series and a line of books — that continues to grow regardless of whether she’s scoring goals. Luckily for the USWNT, Morgan enters this World Cup as a healthy starter for the first time after off-and-on injury woes, which means she could finally have the breakout performance at a World Cup that fans have been waiting for.
The 29-year-old Orlando Pride striker is at her best when she races behind backlines and takes on goalkeepers, but she also tends to check back and hold up the ball for other talented attackers. Sometimes that means she doesn’t score as many goals as fans or critics would want, even if she’s setting up the players around her. But with 28 goals in her last 36 games for the USWNT, it’s a good bet that Morgan will add to her tally in France.
As notable as “Pinoe” is on the pitch, she’s just as well known for her outspokenness off it. She joined Colin Kaepernick’s protest of kneeling during the national anthem in 2016 until U.S. Soccer took steps to ban it, which turned the affable and gregarious Rapinoe into a divisive figure. She’s also been outspoken against President Trump but says there’s no conflict in wearing the United States crest over her heart; the openly gay native of conservative Redding, California, says she is “a walking protest.”
On the field, both for the USWNT and Reign FC, she plays with a similar confidence. She’s unpredictable, she can score in different ways, and she sometimes takes over games with her individual brilliance, with a right-footed delivery that stands up against any in the game. At 153 caps, the 33-year-old Rapinoe is one of the veterans on this squad, having competed in the two previous World Cups, and she memorably assisted Abby Wambach in 2011 on the latest goal in World Cup history, a 122nd-minute equalizer to advance past Brazil in the quarterfinal.
Fans may remember Ertz as Julie Johnston from the 2015 World Cup, but in 2017, the Chicago Red Stars defender married Philadelphia Eagles tight end Zach Ertz. (Her teammates and coaches still call her J.J.) In the last World Cup, she was a center back along the backline, but she is a defensive midfielder now. In her new role, Ertz shields the backline while pushing up into the attack, where she has proven to be the team’s best header of the ball. Since 2017, the only Americans with more headed goals than Ertz in international play are Carli Lloyd and Lindsey Horan.
Ertz’s role for the USWNT is more crucial this time around because there isn’t another like-for-like player on the roster who provides both the mobility and physicality that Ertz does. The 27-year-old puts her body on the line so often that finishing games with gauze to stop any bleeding has become something of a joke among USWNT fans.
Lindsey Horan took an unusual path to the national team. She was the first American woman to go pro straight out of high school, forgoing a scholarship from the powerhouse program at UNC to sign with Paris Saint-Germain at 18 years old. Back then she played as a striker, but after coming back to the U.S. to play for the Portland Thorns, she has transformed into an all-around midfield threat.
The 25-year-old can score goals, and she influences the game by controlling the midfield and disrupting opponents. In the NWSL last year, Horan was involved in 555 duels across 24 matches — 190 more duels than any other player in the league — and she won the ball 321 times, which is 116 more than anyone else. Horan is among the league’s best at progressing the ball at her feet, a plus ball-winner in central midfield, and by far the most effective long passer in the league.
Lavelle has a bulldog dog named Wilma that she tweets about a lot, and her social media presence is filled with videos of her performing choreographed hip-hop dances with her teammates. The Washington Spirit midfielder always seems to be having fun, and she plays soccer the same way.
Of the World Cup debutants, Lavelle could play the most crucial role. The 24-year-old is a classic “No. 10” player, which means she’s a playmaker who can unlock defenses with slick passes and creativity. She is one-of-a-kind on the USWNT’s roster, and coach Jill Ellis is counting on her to create goals. Lavelle is among the most creative passers on the team, passing less often than her midfield teammates but aggressively when she does. This is her first major tournament, and how she responds to the big stage could make or break the U.S. team.
Dahlkemper’s national team career nearly ended right after it started. A few weeks after her first USWNT call-up in 2016, she contracted a serious sepsis infection and worried that she might lose her leg. She was bedridden for six weeks until surgery and intravenous antibiotics cleared the infection. By mid-2017, she was back on the national team radar, where she has been a fixture as a center back ever since.
The 26-year-old has been one of the best defenders in the NWSL lately, and for the national team, she plays a specific role of pinging direct balls up the field to striker Alex Morgan. For her play with the North Carolina Courage, Dahlkemper has stood out among NWSL center backs for both the volume and precision of her passing. During the past two NWSL seasons, she has completed the third-most long balls per 90 minutes among center backs, and her 55 percent completion rate ranks second.
What position does Dunn play? Good question. She’ll start for the USWNT as a left back, but it’s not unusual to see Dunn flipped over to the right side, shifted to the central midfield or up the field as a winger — sometimes all in the same game. Even as a left back, she’ll often be high up the field when the U.S. has possession, giving the team an asymmetrical look of having an extra attacker on the left and just three defenders in the back.
It makes sense — Dunn, 26, plays as an attacker for the North Carolina Courage, and she has traditionally been one of the most productive attacking players in the NWSL. Among league players who aren’t pure strikers,1 only Tobin Heath can match her 0.81 nonpenalty goals and assists per 90 minutes in the last two seasons.
O’Hara’s journey to right back was a long one. She broke into the national team in 2010 as a forward. For the 2012 Olympics, she was converted into a left back. By the time the U.S. won the World Cup in 2015, she was in the midfield. For her club teams — currently the Utah Royals; before that, Sky Blue FC — she’s been shuffled around nearly as much. Now, the 30-year-old has returned to the back line, but on the right side.
Given her experience elsewhere on the pitch, O’Hara has as strong an attacking mindset as any defender could. Look for her to bomb up the field and combine with Rose Lavelle and Tobin Heath in front of her. O’Hara is a key creative outlet and playmaker for the U.S., and there’s a good case that no fullback in the world does more to support her midfield in possession: She has tallied 4.9 progressive passes played and received per 90 minutes since 2017, behind only France’s Amel Majri and O’Hara’s American teammate Crystal Dunn for most in international competition.
She was a late bloomer on the national team — her big break came at 25 years old when she replaced an injured player. But she has been a fixture with the USWNT since, and she was the NWSL defender of the year in 2013, 2014 and 2015. She just turned 34, and this may be her last World Cup, but she’ll be needed as the leader of a relatively young back line. At 158 caps, Sauerbrunn is the third-most capped player on the team, and she’ll be the second-most capped starter behind Alex Morgan.
For two decades, the U.S. has put two strong personalities in goal: Hope Solo and Briana Scurry. Naeher, 31, takes a different, quieter approach. Perhaps the most controversial thing the Chicago Red Stars keeper has ever said is that she prefers to do The Wall Street Journal crossword puzzle with her morning coffee – sorry to The New York Times.
Naeher isn’t the shot-stopper Solo was during the USWNT’s previous World Cup cycle — Naeher’s save percentage for the U.S. since Feb. 13, 2015, has been 71 percent compared with Solo’s 79 percent, according to Opta Sports.2 But Naeher plays a bigger role in the team’s offense, completing about 14.3 passes per 90 minutes for the national team over the past two years, compared with Solo’s 8.7 per 90 in 2015-16. Naeher’s greater skill with the ball at her feet is apparent in her long passing: She completes 4.2 passes over 25 yards long to Solo’s 2.6, and she has a higher completion rate on those long passes, 48 percent to 42 percent.
Anyone who only tunes into the Women’s World Cup every four years may be surprised to see Lloyd — the hero of 2015 — listed as a substitute. But the Sky Blue FC midfielder will turn 37 soon after the tournament ends, and coach Jill Ellis has determined that the younger attackers on the roster are a better stylistic fit. Lloyd, a no-nonsense New Jerseyite who is known for training even on vacation and making her own ice baths wherever she goes, isn’t happy about being a substitute, and she’s not afraid to show it.
Lloyd’s age certainly hasn’t hurt her form. Even as her role and minutes have been reduced, she’s been incredibly effective in a U.S. kit. Her 10 nonpenalty goals since 2017 is third-best for the US despite more limited playing time in the last three years.
When U.S. Soccer conducted a written test to gauge the soccer IQ of players of both genders, Mewis scored in the top 1 percent. Credit all those books she reads — the North Carolina Courage midfielder says it’s her favorite hobby, and Harry Potter is her favorite series. At 5-foot-11, she is the tallest field player the USWNT has ever had.
Mewis, 26, may not be the best at any single thing, but she is very good at everything she’s asked to do, and she can slot into any central midfield role that might open up. She also isn’t afraid to fire shots from distance, which forces backlines into a tough decision of how to defend her. Mewis can win a tackle and play a pass like her fellow midfielders, but what sets her apart most notably are the one to two shots from outside the penalty area that she unleashes per match — of the USWNT players since 2017, only Rapinoe (of course) has tried her luck from range more often.
Press was a standout in college as a striker, setting Stanford’s all-time scoring record at 71 goals. But she only broke into the U.S. national team when she gave up on trying to make it — she went to play in Sweden, where she figured U.S. scouts wouldn’t see her. In the process, she rediscovered her love for soccer. Although the 30-year-old now plays stateside in the NWSL for the Utah Royals, she has said that she still likes to enjoy the Swedish coffee break known as fika, and she’s a proponent of meditation.
It hasn’t been easy for Press to find a place on the team. She couldn’t supplant Alex Morgan as the team’s go-to striker, and in 2015 she was thrust into a wide midfielder role where she never looked comfortable. Now, she has embraced being a winger and has been a consistent threat off the bench. She has averaged 0.78 nonpenalty goals and assists per 90 for the U.S. since 2017 while providing nearly one-third of her international minutes as a substitute.
Pugh broke into the USWNT at 17 years old, and she’s been a regular ever since, so it’s easy to forget that she is the second-youngest player on the team, having just turned 21 in April. She left UCLA to turn pro with the Washington Spirit before ever playing in an official game, following in the footsteps of fellow Coloradan Lindsey Horan.
While expectations have been heaped on Pugh as the future of the team, she figures to be a “super-sub” off the bench for the Americans this summer. Pugh, like Press, is one of the weapons that sets the U.S. apart from the rest of the world, and she has been among the 10 most efficient scorers in international football in the last two years.
Annette Choi contributed visuals to this story.
Check out our latest Women’s World Cup predictions.