Congratulations, Megan Rapinoe! You and the U.S. women’s national team just won the World Cup for an unprecedented fourth time! What are you going to do next?
No, not Disney World, though, I mean, if that’s what you want, who are we to say no? Nor do we mean to allude to the fight with the federation for equal pay, which the team put on the back burner for the duration of the tournament so it could bolster its case by winning it. The two sides have tentatively agreed to try mediation at some point post–World Cup, but the players have no doubt earned whatever length of time you deem necessary to hit the media circuit and upload endearing videos of each other being feted in the aftermath of their triumph.
What we’re really asking is: Have you given any thought to how much longer you want to continue playing for your country? A sendoff series? The 2020 Olympics? Indefinitely? It would really help us get a jump-start on some planning.
Rapinoe has played for the U.S. in three straight World Cups, making three finals and winning two of them. She’s the captain of the team, its public face, its emotional leader, and a political symbol to boot. She’s also a 34-year-old with a history of severe ACL injuries playing a position that’s typically a young woman’s game. It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that she’ll be named to the roster for the 2023 World Cup.
Which, in a vacuum, would be survivable for the U.S. It brought a historically deep bench to this tournament. Christen Press proved an able deputy for Rapinoe in the semifinal against England, scoring a goal and helping keep England’s marauding right back Lucy Bronze in check. But Press will be 34 when the next World Cup rolls around, so it’s hardly a guarantee that she’ll make the roster. Same for Alex Morgan. Tobin Heath will be 35. Carli Lloyd will be 40 and probably still angry that she didn’t start all the games this year. The U.S. only had one forward on its 2019 roster under the age of 30: 21-year-old Mallory Pugh, who played against just Thailand and Chile.
Some of those 34ish-year-olds will make the roster in 2023, but not all of them, and maybe not most of them. The list of people available to replace them includes some talented National Women’s Soccer League scorers (Lynn Williams, Savannah McCaskill) with only a few previous appearances between them and some Young Female Athletes of the Year (Ashley Sanchez, Sophia Smith) still plying their trades in the Pac-12. But the direction of the roster is hardly a sure thing, especially if the next generation gets limited reps for the senior national team as some of the veterans hang on.
The U.S. has won two consecutive World Cups, but further down the pipeline, alarms are starting to go off. Neither the U-20 nor the U-17 team made it out of its group at the 2018 World Cup. The last time a U.S. youth team won a world title was in 2012. Teams and tournaments like this are an imperfect indicator of the health of the player pool—like checking the pH balance in the kiddie area and writing down the number for the Olympic-sized lanes next door—but it does demonstrate the ways in which the competition across the globe is catching up. The rest of the world does not currently have a full-strength team that can match the U.S., but add enough superior micro-generations together and you get a lot closer. The U.S. beat the best Spanish, French, English, and Dutch teams in the history of those nations. Next time around, some of them could be even better.
The bulwark against the Americans’ advancing rivals will be its midfield, where coach Jill Ellis—or whoever is in charge four years hence if Ellis moves on to new challenges—could bring back all four members of the World Cup rotation. Rose Lavelle has plenty of years left to dance through another tournament if she’s healthy for it. Julie Ertz will be only 31, so if she declines a bit, maybe she’ll only cover the ground of one-and-a-half players on the field instead of two. With the all-around games of Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan in the fold, it might make sense to figure out how to play a midfield diamond, but that could be too high-risk, high-reward for a coach and a team that have proved, for now, they don’t need to take risks to win. A surplus of world-beating midfielders is a good problem to have, even if you can’t fit them all on the field at once.
The U.S. women will look different as they try to three-peat come 2023, but what they’re doing won’t be a surprise. There will be hints at the Olympics next year, and in the SheBelieves Cup and the Algarve Cup and any number of other tournaments. You can gather clues from how the players are faring at their clubs, whether they stay with the NWSL or begin to emigrate to European or Australian leagues. What are Megan Rapinoe and the rest of the members of this team going to do next? You’ll have to keep watching to find out.