USWNT’s striker depth will be put to the test at World Cup

Could Sophia Smith be the USWNT’s starting striker?

The U.S. Women’s National Team’s spoils at forward have always been in excess. Most countries’ talent pools over 50 years don’t go as deep at striker as America’s would for one World Cup cycle. That depth is being put to the test this summer as a second potent goal-scorer won’t be traveling with the Stars and Stripes to Australia and New Zealand, with Catarina Macario announcing she won’t be “physically ready” enough to compete at the global showcase. The news comes about a month after Mallory Swanson, who was on a scoring tear to start 2023, tore her patella tendon. With both not heading to Oceania, the bigger question looms: who does the USWNT turn to up top? The answer isn’t simple.

Alex Morgan is a decorated veteran, but no lock to start

So, wait? We don’t just give the mantle to Alex Morgan, who has the fifth most goals in USWNT history and with her next appearance for the Yanks will have sole possession of 10th place on the all-time appearances list? Nope, and that’s a good thing that she’s not America’s last remaining or only hope. The 33-year-old non-Obi Wan Kenobi will no doubt be one of the team’s strikers when the tournament begins for the Americans on July 22 against Vietnam. Morgan shouldn’t be locked into the team’s No. 9 role. Going with a fresher face should work better for the influx of young talent the USA will feature at other positions.

What about Sophia Smith?

Let’s continue with a prime candidate and my selection for who will be the water-cooler name of the World Cup. Die-hard soccer fans already know the name Sophia Smith, but for those who tune in every four years expecting the USA to win the tournament, pay attention. Smith scored in the mega-friendly against England at Wembley Stadium last October and just as Abby Wambach passed the torch to Morgan, Smith could be the heir to the throne if it’s not Swanson’s for the taking. Smith’s only 22 but already has 29 caps and 12 goals for the USWNT. Smith has been a goal-scoring machine at every turn in her career, not only at Stanford, but with the NWSL’s Portland Thorns as well. She’s only 5-foot-5, but her pace makes her a defender’s nightmare.

If not, there are other options, including Trinity Rodman

Compared to the United States’ woes on the men’s side finding a reliable striker, we have more good options coming for the women. USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski could go even younger. Trinity Rodman, who had a goal disallowed in that sold-out friendly against England, just turned old enough to buy a drink at an American bar. She might be a few years from peak form, but Rodman will no doubt be on the plane to the land of kangaroos and the All Blacks. Andonovski could even go full prodigy with the selection of Alyssa Thompson, who won’t turn 19 until November, and it wouldn’t be a shocker to see her get playing time at the World Cup.

If the USWNT wants to go a little older, there are two good options, both of which have late May birthdays. Lynn Williams just turned 30 on Sunday and Ashley Hatch will be 28 on Thursday. Neither has the goal-scoring form of Smith or Morgan, and not the long-term potential of Rodman and Thompson. And if Andonovski truly wants a wild card, he dips into the old-guard player pool once more and gives it to Megan Rapinoe. She’ll be 38 by the time the World Cup comes around, but she was the biggest American star from the 2019 edition in France.

Rapinoe is on the bubble to be part of the squad in a very similar situation to Landon Donovan in 2014, as an American soccer legend past their prime. Donovan wasn’t selected and his presence was needed for a younger team. The USWNT shouldn’t have that issue in Australia and New Zealand with several with over 100 caps that are near-locks to make the team, including Morgan. Rapinoe just shows up in big-time games. And there’s no bigger event than the World Cup. Although Morgan will likely get the nod, the temptation of Smith or Rapinoe and what I genuinely think has the best chance to unseat that choice. 

FIFA wants to promote women’s soccer — as long as there’s money in it

Gianni Infantino says FIFA will be ‘forced not to broadcast’ this summer’s Women’s World Cup in the ‘big five’ European countries if bidding outlets do not improve on ‘disappointing’ and ‘unacceptable’ offers.

“FIFA is a non-profit organization” is one of the biggest oxymorons in the world. You don’t get a good portion of the organization indicted for corruption if the body is mainly focused on merely the health of the sport and building it from the bottom up. Gianni Infantino’s latest episode of throwing his toys out of the crib over the TV rights to the women’s World Cup this summer is only the latest example.

A bit of background is necessary. The TV rights and sponsorships to the women’s World Cup used to simply be bundled with the men’s World Cup. When Fox won the rights to broadcast, for example, it got both. That muddied the waters on what each tournament was making, which FIFA used as cover for the dwarfing of the women’s prize money by the men’s because it didn’t have exact figures for either. You would have thought it could just as easily be an excuse to equal them out, and certainly the fairer one. But this is FIFA, where logic and decency go to be brutally murdered.

World Cup broadcast rights separated out

Anyway, this upcoming World Cup is the first one where the broadcast rights have been separated out, and FIFA still hasn’t struck a deal with anyone in the big five nations of Europe. Infantino went on to blast the meager offers FIFA has gotten for the rights, and is threatening to not put the games on European TV at all if the organization doesn’t get a proposal it feels is fair.

On the surface, this might seem like a worthy quest from FIFA’s president. But you really only have to dig to the spoon-level under the surface to see that Infantino only has FIFA’s accounts in mind. The supposed purpose of FIFA, laughably buried under its greed and corruption, is to promote the sport. So getting the biggest tournament on the women’s side of the game on TV across the world would be the surest way to promote the game. It really shouldn’t be about how much that check is for.

And if FIFA has to take a loss on the tournament, through beefed-up prize money and such? Who outside of Zurich gives a flying fuck? Isn’t the point the governance and administration of the game? It’s a pretty sure bet that FIFA can take the hit ($7.6 billion in revenue in 2022).

How much the tournament is worth to TV networks in Europe is a little harder to gauge than it might be here. Games will be on in the middle of the morning, which is better than the middle of the night as a good portion of the tournament will be in the U.S., but it’s still hardly primetime as last summer’s Euros were. If games are still heavily watched, networks could make a pretty penny through advertising and the low rights fees they’ve paid. But those are heady profits not going to FIFA, which you can bet is Infantino’s real bitch.

No one benefits from the games being blacked out 

The tournament is just over two months away now, and while it would be great if networks in the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, and Germany were throwing full shipping containers of cash for the rights, not putting the tournament on TV helps exactly no one. It doesn’t help promote the women’s game, it does a disservice to established fans who can’t simply fly off to Australia and New Zealand, and it provides fodder for those who would shit on the women’s game simply for sport. Everyone loses, though perhaps there is a part of Infantino that is using this whole charade as cover for his real aim of confirming that it’s not worth putting the time and money into the women’s game that the organization he presides over should.

Sadly, this can be the open market sometimes, and if this is what FIFA is being offered then that’s what it’s being offered. Getting on their high horse when they’ve been the ones who have failed to properly run, promote, or administer the women’s World Cup in the past is an empty gesture. The lowball TV offers only hurt FIFA–the prize money has already been promised and set aside–and perhaps a second straight tournament of boffo numbers would cause the bidding war in 2027 that FIFA so desires to line its own pockets. These things can take time, but Infantino can’t satisfy his constituents with promises of slow growth in the future.

UEFA lost money on the last Euros, for as much of a success as it was. But it will get a better TV deal for the Women’s Champions League in 2025 because of it, and the individual leagues have gotten or will get better TV deals from the momentum. That’s how this works.

But when you’re FIFA and Infantino and have become accustomed to getting all the cash you want, legally or not, as soon as you want it, nothing else will do.

Joe Pavelski returns in style

Back on these shores, the NHL playoffs entered its second round. The best story was the return of Joe Pavelski, who missed almost all of the first round after Mathew Dumba of Minnesota decided to bulldoze him in Game 1 and knocked him out. Not only did Pavelski return, but he also scored four goals (no stroking though). His fourth came on this Brett Butler-like bunt at full speed, which tied the game at 4 and sent it to overtime, where the Stars eventually lost:

Pavelski, even at 38, remains the game’s best deflection…dude? That’s got an alliteration, let’s go with it. No one’s ever been better when posted in front of the net and has a teammate’s shot headed at him. He always seems to get a stick on it. This was on the rush with him moving at a high rate of knots, making it all the more impressive.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate.