The only team not to concede a goal at the 2022 CONCACAF W Championship also came out of the tournament without any obvious clarity around its starting back four and No. 1 goalkeeper. Go figure.
U.S. women's national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski started a different back line in each of the team's five games on its way to winning another continental crown and qualifying for both the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics. He fielded five unique starting 11s as part of his ongoing experimentation with a new group of younger players -- but it is in defense where the changes appear to be more about finding solutions than having players get reps.
Where, exactly, does that leave the defensive unit with one year to go until the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand? Factoring in some ongoing significant absences, difficult decisions loom.
Casey Murphy started in goal in the July 4 opener against Haiti for just her sixth career cap. Murphy made a memorable save 37 minutes into the match, denying Haiti standout Melchie Dumornay one-on-one to preserve an early U.S. lead as the Americans teetered.
Dumornay & Co. proved too quick and deceptive for U.S. center-backs Becky Sauerbrunn and Alana Cook and even Emily Fox -- perhaps the quickest U.S. defender on the current roster -- conceded a penalty kick after Haiti got in behind. Roselord Borgella hit the post on that effort just before halftime, and Murphy and the U.S. emerged 3-0 winners in a game that hardly felt comfortable.
Afterward, Andonovski credited Haiti's exceptional attacking players, noting that "they will expose any defenders." Two days later, he clarified with a more affirmative statement about the state of the U.S. defense.
"Absolutely, there is no problem in the back," he said ahead of the team's 5-0 win over Jamaica. "But there were moments in the game that we could have done a better job. It's a huge difference. I think our back line is stellar. I truly believe that we have the capability to stop any attack, any player in the world and I have no problem saying that we are ready to do that regardless of who is on the back line."
He added that the starting lineup against Haiti "is probably going to play the majority of minutes in this tournament" and that there were predetermined rotations heading into the CONCACAF W Championship to account for the heat, quick turnarounds for games and the need to test different partnerships.
Right full-back Kelley O'Hara joined Sauerbrunn, Cook and Fox in that starting back four against Haiti. Fox missed the group-stage finale against Mexico and the semifinal against Costa Rica before returning for the final. Lineup changes persisted throughout the two-week tournament.
That leaves us with some key questions about the U.S. defense...
Which pair works best together in central defense?
Sauerbrunn is the captain and, implicitly, the penciled-in starter for one of the center-back roles. She was arguably the best center-back in the world during and following the team's 2015 World Cup victory, and she has long been a player whose superior positioning and ability to predict play allowed her to be in the right place at the right time. Those traits -- rather than relying purely on her skills -- are why she remains a fixture in the lineup at 37 years old.
Still, her profile requires the right partner to complement her at center-back. In 2015, that was a young, skilled Julie Johnston (now Ertz) to handle open-field tackles and recoveries. In 2019, it was Abby Dahlkemper, who at the time exhibited some of the best long-range passing of any center-back globally.
Dahlkemper remains an option, although she appeared to fall out of favor during last year's Olympics, and her recovery from broken ribs prevented her from making the CONCACAF W Championship roster.
Tierna Davidson started alongside Sauerbrunn in the Olympics semifinal last year -- Davidson conceded the penalty which ultimately decided the game -- and the bronze medal match. Davidson, also a 2019 World Cup-winner, paired with Cook for the pair of friendlies in Australia at the end of 2021, as well as for at least one half of all three SheBelieves Cup games to start 2022.
Davidson, however, tore an ACL in March during training with the Chicago Red Stars, likely pushing her return to early 2023.
That left Cook and Naomi Girma as the other central options for the tournament. Emily Sonnett can play centrally, but featured only as a full-back during the tournament. Cook and Girma could be the long-term partnership for the U.S. in the back, but right now it looks like they are competing against each other for a place in the lineup.
Cook has the apparent edge after starting four of the five matches in Monterrey, and she is an offensive target on set pieces which the U.S. has lacked in the recent absence of Ertz. But Cook struggled in one-on-one duels against Haiti's top players in the opener.
Girma is a unique option within the U.S. player pool. The No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NWSL draft is superior to her peers in one-on-one defending and she is also the most offensively adept among the current options at the position. Already in her short time with San Diego Wave FC, Girma exhibits both the ability to dribble out of high pressure and pick out forwards with long, accurate diagonal balls (a hallmark trait of Dahlkemper -- her San Diego teammate -- at her best). She put that on display against Jamaica, assisting Sophia Smith's opening goal.
Two starts during qualifying makes not an obvious starter, but combine the potential Girma has with the progress she has already shown this year -- plus the needs the U.S. has in the position -- and it sets the scene for her as a potential starter at the World Cup next year.
Do we really know who should start at full-back?
Even the left full-back position, ostensibly the most settled on the back line, comes with an asterisk when discussing the potential starting 11 for the U.S. women's national team. Fox is the clear starter right now. She was identified by Andonovski last year as a player already capable of competing at the senior international level, but who needs more experience in top games before the World Cup.
"She's one of the most comfortable defenders that I've ever seen under pressure," Andonovski said last year. "Pressure doesn't faze her at all."
The context needed for Fox's arrival is that Crystal Dunn was the incumbent left-back and an integral part of the USWNT's 2019 World Cup triumph. She gave birth to her first child in May and is expected to return at some point. Dunn at her best is a clear starter.
Could that mean -- granting some assumptions here -- Fox on the left and Dunn on the right? It would be an extremely attack-minded full-back duo while equally giving the U.S. plenty of recovery speed in wide areas, which could be necessary depending on central partnerships.
O'Hara and Sofia Huerta mostly shared the load at right full-back at the CONCACAF W Championship, with Sonnett also rotating in and adding important offensive contributions against Mexico and Costa Rica. O'Hara is the incumbent right-back -- and a two-time World Cup champion -- who appears to still be the first choice there, but Huerta continues to make her case as a solid option who might be the team's best pure crosser.
Huerta started the final against Canada, settling into the match after Nichelle Prince targeted her early in a couple one-on-one duels. Huerta, 29, is the slightly younger option to O'Hara, who turns 34 next week, but O'Hara hardly appears to have lost a step when fully healthy.
Right-back -- especially if that is a consideration for Dunn upon her return -- will be an ongoing battle.
A veteran or a newbie as goalkeeper?
Most confusing across the back currently is the goalkeeping situation.
Alyssa Naeher started the final against Canada. In a vacuum, that is the status quo. But Naeher and Murphy split time throughout the tournament, and Murphy was part of that 11 in the opener that Andonovski indicated was his preferred squad.
He said afterward that Naeher would start the second game, against Jamaica, as part of a predetermined rotation, and then the staff would decide from there. Murphy then started the group-stage finale against Mexico and, crucially, the semifinal against Costa Rica (a game with a couple of moments of brief uncertainty displayed between goalkeeper and back line).
Naeher getting the nod in the final, then, was a small surprise. She dealt with some early probes from Canada before the U.S. back line mostly shut down its regional rivals until the final moments when Canada pressed for an equalizer. Even then, Girma was inserted alongside Cook and Sauerbrunn to close out the match in a five-back. Canada ended the match with 0.53 expected goals.
Whether or not there is a new No. 1 in goal is unclear. But the decision to give meaningful minutes to Murphy stems from a lesson Andonovski learned at last year's Olympics -- and an issue which has existed for the U.S. over several cycles: not enough experience for backup goalkeepers.
"She's an incredible goalkeeper," Andonovski said of Naeher before the group-stage game against Jamaica. "We are very well aware of her qualities. But we felt like it's important for Casey to get a game in. Part of the reason why is also because, looking back on our Olympic Games, Alyssa got injured and we had to play a goalkeeper [Adrianna Franch] in two of our most important games who did not play one second before. This way, we know we are going to have two goalkeepers ready after these two games, and then we'll decide how we're going to move forward."
Andonovski said during the tournament that his team is not ready for the World Cup right now, but it will be when the time comes. Much of that promise becoming reality -- and whether the U.S. wins a third straight World Cup -- will rely upon the right decisions being made for defensive personnel selection.