When the U.S. kicks off its Women’s World Cup title defense on Friday, many familiar faces from that 2019 roster will be missing. Headlines have focused on world-class winger Mallory Swanson, do-everything midfielder Sam Mewis, technical attacking aces Christen Press and Tobin Heath, and invaluable captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Equally missed will be the latter’s center back partner, Abby Dahlkemper.

As 2021 drew to a close, Dahlkemper became the first signing of the San Diego Wave’s initial roster build. Hand-picked by Wave president and former USWNT boss Jill Ellis, she was praised as “one of the best center backs in the world and a proven winner at the club and international level.”

Injury and illness limited her to 862 minutes across 13 appearances in the regular season and Challenge Cup, as well as just two international caps. A back injury suffered in an NWSL match against the Orlando Pride on September 25, 2022 required surgery from which she’s still recovering.

“I am just trying to get 100% healthy,” Dahlkemper told The Athletic. “Obviously, I wish I was able to be with the team this summer and help the team win and compete in another World Cup. But again, I’m just trying to control things that I can control, which is my health and getting back on the pitch and helping my team here in San Diego. It has definitely been really hard for me, mentally. I’m definitely bummed that I won’t be able to be there, but I’ll be rooting and cheering for the girls here stateside, and I have no doubt that they have everything that they’ll need to be successful and win another World Cup.”

In Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn’s absence, the U.S. has a pair of young center backs who project to start whenever available in the tournament. One, Naomi Girma, is a club teammate of Dahlkemper’s who won NWSL defender of the year as a rookie. The other, Alana Cook, patrols the backline for OL Reign. Emily Sonnett could be the top alternative after coming off the bench to replace Dahlkemper in her only appearance during the 2019 triumph.

With Girma and Cook preparing to make their first appearances on the sport’s biggest stage, Dahlkemper has no doubts that they’ll be ready for the moment.

“I think it’s only human to have a little bit of nerves,” Dahlkemper said. “I think nerves can be turned into a positive because that means you care. It’s just managing the emotions and channeling that into energy and excitement, knowing that 22 other players have your back. I feel like last cycle, when the team was named and solidified, it wasn’t like a sigh of relief, but you were just kind of like, ‘OK, we’re in this together.’ We’ve been picked to do a job and get the job done at the end of the day.

“I’ll really never forget those feelings of being able to step out on the field for the first time, the first game of the World Cup and really be excited but also able to take in the moment, because that’s something that you dream of as a professional soccer player.”

When head coach Vlatko Andonovski named his roster in June, it was a bit of a surprise to see only three center backs among the 23 selected — and, in Sonnett’s case, one of that trio regularly plays defensive midfield and full back for her club. While USWNT regulars Tierna Davidson and Casey Krueger will be among those who will understandably feel hard-done by that decision, focus must turn to achieving the task at hand with the players selected.



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It’s an acknowledgement of the unique rigors of a World Cup format; if a player picks up two yellow cards in any two matches between the group stage, round of 16 and quarterfinal, they’ll be suspended for the match following their second offense. Given the inevitability of fouls involving center backs, it isn’t unimaginable that one or both of Cook or Girma will need to be wary of making challenges if they see yellow during the group.

Still, Dahlkemper thinks this trio — as well as possible emergency alternatives like defender-turned-midfielder Julie Ertz (an option which Andonovski acknowledged upon naming his roster) and veteran Kelley O’Hara — will be up to the task having played in what she estimates to be “one of, if not the best league in the world.”

“Playing in an NWSL game every weekend, you’re bound to get better,” Dahlkemper said. “You’re facing Alex Morgan and so many top forwards every game, so they are more than equipped. I’ve been fortunate and lucky enough to have played with them throughout many camps; they’re very talented and the future, I think, is so bright for the national team, but also in that position as well. You mentioned Emily Sonnett and Alana Cook and (Girma). They’re still young and have so many years ahead of them.”

Unlike 2019, Dahlkemper will have to watch the U.S. open World Cup play against Vietnam from home.

While the U.S. takes on the world in Australia and New Zealand, Dahlkemper continues to recover from her injury setback in hopes of taking the field soon for San Diego. In late May, she posted photos of her training on social media for the first time since before that September injury.

(Photo: Mitchell Leff/Getty Images)