USWNT roster: Cat Macario, Mal Swanson return, and 16-year-old Lily Yohannes gets her first call

COLUMBUS, OH - APRIL 9: Sophia Smith #11 of the United States celebrates scoring with Catarina Macario #20 and Mallory Pugh #9 during a game between Uzbekistan and USWNT at Field on April 9, 2022 in Columbus, Ohio. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team on Tuesday dropped its most interesting roster in years, headlined by two high-profile comebacks and a 16-year-old debutant.

Mal Swanson and Cat Macario were the big names. They’ve returned from patellar tendon and ACL tears, respectively, after one and two entire years away from the USWNT.

But the most intriguing name was Lily Yohannes, a multi-national teenager starring in Holland and coveted by the Dutch national team.

Yohannes, 16, was born in Virginia, but moved to the Netherlands with her soccer-crazed family as a child, and grew outside American soccer’s traditional developmental systems. Over the past year, she has broken into the first team at Ajax, and set records in the UEFA Women’s Champions League. But as she rose through the Dutch system, she was curiously overlooked by U.S. youth national team coaches — not by the senior team, by the youth teams.

Now, with only two youth national team invitations to her name, Yohannes has her first senior call-up. She’s the youngest player to make a USWNT roster since Sophia Smith in 2017. She’s a central midfielder with vision and tactical awareness rarely seen across the U.S. youth landscape.

Her place on this roster, though, will not necessarily tie her to the USWNT. The two SheBelieves Cup games in April are essentially glorified friendlies, not official games. Yohannes, meanwhile, has also spent time with Dutch youth national teams. She would still be eligible to switch her allegiance if she were to obtain Dutch citizenship.

The other new USWNT name is Eva Gaetino, a 21-year-old defender who recently finished a four-year career at Notre Dame and bypassed the NWSL to sign with Paris Saint-Germain in France. Earlier this month, she scored for PSG in the Champions League quarterfinals.

In total, the roster features six European-based players, an uptick from recent squads that often only featured a few.

It will meet Japan in the SheBelieves Cup on April 6 (12:30 p.m. ET, TNT/Universo/HBO Max/Peacock) and either Brazil or Canada three days later, on April 9.

USWNT roster for 2024 SheBelieves Cup

GOALKEEPERS: Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Casey Murphy (North Carolina Courage), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)

DEFENDERS: Abby Dahlkemper (San Diego Wave), Crystal Dunn (Gotham FC), Tierna Davidson (Gotham FC), Emily Fox (Arsenal), Eva Gaetino (Paris Saint-Germain), Naomi Girma (San Diego Wave), Casey Krueger (Washington Spirit), Jenna Nighswonger (Gotham FC)

MIDFIELDERS: Korbin Albert (Paris Saint-Germain), Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns), Lindsey Horan (Olympique Lyon), Olivia Moultrie (Portland Thorns), Emily Sonnett (Gotham FC), Lily Yohannes (AFC Ajax)

FORWARDS: Catarina Macario (Chelsea), Alex Morgan (San Diego Wave), Trinity Rodman (Washington Spirit), Jaedyn Shaw (San Diego Wave), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns), Mallory Swanson (Chicago Red Stars)

Lily Yohannes’ story

Yohannes was born in Springfield, Virginia, into an Eritrean-American family with international football heritage. Her maternal grandfather, Bekuretsion Gebrehiwot, starred for the Ethiopian national team, and scored a legendary goal in the 1968 African Cup of Nations. Gebrehiwot later fled the country amid political unrest, and eventually settled in the U.S. His daughter, Semhar, came of age in the States, which is where she met and married Daniel Yohannes.

Lily was the third of their three children. She followed her older brothers, Aethan and Jayden, into soccer. By the time Aethan was a teen, Mom and Dad realized he might have a future in the sport. They set out to explore that future — in the Washington D.C. area, but also overseas. They saw value in exposing the kids to different cultures, different countries, different life experiences, Daniel told Yahoo Sports last year. And in 2017, they found an avenue to residency in the Netherlands, via Daniel’s work as an IT consultant and the Dutch-American Friendship Treaty.

Lily, who was 9 or 10 at the time, remembers a full-family conversation about the move. But she doesn’t remember anxiety or apprehension; “I was pretty excited,” she told Yahoo Sports.

In Amsterdam, she jumped into an international school, and into Dutch life — including Dutch football. She played on an amateur boys team, then caught the eye of talent evaluators from the Dutch football federation (KNVB) and pro clubs. At 13, she began training weekly with Ajax. At 15, she joined the Ajax women’s reserve team. And ever since, according to coaches and scouts and Lily herself, her development has accelerated.

It accelerated, though, largely outside the scope of U.S. Soccer’s girls talent identification apparatus. While U.S. men’s and boys national teams have an extensive recent history of recruiting players reared abroad, the women’s program has relied exclusively on players who spent their formative years in America — for a very simple reason: While Europe has long boasted the best boys soccer academies, on the girls side, the U.S. was the standard-bearer; Europe lagged.

But that’s changing. The same pro clubs that scouted Lily’s brothers are now scouting — and tutoring — girls like her. They’re leveraging existing infrastructure and methodologies. Many experts would argue that at least a dozen top European clubs, including Ajax, and perhaps many more, now offer a better footballing education than most or all youth clubs in the U.S.

The Ajax education has begun to shape Lily into a multi-dimensional, pro-ready midfielder. The environment, she told Yahoo Sports, “is always pushing you and challenging you to develop.” Daniel recently asked her what she’s learned, and she spoke about reading teammates’ movement, about advanced concepts that flew over Daniel’s head. The second team, Lily said, prepared her for a “pretty smooth transition” to the first team — and an unprecedented leap.

She signed a contract with Ajax last April, at age 15, and became the youngest pro in club history.

In November, at 16, she became the youngest American, male or female, to ever set foot in the Champions League.

She helped engineer a stunning upset on her Champions League debut: Ajax 2, PSG 0. She then helped guide Ajax through a difficult group, toward a quarterfinal matchup with Chelsea — where, last week, she came face-to-face with incoming USWNT coach Emma Hayes.

In Hayes’ news conference the day before the first leg, she spoke glowingly about Yohannes.

“Her final pass is exceptional,” Hayes said. “She’s got the ability, especially in tight areas she can get out of pressure really well. But her vision, the quality of her execution is really, really high. Sometimes I don’t believe she’s 16 years of age because she plays with such maturity. A wonderful talent.”

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