This article is part of a series on the 2023 World Cup. Read coverage of previous games here.
High school coaches expressed admiration for the leadership and drive of Stanford alums in the Women’s World Cup and shared insights on their styles from some of the earliest points of their soccer careers, as these players seek to make history with a third consecutive World Cup title for the U.S. Women’s National Team.
After the U.S. narrowly escaped elimination in the group stage, USWNT and Cardinal fans are gearing up for an exciting match against Sweden in the round of 16. The U.S. team is a mix of rookies and seasoned veterans, including five former Stanford players: Kelley O’Hara ’10, Andi Sullivan ’18, Alana Cook ’19, Naomi Girma ’22 and Sophia Smith ’22.
Kyra Carusa ’18 and Ali Riley ’10, who were eliminated earlier in the tournament, played for Ireland and New Zealand, respectively.
26-year-old Cook is making her first World Cup appearance as a defender for the USWNT but she is an experienced leader. She served as Stanford’s captain her senior year and captained the U17 and U23 nationals squads in 2013 and 2019, respectively.
According to Bill Hawkey, who coached Cook at Pennington High School, Cook’s leadership skills were evident even in high school, on the classroom and on the field. “She epitomized an honest-to-goodness scholar athlete,” Hawkey said.
Cook had a “tactical mindset that gave us as coaches the sense that there was another coach on the field,” Hawkey said. Cook is a “fierce competitor, [with] top work rate in training and games,” and a “wonderfully supportive teammate,” Hawkey wrote.
Cook previously played for club team Paris Saint-Germain in 2019 and 2020 before joining the NSWL team OL Reign, who won the 2022 NWSL championship. Hawkey described Hook’s dedication to her team as a through line in her soccer career. “[She is] a one of a kind player/person [who] always puts team needs first over any individual goals [and is] a real selfless person.”
27-year-old midfielder Sullivan is another Cardinal alum who is making her World Cup debut with a history of success.
“Andi is a very intelligent young lady, a standout student that could’ve gotten into Stanford even without her athletic skills,” wrote Jean Coder, who coached Sullivan at South County High School. “As a player, her intelligence transforms her into a player-coach on the field.”
Sullivan played with Cook at Stanford for three seasons. She led the Cardinal to the 2017 NCAA Championship and won the the MAC Hermann Trophy, presented to the top player in collegiate soccer.
“Andi is a total player — she’s competitive, self motivated, willing to take risks and responsibilities,” Coder wrote.
Sullivan was the No. 1 draft pick for Washington Spirit in 2018. She now serves as the team captain and led them to a 2021 NWSL Championship win. The same year, she scored her first and second goal on the international stage at the Tokyo Olympics. She started 15 games for the USWNT in 2022.
Coder described Sullivan as “ tenacious — a full field player that can play anywhere on field, as a student of the game, she is quick to recognize the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses.”
“She was much admired by all our area coaches who would definitely all say what a lovely young lady she was and continues to be,” Coder said.
Though the USWNT roster is full of women new to the World Cup, it is especially distinctive for its young, up and coming players. At only 23, Girma is one of the promising young players that comes to mind.
After leading Stanford to a 2019 NCAA Championship win and serving as the captain for three years, she started in 19 games for the San Diego Wave during her first year out of college. Girma won both the NWSL Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year honors.
A first-generation American born to Ethiopian parents, Girma started her soccer career attending a friend’s practice at nine years old. Bob Joyce, who coached her youth club team Central Valley Crossfire, said, “Naomi is very fast and quick… [and] also very skillful and mentally tough.”
USWNT veteran Megan Rapinoe spoke highly of Girma in an interview on Just Women Sports: “There are very few players in my whole tenure that have stepped in and it’s just like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s the first person on the team sheet’ type of player every single time.”
According to Rapinoe, Girma is “going to be the future of the team for a long time.”
Perhaps the most promising young player, however, is 22-year-old forward Sophia Smith.
Smith quickly saw professional success after winning the 2019 NCAA tournament with Stanford. She was drafted No. 1 in 2020 for the Portland Thorns and went on to win the NWSL Championship in 2022. She also became the first player born after 2000 to earn an international appearance (a “cap”) with the USWNT in November 2020.
Known for her competitive spirit, Smith told The Guardian that her career will be a “constant grind and getting better.”
Current USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski said Smith has the “potential to be one of the best players in the world” in an interview with Just Women’s Sports.
Jamaican Women’s National Team coach Lorne Donaldson, who coached Smith at youth club team Real Colorado, echoed Andonovski. “You give [Sophia] half a chance, she’s going to take it. Excellent footballer,” he said in an interview with Just Women’s Sports.
After kicking off the World Cup with two goals and an assist, Smith seems to be proving her coaches right.
Even though the USWNT is full of new players, it is not lacking in experienced talent, including 34-year-old defender O’Hara. A four-time World Cup player and two-time World Cup winner, O’Hara’s leadership was instrumental to the USWNT advancing to the knockout stage.
O’Hara had a stellar career at Stanford, where she scored 57 goals, won the MAC Hermann Trophy and led her team to its first NCAA championship finals in 2009. The 2009 NCAA championship remains Stanford’s best all-time record (25-1).
Brian Moore, who coached O’Hara at various youth clubs, told Alive! she “was a relentless goal scorer, probably braver than anybody I’d ever seen.”
O’Hara currently plays for New Jersey team Gotham FC. She previously played for six other teams, including the Washington Spirit. O’Hara helped secure the Washington Spirit’s 2021 NSWL Championship win with her goal in the 97th minute.
O’Hara is also known for her grit and no-nonsense attitude. “I like to be smiley and happy, and you’ll see me laughing off the field… But when I cross the line and the whistle blows, I’m locked in,” said O’Hara in an interview with Forbes.
O’Hara and the five Cardinal are an important part of the USWNT’s path to a three-peat. The United States plays Sweden in the first round of the knockout stage on Aug. 6.