Coach Jill Ellis is ready to reboot the U.S. women's soccer roster
Not all records are made to be broken. Baseball in its present form will not see a pitcher reach Cy Young's 511 wins. Nor is it reasonable to anticipate a future college soccer coach matching the 21 NCAA titles thus far earned by North Carolina's Anson Dorrance.
Sports evolve. The world they inhabit changes. Sometimes an unattainable record is its own sign of progress.
So perhaps the best way to understand what U.S. women's national team coach Jill Ellis will do with her roster in the months ahead is to think in terms of a milestone she hopes will soon have its own place in history. Following Heather O'Reilly's international retirement and Hope Solo's suspension, co-captain Carli Lloyd is the only player on the roster with 200 career appearances. In a perfect world, Ellis contends, progress would be that no one joins her.
Not even the most wondrous of current wunderkinds, 18-year-old Mallory Pugh.
"If she reaches 200 caps, I don't think we're doing our job," Ellis said, using Pugh as the most extreme example of a larger point. "When I used to recruit in college, my sole job was to out-recruit what I had. And if I did that, I knew we would grow and be successful. ...
"If we're looking at the pure development of our game, the challenge is not to have a 200-cap player because that means there is something better that is coming along."
It is a statement of philosophy, not action. Additional players, Pugh most definitely included, might reach 200 caps on Ellis' or another coach's watch. There isn't any mandatory retirement looming once Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan or others on a similar trajectory reach 199 caps. But as the focus shifts from World Cup glory a year ago and more recent Olympic failings to the international interval that precedes the 2019 World Cup in France, Ellis made clear in a conversation with espnW a message she also expressed in a recent email to players.
At the back end of two world events we now become a team focused on 2019. I have no doubt the disappointment and feelings we had in Brazil will fuel our efforts and energy towards being an even better team, and actually, what I liked about how Sweden played us, it must now force us to be an even better team.
That said, for the past month my messaging has been that after these first two games, we build for the next world cup. What I will tell the federation is what I will tell you, my priorities are deepening our player pool, and playing an aggressive schedule. How does this impact you?
Some of you will not factor in our plans for 2019 and I will share that with you in a timely manner. For some of you it will mean you will not be on a specific roster so I can rotate and evaluate other players. But what everyone must understand is that performance becomes the precedent of selection. Whether you have 1 cap of [sic] 300 caps, gold medals or no medals, you will be measured by what you do on the training field and what you do on the playing field in this, and your professional environments. Experience weighs in when selecting WC rosters but, it will be your form, your performance, and a willingness to embrace the tactics, style, and expectations of your role that will get you to camp at the present time.
At its base level, this will bring out the competitor in all of you, it will at times be uncomfortable, and hard, but making a national team should be no other way. To make this team will require you prioritizing that your efforts, your energy and your time, to give you the best opportunity to perform on the pitch. The final message is that character will be a quintessential part of being on this team. How you treat each other, your staff, the opponents, and the fans comes with the highest of expectations. Disrespectful or selfish behavior has no place on this team.Jill Ellis
Ellis isn't committed to wholesale change or continuity. She is committed to competition.
And competition isn't always comfortable.
"I think where we eventually get to is an environment much like the rest of the world, where players get selected based on their performance [in the moment]," Ellis said. "Right now, I think we are in the exploratory phase, looking at a number of players. Does that mean some of our current players won't be in? Yes. Does it mean they are eliminated? Of course not."
There have been cuts, players Ellis doesn't envision as part of the picture for 2019. Whitney Engen was the first from the Olympic roster to be released from contract; others will follow. And there will be other Olympians who will not be on the roster for the upcoming games against Switzerland in Utah and Minnesota. The absences don't mean their place is lost. Even starting games in Canada or Brazil doesn't guarantee tenure.
The outside back positions are often among the first topics Ellis talks about in the evolution of the team. She wants technical, playmaking outside backs who can connect passes and break down defenses that sit back against the United States. It's why she turned to Meghan Klingenberg as a starter in the build-up to the World Cup, and moved Kelley O'Hara ahead of Ali Krieger for the Olympics.
"Players don't change drastically," Ellis said of the senior international level. "Maybe they get more in form if they're a goal scorer, or they get healthier if they've been injured. But in terms of what they can bring -- I know what [the outside backs'] top end looks like. So now I can look for someone else and make a comparison.
"That's the place we're in, where we owe it to the team and the program to see what else is out there. Not just see what else is out there, but give them a shot in this environment."
The same process will play out in other positions. Familiar names will be absent as others get auditions, those successful then able to compete head-to-head with the veterans.
The collective bargaining agreement that still governs proceedings through the end of the year allows Ellis to bring in eight non-contract professional players for a given camp (as well as an unlimited number of college or youth players). There are obvious candidates for the remaining camps in 2016, starting with NWSL Golden Boot winner Lynn Williams and Houston Dash's Kealia Ohai, a former U-20 World Cup winner who tied Williams for the league lead in goals and closed this season playing the best soccer of her brief pro career.
We owe it to the team and the program to see what else is out there. Not just see what else is out there, but give them a shot in this environment.U.S. coach Jill Ellis
FC Kansas City's Shea Groom, Western New York's Abby Dahlkemper and the Chicago trio of midfielder Danielle Colaprico and fullbacks Arin Gilliland and Casey Short are likewise all young players coming off impressive league seasons who appear to match up with specific national team needs.
NWSL players will have opportunities.
"I think that is important messaging, in terms of to the rest of the players in the league that maybe aren't in here," Ellis said. "That we do value performances in there."
It is also easy to pick out collegians likely to merit attention, including Florida forward Savannah Jordan, Wisconsin midfielder Rose Lavelle and Stanford goalkeeper Jane Campbell and midfielder Andi Sullivan. Come January, if not sooner, there will also be representation from the U-20 and even U-17 World Cup squads (U-17 standout Ashley Sanchez has already trained with the senior team).
Ellis pointed to Pugh not so much as an anomaly, although her rise from high schooler to Olympic star was meteoric, but an example of how the environment can accelerate growth.
When Ellis wrote that embracing the "tactics, style and expectations of your role" is a necessity, that extends all the way from the fringes of the roster to the player with the captain's armband, the most recent FIFA World Player of the Year.
"Where we've made strides is our positional play," Ellis said. "Meaning back in the day, if someone was on the ball, five people would be checking to the ball. Now we're to the point where we're keeping our spacing, we're trusting each other, we're connecting passes. That's where Carli has learned to be patient in the No. 10 role. We've asked her to occupy the space in front of their back line instead of coming lower. In that space, she's one of the best in the world."
More important, it is a role in which the 36-year-old version of Lloyd still could be among the best three years from now, which is what everything that goes on right now is about.
Ellis inherited a veteran team when she took over from Tom Sermanni, one she managed well to a World Cup title. Retirements and pregnancies played a role in many of the personnel moves between Canada and Rio. So in some ways, she is only now beginning the process she told U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati was necessary when she interviewed for the job. The United States must get younger. It must change amid a changing world.
"There's already some that I have a clear vision of not seeing them as part of our 2019," Ellis said. "For some, it's a message of I want and need to look at other players. But to all of them, even the ones who sit out a camp, the paradigm has shifted. It's not you play because of experience. It's now you play because you've got to be good enough. ...
"The only way we find that out is to have a look at them in our environment. Now is the time."
Kristine Lilly's record of 354 caps is safe for now. Roster spots for France? Not so much.