Outside backs are growing into their roles, and the USWNT is blossoming
CINCINNATI -- The United States has the most fertile soil for women's soccer in the world. A culture for the game sprouted when few watched, the likes of Michelle Akers and her generation already more than able when the sport's wizened chauvinists finally deigned to put on a World Cup for women in 1991.
And out of such success grew a following unlike any other in women's team sports, big enough to fill the Rose Bowl in 1999 or peacefully invade Vancouver for a gloriously golden afternoon in 2015.
The women's game took root in this country in a way that not only produced a talent like Rose Lavelle, the dynamic 22-year-old midfielder who took the field in her hometown Tuesday for the first time as a member of the national team, but filled Nippert Stadium on the campus of the University of Cincinnati to the brim on a late summer midweek night for a game against New Zealand.
What the U.S. women's game rarely does is grow outside backs from seed to superstar.
So here in surroundings with enough history that it once played host to Jill Ellis not in her current role as U.S. coach but as a collegian running up and down the field for William & Mary, the best team in the world continued a longstanding tradition of crafting an entire position from scratch.
What you can't grow, you make. And beyond the results of any individual game, in this case a 5-0 win against the Ferns, the pace of that progress over the next year and a half will go a long way toward determining how satisfying a stay the U.S. has in France during the next World Cup.
"It's continuing to evolve the outside back position," Ellis said this week in Cincinnati.
As recently as six years ago, around the time Megan Rapinoe lofted a perfect cross for Abby Wambach to head home in an unforgettable World Cup moment, neither Kelley O'Hara nor Casey Short knew much about playing outside back. Tuesday night, with Rapinoe still out there launching crosses into the box, O'Hara and Short were Ellis' experienced option as a pairing.
A prolific goal scorer for Stanford and youth national teams, O'Hara earned most of her first hundred caps for the U.S. after switching to outside back in advance of the 2012 Olympics. Short was a highly recruited attacking player when she arrived at Florida State and remained productive in that role during her first three seasons on the field. Only as a senior did she make the move to the back line, one that led her, after a series of injuries, to the national team.
Also available Tuesday was Taylor Smith, a forward at UCLA and in parts of her rookie NWSL season who was converted to outside back within little more than the past year. That, after Sofia Huerta, newly eligible for the United States after previously competing for Mexico, made her national team debut last week by playing outside back for the first time at any level.
In camp last week as an outside back was Stanford's Tierna Davidson, a midfielder by trade.
Not a born-and-bred outside back among them. Players are versatile. They change positions over time. Still, it is difficult to imagine saying that about the entire corps at any other position.
For Ellis, what she wants is a particular skill set, an ability to get up the field and become part of the attack in ways that include, but are far from limited to, lumping crosses into the box.
"Your No. 1 priority as a defender is to keep the ball out of the back of the net," O'Hara said. "But at the same time, on this team, you've got to be attacking minded and contribute to scoring goals. Both sides of the ball, 90 minutes-plus."
That she most often identifies those skills, along with the requisite athleticism, in those occupying other positions is a reflection of a youth development system focused -- and not all for the bad -- on winning. In club, high school or college, teams want championships.
"Right now, every coach is playing probably their stronger personnel right down the middle -- forward, midfield," Ellis said. "They're not looking at these positions. They're very specialized positions. They are very attacking-oriented positions depending on how you play, but I think right now in the club environment, it's not about developing players. A lot of times, for coaches, it's about winning games. So then they put their strengths sort of down the middle of the park."
That isn't universally true, of course. Just down the road from Cincinnati in Lexington, Kentucky, then-University of Kentucky coach Jon Lipsitz played Arin Gilliland at outside back for the bulk of her college career. The best recruit in program history, Gilliland could have produced goals by sheer dint of superior athleticism in the SEC.
But Lipsitz acknowledged her best path to professional and international soccer was as an outside back. Now a stalwart for the NWSL's Chicago Red Stars, Gilliland earned a look from the national team last fall and is young enough to get more.
But if that is still the exception to the rule, the current arrangement leaves a glut of forwards and midfielders for the national team, which in theory isn't a developmental team, to introduce many to the nuances of a new position.
"Just watching soccer and having played soccer for a long time, I think everyone knows the gist of every position, but it really is so different when you play it," Huerta said. "But once I came to the national team Jill was very clear about where she saw me."
This isn't a new conundrum, of course. It is almost part of the national team's DNA. Huerta has a lot of work ahead of her to be the most famous conversion among even Santa Clara alumni, former national team star Brandi Chastain holding that distinction. Christie Rampone made the same move and stuck around for decades on the national team. It is a long list that includes Meghan Klingenberg, a starter in 2015 who is not out of the picture despite recent absences.
"It's being able to adapt and learn as much as you can and absorb as much information and apply it on the field," O'Hara said of what Huerta, Smith and even Short are experiencing at the moment. "I think they've all done a really good job of doing that. It takes time.
"It seems like that is what Jill wants to do, is trying that out. And I think they've all done a phenomenal job of stepping into those roles."
The outside backs weren't the stars Tuesday night. The curtain call went to Lindsey Horan, who scored the first goal with a display of strength and agility when she kept her focus on the ball with a defender at her feet and headed home the opening goal.
It went to Mal Pugh, who scored once and looked a force time and again on the wing. And Julie Ertz, who didn't replicate her goals from the first game against New Zealand but was again a whirling dervish.
And the spotlight fell, too, on Alex Morgan, who scored twice as a substitute, the second a breathtaking blast from short range that threatened to take the keeper's arm with it into the net.
O'Hara got in the box score with an assist in the second half, her well-placed cross headed home by Lynn Williams. But on a night when the U.S. clicked about as well offensively as it has since the Olympics, admittedly in one of its few games this year against an opponent that isn't a medal contender at major tournaments, O'Hara, Short and Smith, who played the entire second half, were complementary presences -- O'Hara's one-touch pass on an interception setting in motion a series of passes that led to the second goal or Short's run opening space for Rapinoe.
Against New Zealand, which doesn't have the same firepower as elite teams, the Americans were rarely stretched in their own half. But the edict is the same no matter the opponent.
"Who we are naturally, we want to be a team that can create overloads in wide areas and get after teams," Ellis said. "And that means committing numbers."
O'Hara won a Hermann Trophy as college soccer's best player at Stanford, a season in which she scored 25 goals. She continued playing, and playing well, in attacking roles in multiple pro leagues. Most national teams in the world would probably be happy to let her chase goals. She is part of a select group to reach a hundred caps for this national team because she was able to change on the fly.
"I think I like the path that I've taken to get to here," O'Hara said. "Playing as a forward for a majority of my life, or my amateur career, has helped me a lot in being able to play this position on the national team and be as attacking minded as I can be. I wouldn't change it."
The U.S. might one day grow its own outside backs. It is currently intent on proving yet again it doesn't need to.