Injuries press pause on Jill Ellis' youth movement in the SheBelieves Cup
Mallory Pugh showed in the first SheBelieves Cup that she could hold her own against the best in the world. A cool story when she debuted as a high schooler weeks earlier, she was by the end of that 2016 tournament a viable contender for the Olympic starting spot she soon claimed.
Rose Lavelle used the second SheBelieves Cup to introduce herself to a wider audience. On a frigid day otherwise remembered for chattering teeth and the first loss to England on home soil, she was a creative, fearless breath of fresh air in her first appearance for the United States.
The third edition of the tournament will be the most important showcase yet for Andi Sullivan, who missed last year's tournament with a torn ACL but subsequently won the Hermann Trophy as college soccer's best player and regained her rising star with the national team last fall.
Three opportunities for players any youth movement would love to call cornerstones.
Now if only the United States could get them on the field together at least once before 2019.
The SheBelieves Cup -- which opens Thursday with a game against Germany (ESPN2, 7 p.m. ET) at MAPFRE Stadium in Columbus, Ohio -- is a preview of coming attractions. A round-robin tournament that for the third year in a row features the United States and Europe's highest-ranked teams, England, France and Germany, the event offers the kind of competition the U.S. women will have to solve to successfully defend their World Cup, and tougher competition than they will face when they try to qualify this fall.
But well into the roster remodeling that began two years ago, the United States almost certainly won't be able to use the ideal lineup in the SheBelieves Cup that will play those games next summer, qualification willing.
Co-captain and defender Becky Sauerbrunn is unavailable, sidelined with a stress reaction in her foot. Veteran Tobin Heath will be absent as she continues to recover from ankle surgery. Midfielder Samantha Mewis, who joined Sauerbrunn as the only players to start every U.S. game in 2017, is out with a knee injury.
Mewis has yet to be on a roster for a major tournament as more than an alternate, which makes it more difficult to assume she starts next summer. As much experience as she has in major tournaments, Heath has been unavailable to the U.S. women for much of the past year. That perhaps makes it too easy to assume she starts. Still, no conversation about the best lineup can take place without them.
Those three players also have 301 caps between them. Most were by Heath and Sauerbrunn, but even the 25-year-old Mewis has 34 appearances for the U.S. women and three full seasons in the National Women's Soccer League. They know how they fit. Their teammates know how they fit.
The troublesome part is that while U.S. Soccer has identified three players who could conceivably start not just next summer but for a decade to come, it can't get a look at them together.
If the World Cup next summer is to be the end point of the youth movement that coach Jill Ellis tiptoed toward after World Cup success in 2015, and sprinted headlong into after missing the medals in the 2016 Olympics, then SheBelieves is among the most important mile markers. Except that without Lavelle, who participated in U.S. training camp this past week but didn't make the final roster as she comes back from injuries, Ellis is going to have to outsource some of the work.
And that means Lavelle, Pugh and Sullivan hopefully spending a lot of time on the field together in the months ahead -- along with U.S. teammate Taylor Smith -- as members of the NWSL's Washington Spirit.
"Jim and I have a very good relationship," Ellis said of Spirit coach Jim Gabarra. "We've actually had a lot of discussions because his intent would be to play Taylor and Mal out on the right side -- I'm not speaking for him -- but probably Andi there in the eight, very similar to how we play, in terms of positionally. And Rose, yeah, I think we're all just still hopeful Rose will come back. ...
"I think Jim plays a 4-3-3 as well, so really we're just maximizing the opportunity to build on the relationship."
With Pugh the lone holdover, Washington added Smith in the trade that sent Crystal Dunn to North Carolina before the draft, selected Sullivan with the No. 1 overall pick and then took Lavelle with the first pick in the dispersal draft that followed Boston's dissolution. The result is a sudden and somewhat startling accumulation of talent mostly under the age of 23. (Smith is the only outlier, the senior citizen of the quartet at all of 24 years old.)
"I kind of always said I was always jealous with France because most of their national team players are on two teams," Ellis said in reference to club giants Lyon and Paris Saint-Germain. "Well, having this group, and specifically in the same areas of the field we utilize them, is going to be a massive step not only in their development but also our preparation."
That's the positive spin, and one not without merit. It also makes what happens with the Spirit this summer almost as important as what happens with the national team. A year ago, Lavelle and Pugh each struggled to stay healthy as their debut professional seasons progressed.
"Both Mal and Rose, it was their first year in the league and their first year 100 percent with [the national team]," Ellis said. "That's a lot. I think part of it is just them, their body, getting used to the grind. ... When they're young players like that and they've never experienced that, there's going to be something that's going to push a little bit."
While admitting it was an unscientific milepost, Ellis said she felt like players need 30 caps to be able to realistically contribute in an environment like the World Cup. Pugh just got there in the team's opening game of the year, and some of those came in a major tournament. Sullivan should reach double digits in SheBelieves, while Lavelle remains stuck on seven caps.
SheBelieves will be important for Pugh, Smith and Sullivan in the context of next year's World Cup, as it will be for Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson and Casey Short, and even Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan, players it's easy to forget are far from old. These games still offer a glimpse at how close they are to being ready for 2019.
But it's difficult not to be made a bit pessimistic by the mere fact that the three star pupils haven't played together.