Experienced roster will lead U.S. women into 2019 World Cup
Not long after Sweden eliminated the United States from the 2016 Olympics in a quarterfinal penalty shootout, for the first time denying the Americans even the chance to medal in a major soccer tournament, coach Jill Ellis sent a note to players about the path forward to the 2019 World Cup.
She wrote that the way Sweden played against the U.S. women, employing the defense-first philosophy that so infamously irked Hope Solo, would "force us to be an even better team" in the future. To compete in the modern game, the United States needed more than it showed in those 110 minutes in Brazil. She set out terms of how that would happen, that every roster spot was open for competition.
What everyone must understand is that performance becomes the precedent of selection.
Yet even after writing those words three years ago, Ellis offered the caveat that experience always plays a role in selecting a final roster.
It's difficult to argue that it didn't play a decisive role. While there are 11 World Cup rookies heading to France, this is a team forged through the events of 2015 and 2016, the highs and lows of World Cup success and Olympic disappointment, rather than a team built in response.
"Coming out of the Olympics, it was looking at not just player personnel but profile -- what kind of players, where is the game headed, where are we trending," Ellis said Thursday. "And making sure we had players who could fill those needs and be able to contribute to where I envisioned the game going four years on. I think what we've come to is exactly that, is a team with great energy, a team with great experience."
More than 60 players were called into camps after the Olympics. Yet only Adrianna Franch, Rose Lavelle, Jessica McDonald, Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson made this World Cup roster without previously being involved in a major tournament (Samantha Mewis and Emily Sonnett were alternates in the 2016 Olympics and traveled with the team in Brazil).
Finding two or three potential long-term starters, as Dahlkemper, Davidson and Lavelle likely are, isn't a bad return on investment in expanding the player pool, but it's hardly a revolution.
Ellis didn't want a revolution in the end. She's banking on a team with Megan Rapinoe in the best form of her life looking a lot different than an Olympic team that she struggled to influence coming off injuries. Ellis is counting on the experience Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan and Mallory Pugh gained in those same Olympics, even as we talk about them making their World Cup debuts.
Nowhere was the thinking more evident than in what were presumably the final few decisions. As she did in 2015, selecting veterans such as Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny, Ellis went with Morgan Brian, Allie Long and Ali Krieger ahead of prospects for the future like Emily Fox or Andi Sullivan (or veterans without World Cup experience like Casey Short and McCall Zerboni).
Through a combination of factors, including injuries but also the coach's discretion, Brian, Krieger and Long have combined to play barely 1,000 minutes for the national team since the start of 2018 (Alex Morgan alone played more than 2,000 minutes in the same span). But in explaining the decision about Brian, a key starter for much of the 2015 World Cup who has struggled with injuries and form since, Ellis shared a rationale that applied to all of them.
"As much as you want to focus, for sure, on the here and now, you also know what someone is like," Ellis said. "Having been on that journey with Mo certainly helped her and helped me in my decision. When you look at a player, it's not just what they can do on the field -- it's trusting them to execute. Set pieces are such a massive part of world events, and knowing that Mo will always know her role, always do her job in those types of things, it's the big picture."
Maybe that's a reflection of what Ellis saw in the player pool. Maybe that should worry us beyond 2019. But for now, the United States and Ellis are sticking with what what they know.
"World Cups aren't moments to invest in players," Ellis said. "World Cups are about winning."
And the players she deemed best able to do that are the ones she already knew about when she sent the letter. Which might have been her plan all along.
Let's look at how the roster breaks down line by line.
These were the least surprising selections and yet a position that also remains the biggest question mark entering the tournament. That is decidedly unfair to Alyssa Naeher. She gives no ground compared to peers like Sweden's Hedvig Lindahl, Germany's Almuth Schult or Australia's Lydia Williams. Yet she instead lives with comparisons to Briana Scurry and Solo, legends who only get better in our memories as time erases flaws.
Going into a major tournament without Scurry or Solo for the first time since the inaugural World Cup in 1991 was always going to make people nervous. And as Scurry has pointed out, this is a different stage. But both Naeher and Ashlyn Harris have been to major tournaments as backups, while Franch is young enough at 28 to continue building a viable portfolio for 2023.
Krieger's inclusion is one of the good stories of the roster (and judging from the comments on the team's announcement tweet, a rather popular one). She didn't complain about being left off roster after roster since 2016. She gets to finish her international career on her own terms. And aside from being a cohesive chemistry presence, she's still a darn capable defender in the NWSL. But her inclusion underscores either the failure of American soccer to produce young outside backs or this staff's failure to identify them.
After a revolving-door audition process over the past three years, the U.S. women end up with Dunn playing out of position, Kelley O'Hara battling injuries and Sonnett, Davidson and Krieger filling in when all might be best suited to playing center back at the moment.
Dunn is so gifted she might play like the best left back in the tournament even though she would rather not be one. O'Hara is wonderful when she's healthy. Davidson and Sonnett are versatile. The United States could be fine for seven games. But unlike center back, where Dahlkemper and Davidson emerged as options for the present and future alongside Becky Sauerbrunn, time ran out on finding anything more than short-term solutions at outside back.
The forward line has star power. The back line and goalkeeper form the question mark. But the tournament turns on the play of the midfield, the group with the greatest combination of limited resumes and limitless potential. Julie Ertz and Horan are all but locks to start, the team taking a noticeable step back when either is out -- Horan, in particular, might be the player on the roster best poised to leap to stardom beyond the soccer faithful. That makes for an interesting competition between Mewis and Lavelle, although Lavelle's injury history makes a rotation appealing.
Interchangeable parts will be a common theme for this team, most of all in midfield. The roster only lists six midfielders, but whether it's pulling Dunn forward from the back line or pushing Pugh or Tobin Heath back, there are no shortage of options to fit various scenarios and formations.
This is quite the crowd. The U.S. women have two 100-goal scorers for the first time in their World Cup history -- Carli Lloyd and Morgan -- but they are hardly the only options. The United States lists seven forwards on this roster, two more than in 2015, 2007 and 2003, and three more than 2011.
"As much as we ask our forwards to do in the pressing game," Ellis said, "I think having depth, having legs is part of the consideration for seven games in a month, that kind of thing."
How many teams in the tournament would trade their own starting forwards for Christen Press and Pugh? More than a few. Yet those two likely open the tournament as options off the bench behind Heath and Rapinoe in wide positions, while McDonald and Lloyd provide ample options if the U.S. women need more aerial options of hold-up play late in games.