Coach Ellis counting on loaded front line to lead U.S. women in World Cup

WINNIPEG, Canada -- Last month, Jill Ellis was sitting in the lobby of a San Jose hotel, and she had just been reminded -- probably for the millionth time -- about the quality and depth of her forward line. Yet it's a topic she wasn't tired of talking about. In fact, she was still able to marvel at the group's collective gifts.

She nodded, smiled and admitted that when she thinks about her forwards, "I catch myself sometimes, for sure."

It's tempting to think of the corps of strikers as one target forward in Abby Wambach, and a bunch of speedsters in Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez. But closer inspection reveals some important differences. Morgan -- when healthy -- excels at getting behind opposition defenses thanks to her timing and clever movement. Leroux is the battering ram, a player whose physicality can be unsettling for defenders to deal with, whether she's running with the ball at her feet or helping her team defend. Press can latch onto through balls as well, but is just as likely to turn up in the pocket and try to play make, which explains why she has seen time in a midfield role. Rodriguez is a shifty player who is adept at stretching defenses horizontally as well as vertically, and can use her low center of gravity to hold the ball up and link with teammates.

"I think that's the best part about our forward group, that everyone is so different," Wambach said. "And Jill and our coaching staff has the ability to look at the bench and look at the five forwards, look at the defensive unit of our opponent and go, 'Who's going to be best together at the same time against this team?' So they have a lot options."

It's always difficult to compare eras, and this group still has some catching up to do to match the 1999 vintage that featured the likes of Mia Hamm, Tiffeny Milbrett, Shannon MacMillan and Cindy Parlow Cone. Yet former U.S. international and current ESPNFC television analyst Kristine Lilly is among those impressed by the current crop.

"Individually, all those players are talented," she said. "They all can score goals. And especially since Alex has been hurt a little bit, I think some of them have had a little bit more time out there, which has been good."

Such riches have their challenges, however. There are minutes and personalities to be managed. For example, Wambach, now 35, is at an age where despite her pedigree as the game's all-time leading goal scorer, is no longer a guaranteed starter. But Ellis insists that there has been general acceptance that playing time will have to be spread out. She points to the way Germany was able to rest players in the men's edition of the World Cup last year as an example of how depth can benefit teams. She had an assistant look at the NBA and noticed a similar correlation.

"It's sending messages that we will need everybody," she said. "And make it hard for me not to play you, it's that simple. And it's not all about scoring goals. That's certainly a part of it. But I highly value players setting each other up. That's as important to me as putting it into the back of the net.

"Sometimes it's who is going to finish the game that is more important than who starts. They all want to start. I get it. But gone are the days when you play the same 11 players for seven games. I know the turf is going to be like 117 degrees. You know there's going to be a lot of physical demand."

That impulse to spread the wealth has only increased in light of the bone bruise in Morgan's left knee, an injury that has sidelined her since April 11. According to a team spokesperson, Morgan fully participated in Saturday's training. That said, it seems unlikely she'll start the Americans' opening match on Monday against Australia. The U.S. manager is prepared to wait however.

"We're going to need her," Ellis said about Morgan. "Alex at 100 percent certainly helps us more than Alex at 70 percent."

And Morgan at 100 percent is among the top five players in the world, and she seems to give the United States a higher confidence level when she's on the field. But her likely absence, at least during the early part of the tournament, highlights yet another difficulty: that of establishing chemistry between forwards.

"They're all individually great and talented and technical, but I think when it comes down to the games it's how they work together up front, and work off each other, not just for themselves but for the team," Lilly said. "The plus is that they've all had an opportunity, but the minus is that they haven't had enough time maybe to really put it together."

Sometimes chemistry exists irrespective of time. That seemed to be the case with the combination of Morgan and Wambach, which was devastating for opponents during the 2011 World Cup and also a year later at the Olympics. But there are also instances where that understanding is a function of endless repetition. It's what has made U.S. practice sessions take on a slightly different tone than what one might think.

"We're all competitors. We all want to play, that's a given," Wambach said. "But we also want to be competing with each other not against. Even in practice, when we're on opposite teams, I'm still trying to cheer for and see the play from the perspective of whoever is on the ball as a forward. How things look, how things work out. What did you see there? Did you hear me? Did you see this? It's a communication, it's an evolution, and it's a connection that we have to continually build."

So far the results have been mixed. Wambach and Leroux excelled against Mexico but struggled against South Korea, though that match highlighted the need for adequate service from the midfield as well. Press, perhaps as a consequence of being shuttled between striker and right midfielder, has had her ups and downs as well. Rodriguez has been hampered by stomach virus that kept her out of the Mexico game, but she remains the most likely player to be on the field when Wambach isn't.

What matters now is the World Cup, not some friendly. And the five cards that Ellis has to play can make it difficult for opponents to game plan for the U.S. side. Without question, she is banking on the talent level to shine through.

"They all have something kind of unique," she said. "I just think in general they're dangerous behind the [defensive] line and dangerous in front of the line. That's the general category. I love pace. I love it. It's been good to tinker with them."

And the United States is hoping its Fab Five of forwards will be a nightmare for opponents.