Jill Ellis Bets Young Roster Good Enough To Win Now While Prepping For Future

The U.S. roster's success hinges on, among other things, Alex Morgan, left, staying healthy, and Crystal Dunn dominating out wide on the flank. Joe Burbank/Orlando Sentinel/TNS/Getty Images

After being the youngest player on the United States team that won the World Cup a year ago (and with one exception, the youngest by several years), Morgan Brian now finds herself old enough that she could have babysat Mallory Pugh, one of her teammates on the Olympic qualifying roster.

It turns out Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, World Cup veterans who will miss this Olympic cycle while pregnant, aren't the only ones invested in a youth movement this year.

As the United States tries to become the first country to win World Cup and Olympic titles in successive years, beginning with next month's CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament in Texas, it is simultaneously trying to do something even more difficult: win in the present without mortgaging the future. Partly by circumstance and partly by choice, the national team is trying to remain atop the sport not only in 2016 but also in 2019, when the next World Cup rolls around.

The biggest question is whether the United States has the actual, well, goals to achieve that goal.

When the national team arrived in Winnipeg less than a year ago in advance of its first World Cup game, it brought a combined 538 career international goals. The team that will show up in Texas has just 201 career goals spread amongst the roster.

To a degree, that comparison is proof that numbers can be manipulated to say anything. For one thing, the Olympic qualifying roster is smaller by three players than the World Cup roster. For another much more significant thing, such comparisons were skewed when Abby Wambach took her 184 goals with her into retirement. Although she remained a presence in a number of ways throughout the World Cup run, on-field goal scoring wasn't one of them.

Even so, the stark disparity in those two figures reveals a roster in flux. In addition to Wambach, Leroux, Rodriguez, Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe are missing. Each of those four started at least once in the World Cup, and they have more than 100 goals and 500 appearances among them. Now retired, Holiday won't be back, while Rapinoe (knee injury) and the two expectant mothers are unlikely to contribute this year. Only Leroux will be younger than 32 when the next World Cup begins.

In place of those five, essentially, are Pugh, Lindsey Horan, Stephanie McCaffrey and Crystal Dunn. With none older than 23 and Pugh not even 18, they have 34 caps and seven goals among them.

What this means is that in order to give young players much-needed international experience in competitive settings, Ellis necessarily diminishes her margin for error in the present. That might not matter in Olympic qualification, though a win-or-else semifinal is always going to leave people nervous, but it will matter if the smaller Olympic roster is a subset of this roster. In addition to Carli Lloyd continuing to toy with the world, the United States needs some things to go right to succeed.

Alex Morgan stays healthy: After the team's win over Ireland this past weekend to open the calendar year, Morgan spoke about the chemistry she and Lloyd are developing at the top of the formation (however you choose to diagram the alignment). The two have played together close to 100 times, so it's not as if they needed introductions, but it is a new dynamic with Lloyd pushed so high and Wambach no longer a variable in the equation. But if Morgan, who was rounding into form as the World Cup progressed and then had a minor procedure after the tournament, misses time, experienced depth is in short supply. Then again, even with experienced depth, most of the World Cup goals came from the midfield.

Christen Press thrives as spark: Press looked eternally willing but never entirely comfortable when asked to play in a wide position, and it appears that experiment has run its course. She and Ellis talked in San Diego about a new role, which, it appears, will mean trading minutes for peace of mind, starts in a wide position for minutes off the bench as a more central spark. With Leroux and Rodriguez out of the mix, Press is the sole insurance policy up front.

Crystal Dunn seizes the moment: As with Horan, Dunn's place on the roster isn't due merely to attrition. Ellis had to find a place for Dunn, who was part of the initial World Cup qualifying roster before an injury sidelined her and allowed Johnston to seize the roster spot and the moment. Right now, that place appears to be not just on the roster but also causing headaches for opponents down the right side of the attack. Like Rapinoe, albeit with a different style, Dunn needs to be someone who can not only set up goals but also produce some from wide spaces.

Lindsey Horan fits the role: A goal scorer and creator with Paris Saint-Germain, Horan appears ticketed for a deeper midfield position alongside Brian. As was the case with her predecessor, Holiday, that will leave some people wondering if it's the best use of her skills. However, once Brian established herself midway through the World Cup and freed Lloyd to push forward, it was hard to argue with the result. Ellis even said she expects no drop-off with Horan alongside Brian.

Ellis earned the capital to experiment by managing the personalities and talents of a veteran team to the World Cup title. Perhaps even more significantly, she should have earned some faith by managing the back line. More than any other part of the team, the quartet of Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger and Becky Sauerbrunn bore the coach's stamp. The evaluation of Johnston, in particular, looks familiar in the context of the youth on the current roster.

Some of this was circumstance. If Holiday hadn't retired, if Rodriguez and Leroux weren't pregnant, perhaps this roster would look much more like the one that competed in Canada. But in selecting Pugh and leaving Heather O'Reilly at home, and in selecting Jaelene Hinkle and Emily Sonnett and leaving Whitney Engen at home, Ellis seemed to send a message that this was her choice.

She believes the national team can win now while preparing to win in the future.