With World Cup in sight, U.S. women still have work to do

Alongside Alex Morgan and Mallory Pugh, Megan Rapinoe helps give the U.S. women the best front line in the world right now. Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire

Carli Lloyd's eyes locked on the questioner, the look on her face equal parts quizzical and challenging.

It was shortly after the United States women's national team defeated Mexico 4-1 in Jacksonville, Florida, in April. The World Cup hero had come off the bench for the third time in the team's first five games of the year. But she scored the final goal, which was why the mostly local media sought her out afterward. It is the same at every stop. They always want to talk to Lloyd or Alex Morgan.

They want the faces their viewers remember from all those moments that made the team matter so much again.

They don't really want to talk soccer. They want a soundbite. Except that Lloyd wasn't in the mood. The cameras rolled and someone asked if she got what she wanted out of the game.

That brought on the look.

"As far as what?" Lloyd asked dryly.

The person tried again. The moment of tension faded. She reverted to a role of captain. It was a good result, she said. There are always things to learn from and build on. The process continues.

Like "The Book of Mormon" or "Hamilton," the cities change, but the required lines remain the same.

Yet it required only passing familiarity with her to guess that Lloyd, who started 176 of the 188 games in which she appeared for the United States between 2008 and 2016, was frustrated. By a vague question, perhaps. But also by her role as a substitute in the game. Lloyd, who turns 36 next month, says she believes she is among the best in the world. She lives to prove that this is still her time.

"I know that the best is yet to come with me," Lloyd said that night. "I know I can be on that field, impacting that field daily. I feel really good. I feel as fit as I've been. I feel as sharp as I've ever been. I feel I'm playing the best football, as far as tactically out there. So it's really all there."

With World Cup qualifying a matter of months away and the start of the tournament in France now just a year away, the moment in Jacksonville highlighted the challenge for U.S. coach Jill Ellis. It isn't a challenge with Lloyd or any one player specifically -- although the star is one piece -- but with a roster that is the puzzle itself.

It is about a youth movement that can't be all about youth.

Is a roster that was overhauled the past three years inherently better? Better able to blend familiar American assets with ever-expanding technical and tactical sophistication in the global game? Better positioned to win a World Cup outside North America for the first time since 1991? Better as a blend of experience and fresh talent?

Or did it merely get younger?

If Ellis find the balance, the U.S. women should win the World Cup next summer. They should at least be the favorite. That remains both the luxury and expectation born of a talent pool still unmatched in its depth.

Misjudge the mix by even the smallest of margins and there have never been more teams ready, willing and able to take away the title.

"You don't go into a World Cup with an inexperienced team and expect to win it," Ellis said. "You've got to have pieces that have been in the pressure cooker or know what it takes. You have to have those players who have been there. And then in this vetting process, you marry that with [younger] players that have shown that they have the capacity for that role."

In a letter she sent players following the Rio Games after the U.S. women exited the Olympics without a medal for the first time, Ellis hit the reset button on the national team. Every place on the roster and in the starting lineup was up for grabs. All that was guaranteed was competition. As much as a reaction to the early exit in Brazil, it was an opportunity to speed up a process that began of its own accord after the 2015 World Cup, when the United States won with one of the oldest rosters.

From the end of the Olympics through the April friendlies against Mexico this year, a total of 60 players were called up for at least one national team training camp. Of those players, 29 were called up for the first time and 18 ultimately made their debut in a game. Some who auditioned were veterans from the National Women's Soccer League and even its predecessors. Most were either still in or recently out of college, a few still high schoolers.

But it was never designed to be about getting younger for youth's sake.

"It was more about building depth, and if that depth was then good enough to surpass a player who has been in or been a starter, then great," Ellis said. "That's part of a natural evolution of the game."

The best-case scenario resembles the current front line of Morgan in the striker's role and some combination of Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh and Megan Rapinoe in wide positions. All but Pugh were part of the 2015 World Cup team. All but Pugh will be at least 30 by the time the World Cup ends next summer. Still in high school when she debuted in 2016, in the first game after Abby Wambach played for the national team for the final time, Pugh made it impossible to make her wait. But Heath, Morgan and Rapinoe made it equally difficult to consider replacing them.

Heath has yet to play for the United States in 2018, and juggling the extra piece will be its own challenge as she returns from injury. But the three who remain are the best front line in the world right now.

The balance remains less clear elsewhere, which isn't problematic with a year to go.But it's a forefront challenge ahead of a summer highlighted by games against Australia, Brazil and Japan before World Cup qualifying. Will midfielder Morgan Brian, the youngest player on the 2015 World Cup team, meet the challenge of newer arrivals like Rose Lavelle and Samantha Mewis? Will veteran defender Kelley O'Hara continue playing some of her best soccer?

This World Cup cycle is a referendum not just on Ellis and the roster she selects but the entire culture of soccer development in the United States. On the domestic professional league that was in its infancy during the last World Cup but which is now the primary training environment for players. On a college system that is still a centerpiece of American player development but increasingly distinct from the academy and club models in Europe. On the pay-for-play youth leagues that risk excluding many even as it feeds the system as a whole.

But even for a former English major, the big picture isn't the one that consumes Ellis as she goes about her daily life. Others can debate the philosophy. For her, it's that 23-piece puzzle that must be completed, qualification willing, by next summer. It's there in the back of her mind on the flights to city after city to watch NWSL games, as she checks in with players via texts, calls trainers for updates and watches video of future opponents.

It's there when she's stuck in traffic in her Miami home.

An international coach gets limited time on the field with players, less than a club coach. What's left is time to think.

"People can talk about a work-life balance, but I think you're either with your family or you're working -- and right now, my family understands that World Cup qualifiers are coming around," Ellis said. "There are so many pieces to the job, I don't think you can ever put it down. It's just a matter of which piece you want to focus on at that moment."

That list includes a player with more goals and more appearances than anyone else on the roster, a midfielder with two gold-medal winning Olympic goals and a World Cup Golden Ball (given to the best player at the event). A competitor who is resolutely sure that time changes her only for the better.

"It's making sure that you identify a player's strengths and put them in a position to maximize those," Ellis said. "So for a player like Carli, it's making sure she is close to the opponent's goal because she is a goal scorer -- a position where she is going to pick up a second ball and run at a back line, pick up a ball and change the point of attack and get somebody on the weak side in.

"You look at all those qualities and you say, 'OK, what is the role for that player?'"

Young and old, it comes down to that. What can they do to help win a World Cup next summer?

The part Ellis must play is to get the answer right.