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U.S. women have plan in place as World Cup qualifying arrives

The U.S. women have what looks like the best front line in the world, and it's only bolstered by Mallory Pugh's return from a knee injury. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Plans are fallible. The U.S. men's national team had a plan. So did the Donner Party. Everyone has a plan, Mike Tyson once famously said, until they get punched in the mouth.

The U.S. roster for the upcoming CONCACAF Women's Championship was released Wednesday, and as much as this group is tasked with qualifying for next year's World Cup, it is also a blueprint for how the U.S. women intend to win not just this tournament but the one next summer.

It comes with no guarantees. Plans never do. But there is one, which is a start.

And after two years of experimentation, auditions and injury frustrations, the roster reflects it.

While the United States might not be ready to win a World Cup right now -- though results suggest it would stand as good a chance as any team if the tournament began tomorrow -- its identity is right there for all to see in the list of 20 names, three fewer than in the World Cup.

"My goal is for this team, in how we play and how we set up and organize ourselves, is to be truly reflective of the players -- the personalities and strengths of players," U.S. coach Jill Ellis said. "This is where, with time and processes we've been through, we've been able to say, 'This is our team, this is our shape. We are an aggressive, pressing, skillful, penetrating team.'"

Some of that is familiar, including a collection of six forwards with more than 800 caps -- more than the other 14 players on the roster combined. Some of that is new -- five midfielders whose greatest reservoir of experience comes from the two youngest players on the 2015 team.

And some of that, frankly, remains a work in progress after injuries to defender Tierna Davidson and midfielder McCall Zerboni kept them off the roster and weakened defensive depth.

Yet in the recent Tournament of Nations, the U.S. women turned a corner. They notched commanding wins against Brazil and Japan and a draw against Australia in which the United States had a distinct advantage in play against one of the strongest challengers for the title next summer. The U.S. women, particularly the forward and midfield lines, looked as if they understood how all the pieces fit together.

"I never really felt like, personnel-wise, we were going to have an issue in terms of talent," Megan Rapinoe said late in the Tournament of Nations. "It's just a matter of putting that all together and making it make sense within the team framework."

There is at least one more test of that for the forward line, experienced as it is. The front line has led the way all year, but because of various injuries to those involved, the CONCACAF event will be the first time this year that Tobin Heath, Mallory Pugh and Rapinoe are all available at something approximating full fitness to fill the two spots on either side of Alex Morgan.

"They're very different players but also have just a similar determination and attitude to take on players, either directly off the dribble or through combination," Ellis said. "They are all tremendous threats for us, both in front and behind the line."

Ellis often talks about the idea of wanting essentially four starters for three places on both the forward and midfield lines. Pugh is the only one of six listed forwards who hasn't played in a World Cup, although she will have Olympic experience and perhaps as many as 50 caps by next summer. Her return from the knee injury that curtailed her second NWSL season is the piece that turns what already looks like the best front line in the world into an embarrassment of riches.

"For Mal, what she showed me in the Chile games is that she's physically healthy, her knee is good," Ellis said of Pugh's return in a pair of friendlies, including the first game in which Pugh and Heath started together since the 2016 Olympics. "I thought her performances were solid. It was great for her to get that feeling again of hitting the back of the net."

Among the criticisms leveled at Ellis in the Olympics was that she waited too late to bring on Crystal Dunn in an attacking role in the quarterfinal against Sweden. The depth in that instance, while advantageous in the grand scheme, proved problematic in the immediate moment. So if Heath, Pugh and Rapinoe are all healthy and all at top form, do all three need to be on the field, at least for periods of time?

"The versatility and the interchange and flexibility in that front unit -- the No. 8 and the No. 10 and the front three -- I think it becomes a very interchangeable group in the flow of the game," Ellis said. "Have we looked at the potential for having all three of [Heath, Pugh and Rapinoe] on the field at one time? Yes, I think as a coach you have to consider all options and possibilities."

Nor is the midfield short on options. If the forward line makes "youth movement" the wrong term for what the U.S. women did in the wake of the 2016 Olympics, the midfield restores some of that term's currency. But there, too, pieces appear to fit more and more comfortably.

Over the course of the year, if not even longer, Lindsey Horan has made herself almost as much a foregone conclusion in the No. 8 role as Ertz in the defensive midfield role. It is more and more difficult to imagine the United States without Ertz's energy and Horan's aerial presence and motor in a big game. Now Rose Lavelle, sidelined so long by injuries, has started to show a kind of attacking presence, an ability to operate in tight spaces and turn and attack between lines.

With Zerboni almost certainly a selection if not for a shoulder injury suffered against Chile, it is up to Samantha Mewis and Morgan Brian to prove they offer the same luxurious redundancy as is available with the forwards.

"We become less predictable when we have different types of players in there," Ellis said. "I feel like the midfield has really been a work in progress, and it's good -- I like what we've got."

The wealth of options is highlighted not just by those present but by the omission likely to raise the most eyebrows. Despite scoring 14 goals for the NWSL's North Carolina Courage, most by any American player in the league, Lynn Williams is not among the U.S. forwards.

North Carolina coach Paul Riley, whose record over so many years and leagues earns him a sizable megaphone, was insistent before the roster was released that Williams not only deserved to be on the team but playing regularly in a central role. But such is the depth of the talent pool at the moment that goals in the league are no guarantee of inclusion, all the more when CONCACAF opponents, save Canada, are likely to play a very non-NWSL style.

"When I look at the forwards that we have, you need to make sure those are players that can operate against a multitude of defensive situations -- meaning teams sitting 18, 20 yards from their own goal line. There's different challenges. You don't see teams sitting 25 yards from their goal line in [the NWSL]," Ellis said. "I'm very much a fan of Lynn. We made a big investment, well over a year, in Lynn and got to have a good look at her. Part of this is continuing to go through and look at what tool we need in our forward line."

While it likely will bother fans of the league still more, not to mention the veteran players passed over, Ellis didn't turn to the NWSL for a replacement for Davidson. She instead chose Hailie Mace, a junior at UCLA who has made just two appearances for the senior national team.

Four years ago, when a late injury forced Dunn off the qualifying roster, Ellis called in Ertz, who had barely set foot on the field for the U.S. senior team. She went on to earn a place among the World Cup's best performers as a defender.

Ellis judged that the potential end point of what Ertz could become was a better fit for that team's plan than what any more established player already was in the moment.

Arguments will be made that for all the athletic gifts that make her both a standout defender and goal scorer in college, Mace isn't Ertz, who was already a professional and a former captain of the U-20 national team. That might prove true. It might not. But in even that last-minute selection, the roster reflects a plan and a way this team wants to play.

"What sticks in my head the most is the ground that [Ertz] quickly made up in the matter of months," Ellis said. "Going from however many caps she had [before qualifying] to starting a World Cup. If a player has traits and qualities you think are valuable and would be beneficial in the international game, that's something you've got to look at."

It isn't a roster. It's a plan. Now comes the first test with consequences.