The United States has gone through the She Believes tournament and emerged on the other side with a 3-0-0 record and only one goal scored against. But for all that the US won, it looked shaky at times, and was lucky to escape with as many goals against as it did. Jill Ellis is clearly still trying to configure her starting XI and definitely seems to have certain players in mind as being essential to her lineup. The Olympic roster has some huge question marks left in it that will probably only be answered much closer to the tournament, when the United States hosts Japan as Ellis mentioned in a sideline interview during the Germany game.
So what are some of the questions that came out of She Believes?
1. What will our back line look like?
Usual starter Ali Krieger was on the bench for a good chunk of all three games. She got 10 minutes against England, didn't play against France, and then started against Germany, but got subbed at the 80' for Kelley O'Hara.
Is Kelley O'Hara contending for the starting RB spot? It would seem so, based on the amount of playing time she got during this tournament, assuming Krieger isn't carrying some kind of low-grade injury. It's also possible that Ellis needed this time to seriously evaluate O'Hara, when she already has a good idea of Krieger's capabilities. Krieger's time on the bench may be more of a reflection on Kelley O'Hara's lack of playing time before this tournament than on Krieger's capabilities. O'Hara performed mostly well, but didn't put a stamp on the position, so don't be surprised if future lineups return Krieger to the spot.
On the flipside, Jaelene Hinkle, who previously seemed to be finding favor with Ellis, didn't play a single minute of the tournament, while Whitney Engen finally returned to the field and even got a start against Germany. Emily Sonnett also got a start against England, but even money is probably on Engen as that third CB in Rio to back up Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston.
2. Is Alex Morgan really back?
Alex Morgan's game is changing. She's been injured and she's not quite as fast as she used to be (still plenty fast for most defenders though) and she's just starting to get goals again. But what a goal the last one was. Just look at it.
She also scored against France, fed an amazing ball by Mallory Pugh.
So that's two goals against top opposition, and against Germany she interacted pretty well with Crystal Dunn and Christen Press. If she lacked a little finishing at times, she was also isolated by lack of service. Then again, if a piece as potent as Morgan can be cancelled out of a game by clogging the midfield, there has to be a way to adapt, and the additions of Press and Dunn in Germany seemed like the answer. Morgan was way more isolated against France and England than she was against Germany; against Germany the three of them were able to feed each other the ball and draw defenders to create some empty spots, although not consistently - to be expected when they're not often asked to all work together at the same time. Still, the results are encouraging.
Morgan had 24 touches in the attacking third, eight more than any other American. That's almost always a good thing. https://t.co/DRBYWL4kqn— Paul Carr (@PCarrESPN) March 10, 2016
If Morgan keeps this up against Colombia and then Japan, it's probably safe to say she's not in a slump anymore.
3. Who will be the playmaker for this team?
For most of the tournament, Ellis tried out a deep midfield duo of Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan. She relied on Horan to sit in front of the back line and distribute the ball from deep, as well as get forward in the attack when she could. It didn't really work out.
Carli Lloyd wasn't really connective either, whether she was playing higher up behind Alex Morgan or asked to drop back a little bit more. It wasn't Lloyd's best tournament by any means, although in typical Lloydian fashion she'll probably score a goal in every knockout round during the Olympics plus at least two in the final while cartwheeling through the 18 like a dervish made of ice cubes.
But Morgan Brian was still good in the midfield, and is going to be locked in at DM for this team for a long time to come. The question is who pairs up with her when Ellis sees a need for two deep mids to help protect the back four. The other player Ellis tried out there was Sam Mewis, who did a mostly competent job against Germany. Horan is an attacking player, so let her attack; Mewis is more adept at that defensive position and gets more time on the ball as a distributor with her club, WNY Flash. Give her another chance to work with Brian, since Ellis' other options with her current players is to shift up Julie Johnston or to plug in Emily Sonnett, and neither scenario seems likely.
Ellis also has the option to use Press and Dunn as midfielders, which she did throughout the tournament. But it also seems inefficient to restrain Dunn on the right when Ellis has a capable attacking right midfielder in Mal Pugh, which would release Dunn to play higher and be more consistently threatening in front of goal.
4. Is Jill Ellis really just relying on Hope Solo to be healthy throughout the entire tournament?
Hope Solo started and played every single minute of the tournament. Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris ate dust on the bench. If either one was going to get quality minutes against high-level opposition under tournament conditions, this was it, and the opportunity went squandered.
This is no new problem; it's the reason why Hope Solo has 193 caps and the next goalkeeper on the depth chart, Harris, has eight. Naeher, who appears to be quietly overtaking Harris for the number two spot based on recent appearances, has five caps. One of those two will be Solo's backup at the Olympics. It seems foolhardy to just assume that Solo will be good to start and play every single minute. There are only a few more friendlies to go before the Olympics; hopefully Harris and/or Naeher get meaningful time in them.
5. Is Mal Pugh ready for the big time?
Did you watch the tournament? Yes.