It’s become pretty evident over the last couple of rosters that Jill Ellis knows exactly who she wants to take to the Rio Olympics as her forwards.
Assuming she only takes four forwards (with two goalkeepers, six defenders, and six midfielders), those names will be Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, and Mallory Pugh.
So the real question then becomes how Jill Ellis is going to use these four forwards.
Looking strictly at numbers for the national team:
Crystal Dunn: 763 minutes in 10 games, 8 goals, 4 assists
Alex Morgan: 861 minutes in 11 games, 11 goals, 3 assists
Christen Press: 566 minutes in 13 games, 4 goals, 2 assists
Mallory Pugh: 695 minutes in 12 games, 2 goals, 6 assists
In terms of NWSL performance, here are their numbers:
Morgan has been played by Orlando as a pure striker, and is sometimes isolated up top. Press has been asked to drop deeper for Chicago, having to playmake as well. Dunn has been almost entirely a playmaker for her team, working mostly the right side for Washington but switching as needed in games, and is a vital part of their offense.
Ellis, of course, has the benefit of being able to play as many of her forwards as she wants, and in whatever system she wants. Against Japan in their most recently friendlies, it was a 4-3-3 with Pugh, Dunn, and Morgan for the first game and Press, Dunn, and Morgan for the second. Morgan scored three goals in two games against Japan.
Before that against Colombia, it was Press, Dunn, and Pugh, or Pugh, Dunn, and Tobin Heath. Alex Morgan was out with injury for these games, forcing Ellis to experiment a little bit. Pugh, Dunn, and Press all scored against Colombia.
Before that, during the She Believes tournament, Dunn bagged one against England, and Morgan scored against France and Germany.
When played together, Ellis seems to prefer Morgan running up front, with Dunn providing with on the right, and Press once again hanging behind Morgan, but able to move up freely so they can work as a pair. Pugh can go on the left or the right, and if Dunn is on the field at the same time, gets pushed left. Theoretically, Ellis could play all four of her forwards at the same time, with Pugh-Press-Dunn in a line behind Alex Morgan as a lone striker in a 4-2-3-1.
Of course, that would likely mean there was no room for Tobin Heath, who is at this point virtually a lock to start no matter the formation. More realistically, assuming Megan Rapinoe is still not 100% by the Olympics in August, Ellis will start Heath on the left and one of her four forwards will be a sub - most likely Pugh, allowing Heath and Dunn to act as wingers and Press to move back and forth with Morgan.
She might also consider a 4-4-2, with Heath, Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd, and Crystal Dunn as her midfield and Press and Morgan as her two forwards. In years past that right midfield spot would have been occupied by Heather O’Reilly, but with a tight 18-player roster calling for versatility and O’Reilly seeming to have lost favor with Ellis, Dunn will be called upon to fill that role.
Here are the knowns: Alex Morgan will start. She will play centrally.
Here are the unknowns: Whether Christen Press will be asked to drift right or stay behind Morgan. Whether Crystal Dunn or Mal Pugh will start. Whether Tobin Heath might get pushed forward too. Whether Lindsey Horan will be asked to stay deeper, or if she’ll be allowed to play higher as she does in Portland now that the Thorns have Amandine Henry protecting the back line.
The unknowns are a partial consequence of just how fluid the US front line can become. With Dunn and Heath in the mix, they can push forward very high to give the US a temporary front four (let’s be real, a front five, because Carli Lloyd is going to be in there) while Morgan Brian holds the middle.
Is that risky against teams with a fast counter? You bet it is. Especially if either Meghan Klingenberg or Kelley O’Hara has also pushed high along the wings, as they’re often asked to do. Will it work? It just might.
In the meanwhile, keep on eye on the US for clues as they play in their next friendly against South Africa on July 9.