Our guide to the 2016 USWNT Olympic roster continues with the forwards.
Club: Washington Spirit
First cap: February 13, 2013 | USA vs Scotland
Goals/assists: 13 goals/7 assists
Previous major tourneys with WNT: none
Crystal Dunn turned the ultimate heartbreak of being the last player left off of the 2015 World Cup roster into the best statistical season of her professional career. After being left off it’s like Dunn made it her personal mission to show Jill Ellis exactly what she was missing out on by leaving her at home. Ultimately the United States and Crystal Dunn were winners last summer as her Golden-Boot-winning NWSL season led to her recall to the national team. Since being brought back into the fold, Dunn hasn’t relinquished her hold on a roster spot.
While last season she was more of a center forward for the Washington Spirit, she’s more likely to play as a wide attacking midfielder for the national team. Known for her speed and confidence to dribble and take on defenders, she’ll be expected to score goals cutting in from out wide as well as setting up goals for her teammates. It should also be a comfort to Ellis to know that Dunn is comfortable playing any field position which gives her extra flexibility to make tactical changes without burning subs. Dunn will be looking to prove that leaving her off of the roster last summer was a mistake so look for her to score goals this tournament when she’s given playing time.
Club: Chicago Red Stars
First cap: February 9, 2013 | USA vs Scotland
Goals/assists: 33 goals/12 assists
Previous major tourneys with WNT: 2015 World Cup
Mercurial, inventive, and absolutely deadly in front of goal, Christen Press is one of the preeminent strikers in the game today. Since joining the national team in 2013, she has been a prolific goal-scorer (notching a tally just about once per 90 minutes), but nevertheless been followed by a tinge of disappointment. For all Press’s obvious talents, Jill Ellis has struggled to find a stable place for her in the team, often deploying her on the wings where she finds it difficult to assert herself. More recently, Press has been given some chances to play centrally as a withdrawn striker or attacking midfielder. It’s a position she’s also taken more regularly with her club team this year, to varying degrees of success.
The common refrain about Press is ‘why can’t she replicate her club form?’ While her work with the national team hasn’t been terrible by any stretch, it is clearly true that she has had more success as the focal point of an attack. The problem is that her greatest strengths are her unconventionality and her creativity; she will make runs no one else would even consider, employ a Cruyff turn where anyone else would pass backward, and unleash shots from impossible angles. As the primary striking option, given space and attention in the center of the pitch, these qualities are a recipe for game-winning goals and flustered defenses.
But pushed out to the wings, or dropped further back, Press’s best qualities are at least partially muted. It may be that the best usage of all the team’s resources demands playing her out of position in this way (and she is a surprisingly solid defender – a useful skill for a team that’s often susceptible to attacking fullbacks). That’s a topic that Jill Ellis will certainly be pondering a great deal over the next few weeks.
Club: UCLA / Real Colorado
First cap: January 23, 2016 | USA vs Ireland
Goals/assists: 2 goals/7 assists
Previous major tourneys with WNT: none
The youngest player in the squad, by a country mile, Mallory Pugh has burst onto the national team in 2016, moving from ‘experiment’ to ‘lock’ in the course of just a few months. This is the first of many tournaments at which she’ll be wearing the stars and stripes.
With pace to burn and a silky smooth touch, she has been one of the most effective offensive forces for the team this year, scoring a pair of goals and assisting on seven more. Her skill on the ball and passing ability probably means she’s destined for the #10 role eventually, but this summer at least she is far more likely to play on the sides, either as a winger or as a flanking striker. That position allows her to capitalize on that pace—running onto balls over the top or through balls down the lines, and quickly outflanking her opposition. It also helps to minimize her greatest weakness: an underdeveloped sense of defensive positioning. On the wings, her attacking prowess itself becomes a defensive asset, pinning opposing backs deep in their own territory to minimize the danger of being caught out.
Pugh has started more than half of the US games so far this year, but the return of Megan Rapinoe might change that calculation. It’s clear that Jill Ellis trusts Pugh enormously, but it remains to be seen whether she’ll want to bench the likes of Dunn or Press in order to get Pugh on the pitch. It’s also worth noting that Pugh has shown a slight tendency to drift out of games a bit, when she’s been asked to go the full 90. Her best usage might then be as an impact sub, capable of ripping apart tired defenses and breaking open games on the counterattack.
Club: Orlando Pride
First cap: March 31, 2010 | USA vs Mexico
Goals/assists: 67 goals/35 assists
Previous major tourneys with WNT: 2015 World Cup, 2012 Olympics, 2011 World Cup
It’s been a long time since Alex Morgan was the "baby horse" on the team, the young prodigy banging in goal after goal. She’s a veteran now and very much a leader and will be expected to headline this corps of forwards. But after a banner 2012, when she broke into the 20/20 club (over 20 goals/20 assists in one calendar year; she had 28 goals and 21 assists) she also began struggling with some long-term injuries that just would. not. go. away. Coming back from those injuries was a laborious process that had some people questioning whether she’d simply peaked already.
Perhaps she has peaked. Perhaps not, though years like her 2012 don’t come around very often. But as we’ve seen of late, Alex Morgan on the gentle downslope of her career is still a better forward than a hell of lot of others out there, and someone almost any national team would be glad to have on their roster. She still has speed to burn and the ability to split defenders. She can still pull defenders’ attention, opening up the field for a threat like Christen Press or Crystal Dunn. And she has an underrated first touch in front of goal, the kind of calm savvy born of experience and confidence that keeps her from panicking and helps her get off clean shots. She’ll most definitely be in some, if not all starting XIs this August, either as a lone striker in perhaps a 4-2-3-1 or paired up with someone like Press and asked to fluidly interchange as necessary.
Tomorrow we’ll finish up our guide with a look at the alternates!