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It’s time to give Shea Groom a shot with the national team

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The US lacks bite. Groom could bring it.

Shea Groom is an exciting young player—aggressive, mobile, good with the ball at her feet, generous with her passing, and a quality finisher. After another stellar NWSL campaign in which she often provided the sole attacking outlets for an FC Kansas City team lacking in other options, it’s getting harder and harder to deny her a chance to show her stuff at the highest level - yet forward is arguably the most stacked of any position in the global game.

Her coach, Vlatko Andonovski, made this point earlier in the summer, saying that Groom would soon be a forward on the US women’s national team, pointing to his previous prognostications about Becky Sauerbrunn as evidence to support the case. And while Andonovski is certainly a biased source, he’s also one of the keenest judges of talent in the game today, so it’s certainly worth taking the idea seriously.

However, we also shouldn't overstate the argument. Even in its best form, the case for Groom is always going to be tough. This is a team, after all, currently struggling to find minutes for players like Christen Press, Crystal Dunn, and Lynn Williams. Not to mention the potential logjams that could be created by the likes of Megan Rapinoe and Mallory Pugh, a healthy Carli Lloyd and, a resurgent Sydney Leroux. And so forth.

Nevertheless, there’s a strong argument for bringing in Groom which rests on her unique characteristics. In particular, her aggressive style and ability to get under her opponent’s skin. But before digging into that premise, let’s take a moment to focus on the basic skill set she brings to the table.

Groom is an excellent forward

Groom is skillful and fast. She doesn’t quite have the touch and precision of a Tobin Heath or the lightning pace of a Mallory Pugh, but there are few in the league who can match her at full flight with the ball at her feet. She is fearless in her movement, and acutely aware of the angles of attack. Some of her best moments of the year for FCKC have come in these transitional attacks, and that’s without an overall team structure built to facilitate that approach. On a team like the US, a player like Groom could be particularly helpful for those games against top opposition where quick counterattacks could be most lethal.

She’s also most dangerous playing off a central striker. We’ve seen glimmers of it this year, with Sydney Leroux playing in the target role and Groom slicing in from the right. But for all of Leroux’s many talents, holdup play and smooth linkups with fellow attackers have never been at the top of the list. KC has managed to make it work, but there have only been glimmers of what Groom could do if paired up with someone like Press in the center, whose movement would unlock the space that she needs to thrive.

And finally, while there are certainly more clinical finishers in the US pool, Groom is a good striker of the ball, and good at making late runs to generate good shot angles. She notched five goals on the season (and eight in 2016), which was well below the top strikers in the league. But those numbers reflected more a change in approach than lack of ability. After all, she added six assists into the mix—tied for second in the league in that category.

Ultimately, she is most useful in a support role: supplying assists from the wing, or crashing in late to pierce through a set defense.

There is value in players who get under your opponents’ skin

All of the qualities described above are the reasons why Ellis should seriously consider giving Groom a shot. But there’s a clincher to the argument, and it rests on her style of play. Put simply, Groom is a fighter, and that’s something in shockingly short supply on the current US roster.

Just look at some of the big events of her past couple years. Multiple dustups, serious injuries both given and received, red cards and fouls galore. It all stems from one simple fact about Groom: she will put everything on the line if that’s what it takes. She is relentless and aggressive, disruptive, and (to put it simply) a huge pain in the ass to play against.

And that’s something that’s been (somewhat strangely) absent from the US repertoire in recent years. Sure, the US remains an intense and physical team, still the strongest and most athletic in the world. This is still a team that will push you around a bit, but they don’t really get stuck in to the same extent, particularly in the frontline. They don’t press the advantage. They play too nice. That's why, despite having such obvious physical advantages over most opponents, they sometimes get less than you’d expect. Groom is a potential antidote. Not because she is malicious, but simply because she has that do-or-die mentality that used to utterly define the US women's team.

That’s been one of her key roles for KC in the NWSL: harassing the opposition, pressing constantly, fighting for every ball, making even simple tasks difficult. At its best, this sort of harassment produces turnovers and quickly buried goals, but even without that sort of immediate payoff, it’s a hugely important tactic. Prevent the back line from ever getting comfortable, and you unsettle play before it has a chance to develop. Think of Groom as a potential late 70th minute substitute, brought on to face players with tired legs and drifting focus, and you’ll get a sense of what this sort of player can add to the US mix.

And the story doesn’t stop there. Because there’s a psychological component as well. Groom is a disruptive force, and that can play a huge role in turning games. Soccer is a mental game as much as a physical one, and Groom gets under peoples’ skin, gets in their heads, knocks them out of equilibrium.

It’s a dangerous cauldron, and can sometimes seem to be as much a liability as a strength (just look at what happened to Kansas City after Groom was sent off for retaliating against Sky Blue earlier this year). And her long-term viability as a star player will depend on learning to modulate the fierceness of her play—just enough to drive the other team nuts, not enough to get on the wrong side of the referee. And there’s no denying that she’s already developed a bit of a reputation, which can lead to her being punished for infractions that would often go uncalled with a different player. But at its core, her passion and commitment is a huge potential strength, and is one of the few attributes currently in short supply on the US roster.

This is one reason why Groom has a leg up on some of the other bubble players in the US pool. A player like Kealia Ohai, for example, will always have trouble breaking in because her skill set so closely matches a number of existing players. Unless she is able to take an additional step forward, it's hard to see her displacing a Dunn or Pugh or Rapinoe. But Groom offers something a little different from anyone else. And on the margins, that can make a big difference.

Bonus feature: versatility

There's one final argument in Groom's favor: her versatility. In particular, the (admittedly speculative) potential she might have in a defensive role.

Now, Groom is a forward, and a very good one. But forward on the USWNT is simply not a place of pressing need. And even with all the praise outlined above, it would be hard to make a case for Groom being higher than 7th or 8th on the depth chart. However, the US is currently on the market for some players with positional diversity, particularly pacey ones with experience working on the right wing.

I floated an idea back in the spring that the US might consider asking one of their depth options at forward to work on her defensive skills, in order to slide back into the fullback position. Right back is one of the positions in the most flux in the US pool. And given Ellis’s proclivities for modern attacking fullbacks, it could make a great deal of sense. And we’ve recently seen Sofia Huerta taking on precisely that role. The same logic applies equally well to Groom. Sure, nothing in her record to date suggests any special defensive skill, but defending is easier to teach than creativity in the attack, which Groom has in spades.

It might not take, but if it did, Groom could be a very useful contributor going forward. And even if the fullback role doesn’t pan out, Groom still offers a lot of flexibility. She can play anywhere in the attack, on either wing, or even in the attacking midfield role that Lloyd has often filled in recent years. There is no single spot where she would be the first (or second or third) choice, but there’s value in having a Swiss Army Knife on the bench.

At the end of the day, the case for Groom is by no means unassailable. The argument certainly isn’t as irrefutable as it was for players like Crystal Dunn or Lynn Williams, who rode Golden Boot-winning seasons into the national team fold. But Groom has been very good, for a Kansas City team that had very little surrounding infrastructure to support her. She might be even better in a higher quality environment. And she would fill a genuine need in the US squad.

So if Jill Ellis wants to show that she’s paying attention to the NWSL—really paying attention, not just giving it lip service—and if she wants to demonstrate that she’s thinking seriously about how to maximize the value of the support slots on the roster—she should give Shea Groom a call.