With Jill Ellis’ “tinkering” phase mercifully over, the lineups she chooses from this point forward promise to carry an extra amount of significance.
It’s all about chemistry now – Ellis will attempt to give her roster every possible opportunity to build a sense of trust in one another before World Cup qualifying begins next year.
“Now it’s about building connections,” Ellis said after the Tournament of Nations. “I know what I’ve put the players through in terms of making it a challenge and playing them in different positions, playing them with different people. I get that. It’s a long run up to 2019 but I want to do that now. Look at Australia, they are a seasoned team because they’ve been together so long that they know each other so well. That’s the next step in our process; establishing our starting lineup and working on our chemistry and connections and our team play.”
Some mainstays – like Christen Press, Becky Sauerbrunn, Alex Morgan, Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe, and Carli Lloyd – have done enough to cement a spot in Ellis’ plans, while others may need to make a positive impression in upcoming matches to earn future opportunities. Each roster move from this point forward provides a bit more insight into Ellis’ grand scheme.
Let’s take a look at three players that have something to prove in the team’s upcoming September friendlies.
Abby Dahlkemper, CB
Sure, she’s started the last four games for the national team and seems to have earned Ellis’ trust for the time being, but those starts haven’t come without a few hiccups. She’s acquitted herself fairly well along the back line, avoiding any pearl-clutching mistakes, but there have been more than a few instances when a sloppy touch or a nonchalant pass came uncomfortably close to disaster.
During the Tournament of Nations, Dahlkemper didn’t quite look comfortable handling on-ball pressure from opposing forwards. She was a bit quick to pull the plug on several possessions, choosing to play the ball back to Alyssa Naeher rather than distribute to the midfield. Still, she defended her position well, which – last I checked – is and will always be the top priority of a center back.
Her tenuous hold as a starting defender probably has less to do with her performance and more with the embarrassment of riches the U.S. boasts at other positions. Sauerbrunn’s spot as a starting center back might as well be chiseled in stone, so Dahlkemper’s role could come down to Ellis’ top choice at holding midfielder.
Ertz has been incredible as a defensive midfielder, for both the national team and the Chicago Red Stars, but so has Morgan Brian, who fueled the Americans’ run to a World Cup title a few years ago by stepping into that role after a Lauren Holiday suspension. Brian was held out of the rest of the Tournament of Nations due to a groin injury.
Ellis will need to choose the combination of players that best maximizes the talent on the field. Is a back line featuring Sauerbrunn and Dahlkemper, with Ertz or Brian as the holding midfielder, the most potent? Or would Ellis rather pair Sauerbrunn with the rock-solid Ertz at center back, allowing Brian to slot into the #6 spot that she has excelled in?
Poor Sydney Leroux. Last World Cup cycle, she was the next big thing, the future of the national team, and the clear forward of choice to pair with Alex Morgan. Possessing world-class speed and a nonstop motor, it was just a matter of time before Leroux took the international stage by storm. But that was in 2015, and lots of things have happened since then. Do you remember what the #1 song was in 2015? Neither do I, because that was TWO YEARS AGO.
To be fair, Leroux gave birth to her first child last year, and it’s an incredible accomplishment for her to already be back on the USWNT roster. It’s not a knock on her talent that she’s not playing much at this point, because – my goodness – this team is absolutely STACKED with talent at the forward position.
We all know Alex Morgan is a stud with a long track record of scoring in big games, while an in-form Christen Press provides a level of class, poise, and technical ability that makes her the logical counterpart for Morgan up top. Teenager Mallory Pugh looks to be the top option for a “super sub” role, while the 24-year-old Lynn Williams also figures to get a look. Oh, and don’t forget about Crystal Dunn, who has the on-ball skills to play as an attacking midfielder while also possessing the blazing speed needed to pop the top off the defense as a forward.
All things considered, there doesn’t seem to be much of a role for Leroux right now; there are just too many good, young forwards to choose from. But, as Leroux will be the first to tell you, a lot can change in a few years. If she absolutely balls out for her club team, FC Kansas City, over the next several months, Leroux could find herself back in the good graces of Ellis. For now, though, it seems as if she’s being phased out in favor of the team’s younger talent. If she doesn’t get an invitation to the September friendlies, the writing may be on the wall.
Naeher did not have a good showing in the Tournament of Nations, to put it kindly. She was hesitant to come out of her box, showed little in the role of distribution, and was a bit slow to react to some shots and crosses. She also let in a handful of soft goals, including this nightmare against Brazil:
Somewhere, Robert Green is sadly shaking his head.
Naeher seemed rattled after that mistake, and she followed up her error by shanking a clearance or two. She did play nicely in the final game against Japan, although that likely had more to do with the overall dominance of the U.S. field players.
Luckily for Naeher, Hope Solo isn’t walking through the door any time soon. Unfortunately for Naeher, Ashlynn Harris, the fiery and tattooed keeper for the Orlando Pride, is fully recovered from a quad injury. With a two-game set against New Zealand coming up next month, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Ellis start Naeher in one game and Harris in the other, to see who can gain the upper hand.
Going into the Tournament of Nations, the starting keeper job was Naeher’s to lose, but she did little to distance herself from Harris. A strong showing by Harris could turn this into a coin toss.
To make the future even murkier, there are a handful of talented players that presumably will make their return to the national team after recovering from injuries. We’ve already touched on Morgan Brian’s potential role, while the midfield should get another boost from nutmegger extraordinaire Tobin Heath, once she recovers from a balky back.
Rose Lavelle, only 22-years-old, also looks set to play a major role in the midfield once she returns from a hamstring injury. Lavelle has experienced something of a meteoric rise to national team prominence. After playing splendidly for her club team, the Boston Breakers, she has more than lived up to the hype in her national team call-ups, scoring twice in four appearances.
Hopefully a month from now, we’ll have a clearer picture of what the 2019 World Cup squad will look like. Here’s hoping that Ellis is a better chemist than she is a tinkerer.