The Tournament of Nations comes to its surprisingly satisfying conclusion. Surprising, at least, if you’re a United States women’s national team fan. Based on their performance against Australia and Brazil, it seemed like this would be another SheBelieves, albeit not quite as high-strung as that earlier tournament. But not only did the US pull it together and come back 4-3 against Brazil, they also put out a convincing starting XI against Japan and won that game 3-0. This was, admittedly, a Japan B team, with tons of younger players orbiting around a few core older players to provide some stability. But the US showed what they can do when they have a more stable midfield and two sets of fluid front lines. That midfield part of the equation should be kept in mind when evaluating performances from the first two games; both of those games had the US set up way too deep to give the forwards a solid handle on things. But there were still plenty of things to digest in every position, so let’s take a look at who has moved towards solidifying a roster spot and who is getting pushed to the fringes.
Christen Press: Press has been having a bit of a bananas season with the Chicago Red Stars and continued to translate her skills onto the field for the United States. She struggled along with the rest of the forwards against Australia and Brazil, but you could still see her ability to be both creator and finisher. Against Japan she showed she can pick out runners just as well as she can get the ball back to goal before turning on a dime to face up and shoot.
Taylor Smith: Young and relatively inexperienced she may be, but she showed has an engine and the field vision to make the most of her flank attacks. Her defending didn’t really suffer for Ellis’ flank-heavy style either. Against Japan she both hit a lovely weighted ball on the ground for Mal Pugh and sent in a nicely targeted cross for Alex Morgan. That’s the kind of attacking versatility Jill Ellis is looking for in a defender, and stock up/stock down isn’t about what should be, but what is most likely to be based on the coach’s demonstrated preferences.
Megan Rapinoe: Don’t call it a comeback. Megan Rapinoe might as well have never torn her ACL for how she’s performing now. Even when the chips were down, she would look like one of the better players on the field. She was a ray of light in the game against Australia and she was absolute fire against Brazil and Japan. Of course Ellis already liked her enough to drag an injured Rapinoe to the Olympics, but seemed to cool off on her after that, even though she was done healing and resting. Now she’s back in form and looks like someone Ellis can’t afford not to play.
Julie Ertz: Ertz waltzed into the game against Japan and showed how many problems a good DM can solve. Before she banged shin-first into a goalpost making a clutch clearance off the line, she was dominant as heck, from her positioning to her partnership with Sam Mewis to her physicality. Perhaps she couldn’t have bodied, say, a grizzled German veteran player off the ball the way she did many of Japan’s midfielders, but Ertz time and time again basically just moved them a foot or two in a different direction with a stiff arm or her own body. That Ellis went to Ertz when she wanted a more reliable starting XI to close out the tournament strong should be encouraging for future performances from Ertz in that position.
Ali Krieger: It’s no reflection on Krieger’s performance with the NT that she’s in the stock down section because we haven’t seen her with the NT. Of course, Ellis has evaluated her in training, and she plays regularly for the Orlando Pride. But she has a different responsibility for Orlando, where Tom Sermanni has shifted her to CB, and that Ellis didn’t even seem to think of her as a sub over three games is telling. Perhaps if the United States had done an Australia and racked up a 6-1 scoreline, we would have seen Krieger, but that’s just as telling as not playing her at all. Only putting Krieger in when it’s totally safe to do so doesn’t say anything different about how Ellis regards her. It really seems like Ellis has no room for Krieger in her defensive setup, although that requires us to ask why she keeps dragging Krieger into camp. Surely Orlando would rather one of their most experienced players not have to fly cross-country the day before they play Chicago.
Lynn Williams: Ellis didn’t have a lot of time for Williams over the course of the tournament. She got zero minutes against Australia, was a 90+1’ sub against Brazil to help run down the clock, and got 17 minutes against Japan. In those 17 minutes she worked fairly well with Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux, but she also didn’t really show off her skillset. It can’t be a matter of keeping Williams rested for her club; plenty of other WNT players also have to play on Saturday. Could it simply be that Ellis wanted to try out different combinations of forwards, and Williams didn’t hold as much mystery in that regard for Ellis? Without knowing if Williams perhaps had a low-level injury to start camp, it looks like she’s not as much on Ellis’ mind as other forwards.
Margaret Purce: This one is a little unfair since it’s not really like Purce had stock to begin with, this being her first callup to the full senior team. She and Ali Krieger were the only field players not to get any time on the pitch. Ellis was even willing to play Morgan Brian, who is carrying a nagging injury and didn’t dress for Japan as a precaution. Calling Purce in but never playing her (and looking like she never intended to play her) seems more about initial evaluation in the senior NT environment than actually introducing her to the pressures of international play. Ellis has said the Tournament of Nations closes the chapter on her experimental phase; Purce doesn’t seem likely to break in as Ellis begins her consolidation phase.
There are other players who are on the fence who fluctuated a bit but didn’t definitively push themselves one way or the other. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; for some players that’s just about consistency. For others, it’s related to the problems with formation the team suffered from in the earlier stages of the tournament. And for some it just means they played badly at some points and played well at others, for an overall neutral effect.
Who do you think made themselves indispensable to Ellis during this tournament? Who failed to make their case?