Another SheBelieves has come and gone; in this, the third year of the tournament, the United States somewhat made up for last year’s last-place disaster by coming top of the points list with two wins and a draw. But the numbers definitely don’t tell the whole story. The first game against Germany might as well be a write-off in terms of what we can learn about the team as a whole based on the stop-balls-in-their-tracks weather conditions, the second game against France scraped that tie together, and the last game against England was won off an own goal. Admittedly, one that required some engineering and doesn’t happen without Megan Rapinoe’s whizzer of a shot, but an own goal nonetheless.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at who stood out in this tournament for reasons both bad and good.
It was a bad, bad sign when Jill Ellis subbed Taylor Smith out against France at the 43’ and then later told the media that it was a tactical decision, not because Smith had signaled she needed to come out due to injury. Smith, who had endured the 90-minute grind against Germany and seemed to be climbing her way to a more permanent starting spot, fizzled against France. Ellis was so unconvinced by her performance that she pulled Smith in the 43’ instead of just letting her finish out the remaining minutes of the half. Smith didn’t return to the lineup against England either, with Ellis preferring to push center back Sonnett to right back in Smith’s place. Perhaps that was just Ellis giving Sonnett (as well as Sofia Huerta) some much-needed time on the field, with Smith getting to rest after 1.5 games. But Smith wasn’t able to display the canny needed to contained France’s Le Sommer or Thiney. Smith has earned the right to another shot, but she did herself no favors in cementing a starting spot.
Without Becky Sauerbrunn in the lineup, much fell to heir apparent Abby Dahlkemper to run the show out of the back. There were a few complicating factors, such as Ellis playing most of the games with a midfielder dropping between the CBs to sneak a three-back onto the field again (I thought we were over this, Jill?), but even taking those into account, Dahlkemper didn’t quite pass muster. She helped with direct distribution as the midfield faltered throughout the tournament, but also wasn’t enough help to central partner Tierna Davidson (more on Davidson later). Like Smith, Dahlkemper has certainly earned the right to another shot, and will very likely continue to be Sauerbrunn’s starting partner just because it’s unlikely Julie Ertz will be asked to retreat from the DM role that has served the WNT so well. But also like Smith, Dahlkemper didn’t make herself a lock.
2017 was a noticeably...difficult year for Alyssa Naeher. Though she was clearly Jill Ellis’ pick for starting goalkeeper, she didn’t always repay that faith with her performances. She seemed to have trouble in communicating with her back line and picking when to come off her own line, resulting in some heart-stopping scrambles in the box. It almost seemed as though some goalkeeping coach had told her she MUST come off the line more but didn’t do a good job teaching her when to implement it, resulting in some slapdash choices.
Naeher seemed much steadier during SheBelieves. There was less guesswork and more coordination, as well as some big time saves against France. Perhaps this may end up being for naught when Becky Sauerbrunn returns to the back line (which is not a slam on Sauerbrunn, but her absence is one of the differences to take into account from last year, and possibly communication between Sauerbrunn/Dahlkemper and Naeher wasn’t as smooth) but if Naeher builds on this performance, she’ll reassure a lot of fans and probably her teammates as well.
When I was 19 years old, I was mostly trying to figure out how I could spend the least possible amount of time in class but still pass. 19-year-old Tierna Davidson spent SheBelieves playing like this was her 30th cap, not her third. Were there mistakes? Of course. But Davidson mostly hung in there with the likes of Ellen White, Eugénie Le Sommer, and Alexandra Popp. She made a big argument for moving up the CB depth chart and is certain to be a big piece of the post-2019 roster transition.
Based on the way that Jill Ellis played Savannah McCaskill, it seems like she regards McCaskill as one of those players who’s just too talented to leave off a roster even if there’s not really room for her at her preferred position. McCaskill definitely didn’t look like a seasoned midfielder out there, but neither did she look like a total liability. She was easily one of the most fun players to watch whenever she got subbed in and helped bring a change of pace to some rather stultifying midfields. It could be nice to see McCaskill become the wider piece that lets Pugh drift inside under Morgan, or possibly Ellis might switch up the formation to let McCaskill be the withdrawn attacker under Morgan. We’ll have to wait and see for what happens when Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, and Tobin Heath return to the midfield. For now, McCaskill is an exciting unknown whose positional shift could generate unexpected dividends.
There’s two April friendlies to come against Mexico, and the summer Tournament of Nations. Who stood out for you? Who made a case for themselves to start the next few games, and who didn’t?