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US World Cup Roster: Two Reasons to Relax, and One Reason to Worry

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Marginal roster selections rarely end up mattering, and the US will probably be just fine. But they really should have brought McCall Zerboni. 

Soccer: Tournament of Nations Women’s Soccer-USA at Japan Amy Kontras-USA TODAY Sports

The United States Women’s National Team announced its provisional squad for the World Cup on Wednesday afternoon. In the aftermath, there have been a lot of conversations about some of the selections. Should Ali Krieger have been called in? Why not Casey Short? Why Allie Long and Morgan Brian instead of McCall Zerboni and Andi Sullivan? Why did Jess McDonald become the favored striker from North Carolina, rather than Lynn Williams? Why didn’t Dani Colaprico get a more serious look? Or Sofia Huerta?

There are arguments for and against all of these decisions. But I want to take a step back and ask the bigger questions: do any of these marginal roster decisions really matter?

I have three different answers to that question, two of which suggest that there’s not really any reason to worry, and one which says...maybe there is.

No wrong decisions

The first point is quite simple: the US is too talented for individual decisions to really matter. The US talent pool is stacked. Like, really stacked. To illustrate that point, consider this roster which I threw together in five minutes. This is a full 23 of American players, none of whom made the actual World Cup roster. Throw this squad into the tournament, and they’d still be odds-on favorites to cruise to at least the quarterfinals.

A sample USWNT B team

This is just an example. Mix and match any of your personal favorites, and you can probably build a 23 that would be at least competitive with the teams you’ll find in the knockout rounds of the World Cup. All of which is to say: marginal decisions do matter, and every little bit of value can make a difference, but the US is so stuffed with great players that even if you had perfect knowledge of everyone’s true talent, there really aren’t any wrong decisions—just decisions that are a little bit less right.

Contributions off the field may matter more

The second point, which also cautions against worrying too much, is that marginal players might matter more for what they bring off the pitch. Especially since for the marginal players, the time on the pitch is almost by definition going to be minimal. Jill Ellis prefers to lean ever more heavily on the players she trusts than the average coach, and that’s even more true in the big knockout games against tough opponents. The final couple names on the roster will probably see very few minutes, and almost none in the critical games.

Where they will be contributing is off the field: in the locker room, on the bench, at halftime, in between matches. There certainly seems to have been a strong preference in Ellis’s choices for players who know the drill, who have been there before, and can provide a big of a steady hand on the tiller. Morgan Brian was fresh out of college in 2015. Now, she’s a longtime veteran. She might not be fully healthy yet (maybe ever again), but she can contribute in small doses, and can also help the squad gel. Ali Krieger is no longer the player she once was, but she’s still a regular contributor week-in-week-out, and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in any sport with more of a steady head.

Jill Ellis is not a coach defined by tactics. She doesn’t change up formations regularly, or to plan matches out in excruciating detail. That can be frustrating for those of us who care about those things. But it’s certainly not all there is to coaching. Another huge component is to keep everyone working from the same playbook, and to keep everyone’s enormous talents (and egos) all pointed in the same direction. That’s a real skill, and an important one, and it’s a place where people rarely give Ellis enough credit.

So this roster can be read in those terms—not as an attempt to construct the perfect 23 for playing Football Manager, but as an attempt to construct the perfect 23 to support this particular set of ultra-talented players.

Is Casey Short a better defender than Ali Krieger? Most likely. Is Allie Long superior to Andi Sullivan? Maybe not. Has Morgan Brian shown she can play a full 90 minutes? Not yet. But if none of them are likely to play much, and if we’re talking about relatively marginal differences even when they do come onto the pitch, it’s certainly plausible that the intangibles matter more than the tangibles.

Tactical warning signs, and the case for Zerboni

So that’s two reasons for thinking positively about these roster choices. But there’s also one serious countervailing concern which needs to be addressed. Even if we accept that Ellis’s decisions might have more to do with the pathos of the team than the tactics, there’s still the question of why McCall Zerboni was left out.

In my opinion, Zerboni is clearly one of the 15 or 20 best players in the US pool, and should have been a lock long before the final decisions were getting made. She’s been the best American player in the NWSL since the start of 2017, and there’s absolutely no reason to think that form wouldn’t continue through the World Cup. But even if you rate her much lower, the tactical void she could fill may end up being the difference between another title and heading home with nothing.

As I’ve written before, the US has developed a style of play that’s highly successful, but also dangerously rigid. Their 4-3-3 leans heavily on the destructive work done by Julie Ertz in the central midfield—with her often functioning as the only meaningful shield for two centerbacks who lack the pace to handle lightning counterattacks on their own. It’s a volatile, high-variance approach, which leads to a lot of goals on both sides, but usually more for the US.

But what happens if Ertz suffers an injury? Or if she is simply out of form? Without a destructive player in that position, the whole US system collapses on itself. Either the other players all have to drop back further to bolster the shield—and in doing so neutralize much of their own attacking threat—or they can try to play the same highwire act without their key player and end up getting ripped apart. We saw this happen in January, when the US were eviscerated by a rampant French attack. And we could see it again during the World Cup, too.

Because, for all the depth of talent in this roster, for all the flexibility provided by players in every line, there simply is no realistic like-for-like replacement for Ertz.

Zerboni is that missing piece. She spent years honing her skills as a hard-tackling holding mid, and is one of the toughest and most energetic players in the world. She has also taken massive steps forward in her creative game over the past few years. She will never be a silky-smooth possession-hoarding player, but she has shown over and over in the NWSL that she is now also among the best in the world at unlocking defenses through quick and direct movement.

If Ertz can play every game, this won’t end up mattering. A fully healthy US squad can absolutely survive without McCall Zerboni. But if Ertz is hurt, and the US finds itself casting around for solutions, serious questions will need to be asked about why Ellis locked her team into one specific style of play, and why she then chose to leave behind the only plausible replacement for the key player in that system.