Talking USWNT outside backs and the victory tour

Jeff Kassouf October 29, 2012 18

One prominent ex-WPS coach suggested to me that Heather O'Reilly would make a great outside back. You know what, that sounds like a decent enough idea to try it out. (Copyright Patricia Giobetti |

Sydney Leroux entered last week’s 2-2 draw between the U.S. and Germany in the 84th minute to play her first minutes as an outside back for the U.S. women’s national team.

The move was a curious one on paper, but it came out of necessity due to the U.S. being out of defenders on the bench after Heather Mitts took a hard hit 10 minutes earlier. Mitts’ head slammed into the turf and she later revealed that she had suffered a concussion.

Kate Markgraf said on the NBC Sports Network broadcast that the U.S. could look at Leroux at right back. Leroux has shown plenty of promise up top and should continue to get looks there, so I hope that isn’t the case. She put in a hard tackle and got on the ball a couple of times in her few minutes in the match, but Germany did score just a minute later.

The outside back position was an uncertainty in the last World Cup and Olympics cycle, so there is certainly a need for some cover there. Amy LePeilbet is still best as a center back, but she has been molded into a conservative outside back. Kelley O’Hara — a star forward in college — was converted to a left back earlier this year and continues to show promise in the position. She should continue to be developed there.

Converting forwards into outside backs is not a revolutionary idea. It is, in fact, something the U.S. could attempt to explore to figure out what to do at right back.

So, Leroux playing those few minutes at right back got us thinking. Two players in the current squad come to mind as worth trying in the position: Amy Rodriguez and Heather O’Reilly.

Let me just preface this: I don’t expect either of these two players to become outside backs. O’Reilly is a winger and should play there. And in the long-run, the right back role needs to be filled with a young, natural right back.

But hey, this gold medal tour (we’re going with that name) contractually will only feature the players from the Olympic roster. And with upcoming games against Ireland and China (not exactly the high level of Germany), why not try some things out? Hear me out:

Amy Rodriguez: A-Rod has played in 24 matches this year, but her role has significantly diminished (she has only started four games in 2012). Rodriguez is still blazing fast, which is always a major bonus for an outside back. Can she defend? We wouldn’t know unless she got some minutes in the position, but it could be worth at least a try over these next few games. Rodriguez isn’t getting many minutes and playing time in the midfield is only getting more competitive (not to mention the set-in-stone Abby Wambach-Alex Morgan pairing up top). If trying out Rodriguez at outside back works, great. If not, oh well. But let’s see what she can do there.

Heather O’Reilly: Before you call me crazy, the idea of Heather O’Reilly at right back was actually suggested to me by a prominent ex-WPS coach as a way to further extend her national team career (she’s only 27, so that isn’t the most pressing issue). Having thought about it, I kind of dig the notion in theory. O’Reilly is one of the hardest workers out there and is fully willing to tackle hard. She also has the speed and stamina to run up and down the flank. Tobin Heath is showing that the future of the right flank is likely hers to lose. Now imagine Heath and O’Reilly on the same wing, overlapping each other and combining with the midfield. I would hate to be the opposing team’s left back. O’Reilly of course would have to defend, which I think she is perfectly capable of doing given her tenacious play.

At the end of the day, the first choice right back for the U.S. right now needs to be a healthy Ali Krieger. She was phenomenal at the 2011 World Cup and a key piece of that runners-up puzzle. After that, recent Stanford grad Cami Levin should be looked at in the long term. She was one of the best (and most versatile) players in the NCAA in 2011. Oh, and somebody get Lori Chalupny cleared to play for the U.S., please.

But with none of those players taking part in the gold medal tour, let’s get a little creative and see what happens. There’s even a chart to get you excited!

  • Jeff – I know you were only selecting players from the existing roster – and I would love to see HAO at outside back – she is certainly tenacious and fast enough. But here’s a really radical idea – why not bring up the best prospects we have in the U-20 team and let them get some time with the full team? Same thing for central midfield where age is certainly a long-term issue.

    • For sure young players need chances– that’s why Cami Levin is in there. She’s a U-23 and absolutely should be part of the future of USWNT.

  • Lloyd/Boxx/OSBORNE. Fixed 🙂

  • Gunnerdave

    HAO would be an interesting option, but I hope Kriegs will return soon. Morgan Brian and Tobin should be central midfielders, and I want to see Kealia Ohai as a winger.

  • Celia

    I think Mollie Pathman and Julie Johnston are ready to play in the senior USWNT! Krieger and Pathman should be the outside backs

  • Steglitz49

    Great analysis, Jeff. I have one comment on your “O’Reilly is only 27, so that isn’t the most pressing issue”. It is.

    This is because several top women athletes retire already at 25 and many of the rest call it a day by 27 and only a few carry on beyond 30 years. Indeed, only last week Zlatan on the men’s side, received the Golden Foot which is an award given to male soccer players who are active after 29 years of age. For example, I would not be surprised if Yuki Ogimi hangs up her boots before the next World Cup.

    Given the risk of injuries, it is a nice point when to promote junior players — Alex Morgan suffered a knee injury while at Berkeley — and the time has gone when 15 and 16 year olds should be in a senior side, yet it is worth remembering that Kumagai was only 20 when she played in the World Cup last year.

    The victory tour apart, planning ahead to 2015 means bringing on the U-20s now.

    • Joshua

      Women soccer players can have remarkably long athletic careers at the most elite level of the sport. Eight of the eighteen players on the 2012 Olympic USWNT were over the age of 30.

      Alex Morgan was the youngest player on the 2011 FIFA WWC USWNT. She was 22 years old. For other womens’ sports, 22 years old is OLD. Leroux and Morgan dressed up for Halloween as Olympic USWNT Gymnasts more six years younger than them. At 16, McKayla Maroney and Gabby Douglas have probably had their last Olympic competition. By the time they get to Morgan’s and Leroux’s age six years from now, they will be long retired from their sport. Morgan and Leroux could still realistically be on the USWNT six years from now.

      I suspect a few USWNT players will be in their thirties for the next WWC and Olympics. I doubt there will be a major change from the current team in the next few years. For younger players striving for spots on the USWNT currently held by long time veterans, I feel for them. Retirement or long term injury appear to be the only time any real change happens.

      • Steglitz49

        Only 4 of the 13 who played for USA in the final were over 30 years of age and Alex Morgan was 23 years. The median age was 27 years.

        Any talented young American players who feel blocked from the NT will be easy pickings for clubs outside USA that open their wallets, like PSG did for Lindsey Horan. The USA may well manage without Horan’s services but she has blazed a trail and dared to boldly go where no-one so young has gone from USA before — and given up a scholarship to UNC to boot.

        It is, indeed, true that certain sports, such as gymnastics, figure skating and tennis for example, have minimum age requirements to protect the participants. If you pick up an Olympic gold at 16-20 years of age, keeping going might not amount to a hill of beans. There is so much else to do.

        This year America (and Canada) set a whole new standard for fitness in major championships. Players will be spending more time in the gym doing work-outs, not just knocking a ball around. Whether this standard was necessary for the women’s game is another matter. It is here to stay now. It may not be as much fun as it was before.

        • randomhookup

          I’m not sure how Horan’s professional move to France factors into her participation on the NT. Based on the current patterns, a number of USWNT pool players will be plying their trades overseas.

          • Steglitz49

            I am not sure that I follow you. Although enough American women play abroad to put together a squad, not one single of the 18 that went to London played outside USA and none of them do currently. They prefer instead the play the celebratory tour. These great players will, well understood, form the nucleus of any new league in north-America. This is great of them.

            Regarding Ms Horan, it depends on her contract with PSG. Clubs usually only make players available according to the rules of FIFA. The long training camps that the USWNT run are not possible for most non-American countries. Indeed, it is a bone of contention now.

          • randomhookup

            True, there weren’t many from abroad for the Olympics (though 2 of the Olympic alternates are playing in Europe now). Ali Krieger was able to make the WWC while playing in Germany and likely would have made the Olympic roster if healthy.

            But you make it sound like Horan’s career with the WNT is a nonstarter because she’s in France. In 2013 & 2014, there won’t be that many camps or even that many chances to play for the US Women. Yes, being in Europe may be an obstacle to some opportunities, but you made playing in Europe and the NT incompatible (if you don’t get picked for NT, someone will pick you up to play in Europe).

            Expect Horan to be well-considered when the time comes if her form holds, even if she is off in France.

          • Steglitz49

            I do not think we disagree in principle. We look at the diamond from different angles. Indeed, the issues we chew over may explain why Tom Sermanni was appointed the new coach for the NT.

            Next year I expect the USWNT to be invited to Europe and play a string of friendlies against (some of) the countries who have qualified for Euro-13. Maybe Germany v USA in the Berlin Olympic stadium? Japan, Brazil and South-Korea probably also will be invited. Before that there is the Algarve cup. Tom Sermanni will be able to experiment freely and he carries virtually no American baggage.

            While men’s soccer now is well and truly dominated by Europe, USA (with Canada) still has an opportunity to make ladies’ football its province, just like it has for men’s basket, baseball and hockey. All young men in Europe’s hockey-playing countries dream of an NHL contract and even a couple of years is enough financially. You do not have to do a Persson or Kallur, not even a Loob, just a couple of seasons as a journeyman player … . The USA should be leading the way for women’s soccer and without the USA, women’s pro-soccer may well wither, shrivel and die out! Trick or treat?

  • If we have to go with the current roster then I’d like to see Rodriguez tried at the position, although I’m curious to see how an O’Reilly/Heath combination would look. In the long term I want to see Levin and Krieger in that spot. I’m dying to know who the new coach is because I’ve got a long list of players I want to see on this team.

  • Quick As A Flash

    I like this idea. However having watched UCLA v. Stanford last night my prediction is that graduating senior, Rachel Quon, will be a top contender for outside back (left or right). She was the star of the night on a field studded with excellent players. She is a dual citizen so the USWNT better take note or risk losing her.

    • Steglitz49

      Careful. The young lady might prefer to take top dollar, maybe that should be €uro, if she has a yen to go abroad. The world is her oyster and a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The young lady can go east or west as she prefers.

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  • Kate Steilen

    While it does seem, these days, like any aggressive and fast player can audition for the outside or center back position, and it’s worked very well for some coaches, like at Stanford with Ali Riley, Verloo, and Quon, (and Cami Levin), I’m curious as to how other experienced defenders and coaches see this — it often seems demeaning to the defense, to backs, to assume that anyone (HAO, A-rod) can play defense (well) at this level. O’Hara’s speed saves her, and she can tackle, she goes forward well, but she often seems outplayed or outmatched at the back position. I would think that holding the ball well, passing accurately , and seeing the field / play from the back take even more skill and time to practice. Also working with the keeper and the whole line — that judgment. Does a forward necessarily have it?

    • Steglitz49

      A problem with converting naturally attacking players to defenders is that they mistime their tackles and, thereby, give away freekicks including in dangerous areas or, heaven forbid, penalties. They can get yellow cards for their pains.

      It is difficult to think of good examples on top of my head but to see expert defending watch the Magic Dwarf over again repeatedly rob Robben of the ball earlier this year, not withstanding that he is a attacking defender.

      Renard and Kumagai exemplify the modern central defenders in the ladies game today. Iwashimiu is another top central defender. Amanda Ilestedt is another top defender and as long as she remains injury-free we will hear more of her.

      In short, if attackers become surplus to requirement let them go. Bring on natural defenders, however young. Kumagai was 20 last year.