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Ellis’s eye on narrowing group for qualifying, but injuries mean USWNT spots still very much up for grabs

Jill Ellis is honing in on qualifying for next year’s World Cup. (Copyright Patricia Giobetti for The Equalizer)

U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis has some of the answers she thinks she needs, some 16 months from the World Cup, but current circumstances leave an intriguing number of questions for her side.

Ellis on Wednesday named her 26-player preliminary roster for next month’s SheBelieves Cup, and absent were still-ailing playmaker Tobin Heath, rising midfield talent Sam Mewis and co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn. Midfielder Rose Lavelle is in camp, but still recovering from a longstanding hamstring injury which leaves her exact status to be determined.

Even if Ellis wanted to be settled on some sort of ideal starting XI for what might be her team’s biggest test in 2018, she couldn’t be.

“It’s not a situation where I’m lucking into a starting 11,” she said. We’re still building the side and building relationships.”

Injuries mean opportunities for some players. Defender Tierna Davidson made her debut against Denmark last month, and with Sauerbrunn out, Ellis expects the 19-year-old to play a significant role in the SheBelieves Cup. For Davidson and a collection of other young players in camp, it’s about vetting them against the world’s best teams to see if they are ready for that level when the results matter in France in 2019.

“You hope to go into a World Cup with a player with probably no less than 30 caps for a starter,” Ellis said.

Emily Sonnett, whose 2017 resurgence carried over into the new year thanks to a stint with Sydney FC in Australia’s W-League, has also impressed Ellis of late. And No. 2 overall pick (now with Sky Blue FC after Boston’s demise) Savannah McCaskill impressed Ellis in January camp. Add to that UCLA junior Hailie Mace, who is in her first senior-team camp, and there is some clear competition, particularly on the back line.

“It’s speculative to say how many spots are up for grabs, but you can probably tell by how many people are getting minutes,” Ellis said.

The goal of 2018, of course, is to qualify for the World Cup, something that won’t be taken for granted after the men’s national team’s failure to do so in 2017.

“The end game is October,” Ellis said, referring to qualifying. “The other piece is managing: What are their roles in their clubs and are they different from what we have them play? … Making sure they really understand what we are doing, because they will go back to that environment and do something different.”

At some point the U.S. women’s national team will also welcome a general manager. The U.S. Soccer board approved the creation of separate GM roles for the men’s and women’s national team. Ellis says she has “been on the periphery” of those talks, since she doesn’t attend board meetings, but she’s optimistic about the changes.

“I do trust the process,” she said. “The plan to have a GM; in terms of timing – we are in the process. It is a little different in terms of the men’s side.

“What I’ve gotten from Dan [Flynn; CEO] is it’s certainly targeted; its in process, but I think it’s something that they are going to take their time on in terms of, it’s a vetted process.

I don’t have a vote, so I really just trust what we’re going to do and that it’s going to be a positive.”

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