The United States women’s national team laid out a 10-match campaign to get ready for this summer’s World Cup. With the end of the SheBelieves Cup, that stretch has reached the halfway mark. But that only applies to the tactics and roles among the players assured of being on the squad. It is likely that coach Jill Ellis will have her 23-woman group for France squared away ahead of the final three matches. That leaves only the April 4 match against Australia, April 7 against Belgium and possibly a National Women’s Soccer League match or three to make an impression on the coach.
The SheBelieves Cup was far from the U.S. at their best. Draws against Japan and England were both fraught with defensive miscues and midfield uncertainty. The 1-0 win over Brazil saw some improvements in both the aesthetics and result, but there was still something uncomfortable about allowing a reeling Brazil side to play their best match of the tournament. The game-ending five-back as Marta & Friends dominated possession in search of an equalizer was not a sight particularly familiar to followers of the U.S. team.
Jeff Kassouf wrote that Tobin Heath was the United States’ best player in the tournament, a take that is difficult to dispute. On a team where creativity and flexibility are at a premium, Heath continues to be the exception. She has made the right side her own and is not averse to either dropping deeper or pinching in to get herself involved. Both actions were more prevalent with Kelley O’Hara at right back as opposed to anyone else, but Heath was effective no matter who was sharing the right side with her.
There is still the occasional moment where her ball skills appear to supersede the logic on an attack, but that is the better flaw than the midfield’s often stark lack of creativity. She also seamlessly dropped into midfield late in two of the three matches. Heath may not be the U.S.’ most irreplaceable player just because of the depth up front, but you can probably pencil her into your World Cup starting XI against Thailand.
O’Hara is still working her way back to full fitness after ankle surgery and did not play more than 66 minutes in any of the three matches. The difference when O’Hara went out of each match was noticeable. As noted above, Heath was much more free to roam while O’Hara was in, and no outside back got forward more effectively than O’Hara at the tournament. Had her diving header against Brazil found its mark, O’Hara’s name would have been generally more prominent, but the fact is that she has the right back spot locked down. All she needs to do is regain 90-minute fitness, because Ellis won’t want to be using a sub there during the World Cup.
After years of wondering exactly what Christen Press’ best role on the team is, we may be close to getting that answer. Sort of. After a strong showing off the bench in January’s Europe swing, Press again acted as the super sub at SheBelieves. In the opener against Japan, she literally made her mark in the first minute she was on the pitch and eventually helped create the equalizer.
The head-scratcher was Brazil when Ellis sent her in as an attacking midfielder and left Heath up top instead of switching them. Press’ best attributes are her ability to take players on with her speed and score from practically anywhere on the field. Those traits are much easier utilized on the right side of the forward line than in midfield. But if the United States needs a goal in a World Cup match, Press looks like the best current option to come off the bench and make things happen.
Honorable mention: Ashlyn Harris, Sam Mewis
The U.S. conceded four goals at the SheBelieves Cup and three of them were at least partially attributed to Dunn getting beat. She was also wildly ineffective going forward and spent too much time dropping in. The last point is nothing new for Dunn but it stood out more over three games where she was far from her best. Whether this is the start of a bad trend or just a set of poor matches remains to be seen, and in fairness there were times she was pulled out of position trying to cover space vacated by her center backs. Casey Short did not leave the bench at the SheBelieves Cup, so it looks like left back belongs to Dunn. She’ll need to be better.
It is easy to forget how good Pugh looked for the Washington Spirit last season before getting injured at the end of May. The Spirit season never recovered and I don’t think Pugh has been back to pre-injury form since. Playing her in the 4-3-3 midfield did not do her many favors, but Ellis seemed intent on forcing her in there as all three matches opened with Pugh in the same position from the same shape. Last year’s injury coincided with Heath getting over one, and the result was Heath jumping Pugh as the regular right-sided striker. Since then, it feels like Ellis is trying to force-feed the talented Pugh into the setup, but the attacking midfield role has not proven to suit her so far.
This may be more of an overall discussion about what happens in central defense when Becky Sauerbrunn isn’t there. It wasn’t pretty. On too many occasions, Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson would step to the same ball or Dahlkemper would get caught in empty space with the play developing around her. For a while, there was a notion that Dahlkemper was the clear No. 2 behind Sauerbrunn and that she was capable of shepherding the back line when called upon. The SheBelieves Cup certainly called that into question. Jill Ellis apparently disagrees with this rating, though, as Dahlkemper got the nod over Davidson when Sauerbrunn came back in the lineup against Brazil.
Her debut cap was far from her best match but at least it happened. Everyone handles first-cap jitters differently, and goalkeeper is the most difficult position since you’re the last line of defense before the opponent scores a goal. Alyssa Naeher was supposed to get all three games until a shoulder injury against Japan had her ruled out for the next two. Getting Franch that elusive cap could turn out to be a blessing in disguise if she needs to be called upon down the road. And I’ll be shocked if her second one doesn’t go way better than the first.
Opponents seem to have decided that it is a safe play to throw bodies around Ertz when she sits as the lone defensive midfielder. There just does not seem to be enough support around her to allow pressure to be broken, and certainly not with enough speed or pizzazz to turn it into a viable attack. We all know what happens when the U.S. plays without Ertz, but the SheBelieves Cup was not her best tournament. Paging Lindsey Horan.
Casey Short and McCall Zerboni
While Ellis tinkers with the shape and sub patterns, the bubble players languished on the bench. While conceding that we don’t know anything about how training sessions went, it seems counter-intuitive not to give your fringe players some minutes during the final run toward finalizing a roster.
Current State of the Roster
There were 23 players on the SheBelieves Cup roster, plus three other training players, plus Lindsey Horan and Danielle Colaprico, who missed the tournament with minor injuries. From those 28, how many are locked in and how many spots are legitimately up for grabs? Let’s do some quick speculating.
Locked in: Adrianna Franch, Ashlyn Harris, Alyssa Naeher
Outside looking in: Jane Campbell
I think these are the three keepers Ellis intends to bring to France. Jane Campbell is waiting in the wings if one of them gets hurt but otherwise I don’t see this group changing.
Locked in: Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Emily Sonnett
On the bubble: Emily Fox, Merritt Mathias, Casey Short
It will take something going awry for the starting back four against Thailand not to be O’Hara-Sauerbrunn-Dahlkemper/Davidson-Dunn. Sonnett can back up both centrally and on the outside and has been getting consistent minutes so it would be surprising if she is not in France. That leaves Short and Fox seemingly battling for one additional spot. Mathias was a training player at the SheBelieves Cup and is a longshot to make the team.
Locked in: Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Mallory Pugh
On the bubble: Danielle Colaprico, Allie Long, Sam Mewis, Andi Sullivan, McCall Zerboni
Mewis may have played her way onto the team at the SheBelieves Cup, but I’m taking the cautious approach here. The surprise was Zerboni not getting any minutes at all, especially having been injured at the end of 2018. Colaprico is an interesting case. On one hand, her injury puts her under the gun to impress through the April matches. On the other, substitution patterns suggest she wouldn’t have played anyway. Sullivan didn’t.
Long was a training player so she was not eligible to play. Love her or hate her, it is impossible to deny that the team could use a little bit of what Allie Long does on a soccer field.
Morgan Brian’s name probably can’t be completely discounted, but my sense is that barring some injuries, she is out of the picture for the time being.
Locked in: Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe
On the bubble: Jessica McDonald
The top three are set, plus Press. Carli Lloyd’s minutes continue to dwindle, but I don’t see Ellis pulling a Jurgen Klinsmann and making Lloyd her Landon Donovan. Smart money has McDonald finding a place on the team also. It would make for a great story, but it would also be a good soccer decision.
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