Jill Ellis is not one to betray the feelings of, or private conversations with, her players. The United States women’s national team head coach stayed true to that policy Thursday, telling media assembled on a conference call to ask the players directly about their conversations with Ellis inviting them to the roster for the 2019 World Cup. One player told Ellis she was making her cry.
“All of them are incredibly special, but especially some of the first-timers,” Ellis said. “Some of these players, you know it’s their first World Cup and how hard they’ve worked. It’s just incredibly special. All the other stuff is all worth it when you get to make a call that is a dream come true for some of them.
“I’m humbled by the ability to make those calls.”
On the other side, Ellis naming her roster also meant facing the unpleasant task of informing those players who didn’t make it. Ellis said those players were unfailingly professional in the face of what was likely a professional low point for all of them. Andi Sullivan is likely to get more chances to play in a World Cup, but for Casey Short (28 years old) and especially McCall Zerboni (32), four years must seem like no shorter than an eternity.
“Class would be how I would describe the challenging calls,” Ellis said. “The players were classy, respectful, appreciative of the opportunity. Some of these players I have known a long, long time. Those are hard calls to make and I would say for the players, they’re even harder for them to receive. I thought they were incredibly professional in how the dealt with it.”
In the end, Ellis went with experience — and with what she knew. Short and Zerboni were the surprise omissions, with their spots going to 2015 World Cup champions Ali Krieger and Morgan Brian.
Krieger started every game of that World Cup at right back. Five of the seven were shutouts. “No moment is ever going to be too big for her,” Ellis said.
“The psychological piece is also a part of your consideration when you’re looking at player,” the coach continued. On Krieger and Brian: “The combined experience is vast. They are players who have experienced those moments and lived those moments and I feel good about where they are.”
Ellis conceded that the relative health of Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn also played a factor in Krieger making the squad over Short. O’Hara is in “return-to-play mode” which leaves right back as the outside back spot more vulnerable to injury. Simply put, Krieger is a right-sided player, Short a left. And Ellis did say, unprompted, that she could use Tobin Heath at left back in a pinch.
Brian was also part of the 2015 team and Ellis feels she is trending in the right direction after a solid, 61-minute run for the Chicago Red Stars last weekend.
“Part of it was looking at how those players were trending,” Ellis said of Brian and others who either made it from the bubble or are recovering from injury.
Ellis is in a different place than she was four years ago. She first accepted the job more than halfway into the cycle, a firewagon job designed to win at all costs after three consecutive World Cups ended in disappointment. This time, Ellis had the full four years along with the equity of having already won the biggest trophy the sport has to offer.
“I’ve learned a lot of things,” she said. “Even to the point of making sure that these players have played before making a roster. They’ve all been playing.”
The comment may have been a tacit nod to bringing Megan Rapinoe to the 2016 Olympics when her ACL recovery did not allow her to play until the knockout round, and then an ill-timed quarterfinal sub left Heath playing right back in a win-or-go-home match. But Ellis also said she has gone over more scenarios preparing this roster than she did for 2015 or 2016.
“I’ve probably gone more in-depth on what-if scenarios on this one,” she said. “There have been more injuries that we’ve dealt with along the way. That forced my hand at times to look at alternative scenarios and situations to problem solve. I feel a lot more vetted in in, ‘okay, if A, B, or C happens, what can we do?’ I think I learned in 2015 if you get a player suspended or a player hurt in the first game, you’re like, ‘okay what if.’ ”
Ellis added that selecting the back end of a roster is not quite as simple as just taking the best players, but taking someone who can fill a roll if called upon. She specifically referenced Shannon Boxx’s presence on the 2015 World Cup roster as a player Ellis knew would not play much, but who could close out a match if called upon.
It is possible the United States will bring the roster with the oldest average age to the World Cup, as they did in 2015. But even the younger players, Ellis believes, have been through enough fires that they will be ready when the bell rings in France.
Even though Ellis leaned on experience — she ultimately brought two World Cup veterans and left three players home who have not been to a World Cup or Olympics — less than half the roster has previous World Cup minutes. There are 11 newbies plus Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, who never left the bench in Canada. That leaves only 10 who were on the field in 2015.
“Even though there’s younger players, I think those players have been with us for a while and have experienced a lot of top-quality matches,” Ellis said. “Ultimately that’s what you want as a coach. It’s those top games, those five or six top teams that you play every year that are going to give you the most answers with regards to a player’s ability to adapt in those games, not just to the tactics but to the psychological demands on those games.”
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