Backline Chat: World Cup Dark Horses and the NWSL Offseason


Photo by Lora Charles.

Charles Olney (@olneyce): Hi everyone, and welcome to our first slackchat of the offseason. We’re hoping to get back into a semi-regular conversations here are news starts to pick up. For today, we’ll mostly focus on international news, and do a little bit of assessment of where things stand with the NWSL offseason. To kick things off, how do people feel about the state of the US national team at the end of 2018?

RJ Allen (@TheSoccerCritic): I think the USWNT is playing as well as it has under Ellis. They are beating the teams they should beat, running good teams off the field at times and making adjustments for players being out or not playing to their peak.

Going in to 2019 I think they are in a really solid position. Even more so when you see a lot of the other teams you’d expect to compete in 2019 having missteps.

Allison Cary (@findingallison): I haven’t watched as many of the games recently, but to be honest, I’ve been surprised by some of the scorelines. Scotland and Portugal holding the U.S. to one goal shows improvement in their competition. I think that’s what it is though– the rest of the world catching up rather than the U.S. declining.

Charles Olney: For a long time, my take has been that Ellis wasn’t a very good coach for the experimental phase, but having gone through 2016-2017 without learning much, she’d be pretty solid for this part. I still feel pretty good about that. There’s still plenty I’m grumpy about with the team, but I think they’re playing very well overall. Even if the two recent games were pretty drab, as you note.

RJ Allen: I don’t think Ellis is a great coach. But I don’t think she *has* to be with the talent she has. I do think the US is just in another tier right now in terms of both play and expectations though. Think of the reaction if Chile beat the US like they just did Australia.

Charles Olney: That’s true. I do think it’s worth noting that this group of players seems to be much more settled, and much more capable of organizing themselves than some of the past versions of the team. I genuinely don’t know whether that’s entirely separate from Ellis, or if she gets some of the credit for keeping them on an even keel. Either way, it’s a good place to be.

Luis Hernandez (@radioactivclown): As a whole you can’t really say too much negative when the team goes undefeated for the calendar year. I like where we are talent-wise. I think if anything I’m still slightly unhappy with Ellis more than anything else. But then I’d expect the US to beat Chile 5-0 like the Matildas did

Charles Olney: But to RJ’s point, it’s worth noting just how badly almost every other major competitor has stumbled this year. Australia lost to Chile. England just lost to Sweden. Germany has been struggling badly. The Dutch had to go through the playoffs. And on and on. Meanwhile, the US is just churning through their opponents.

RJ Allen: A lot of the key players are also more mature in general. Alex Morgan isn’t a young gun coming up anymore. She’s a leader on the team and one of the most accomplished players they have. Rapinoe has matured in her role. So has Ertz and Dunn and a lot of players. It makes it more forgiving all the way around.

Luis Hernandez: there has to be a perfect storm for the US to lose, I don’t think they are going to roll everyone at the World Cup, but the right match up with a few key players not on the pitch and then it could be “Houston, we have a problem”

Allison Cary: I think their experience shows here too. England, Australia, etc. might be more prone to stumble because they haven’t been this good for this long. But that goes to support your point that the U.S. is a tier above the rest. I also don’t think that means a smooth road to another World Cup trophy. But it does help.

Charles Olney: It does feel notable how many of the veterans seem to be playing at a top level, well past the stage when some decline might have been expected. Two years ago Rapinoe felt like she was on the way out, Morgan looked like she might be slowing down, Sauerbrunn was starting to fade a bit. And it wasn’t clear the younger players could step in. But now…the vets are playing great, and even if some of the younger ones haven’t necessarily stepped up, it just doesn’t really matter.

It wouldn’t be that hard to imagine an alternate universe where they NEEDED Lavelle, Brian, Pugh, etc. to step up and were stumbling badly because there wasn’t anyone to fill in those critical roles. But it just hasn’t happened.

Luis Hernandez: There is something to be said for that USWNT trait that has the veterans on the team not to let up on the younger players when things go south. It appears like they will the team to a result. Just when I think why does the US need player X when things are going well, I see a Rose Lavelle and she reminds me why.

RJ Allen: If you made a list of the top 100 women’s soccer players in the world. The US would have their starting XI – Ellis’s preferred XI – on the list. All 11. I am not sure any other country would be able to say that. And that is a huge advantage.

Charles Olney: So it sounds like we’re in agreement that the US is looking like favorites, but that certainly doesn’t mean anything is certain. So who do y’all see as the other teams most likely to be in the mix next summer?

And are there any other teams where you think their stock has risen over the past 12 months?

RJ Allen: I think France has to be in the running.

Allison Cary: I want to say France but they always seem to disappoint me.

RJ Allen: In there is ever a time for France to get over the hump, it’s 2019 at home.

Charles Olney: Yeah, I’d make France second-favorites, though I understand why their fans would be worried.

Luis Hernandez: A healthy Australia who can get their defense right, could be a problem. They don’t fear the US anymore

Allison Cary: England and Australia I think are definitely in the mix. And the Netherlands?

RJ Allen: I think Scotland with a healthy Kim Little could be a dark house for the semis. I say this hoping that putting it into the universe will make it happen.

Allison Cary: I thought they looked pretty good today.

Luis Hernandez: I felt that as well until I realize how many first choice starters the US was missing

Charles Olney: I’ll probably write up a full piece on my sense of where teams fit into tiers, but I think Scotland is a neat pick for a dark horse. I wouldn’t really bet on them past the round of 16 but they could potentially beat just about anyone on their day.

One thing about this tournament is that there just aren’t that many teams who project to be rock solid. Scotland won’t light any fires, but they also aren’t going to implode. That could get them through a couple tight games.

RJ Allen: Canada is a team I’ll be keeping an eye on too. This is very likely the last chance Sinclair has for the World Cup title.

Luis Hernandez: Because of the expanding field there’s going to be some not great teams at the World Cup too.

RJ Allen: I think that’s wonderful though.

Allison Cary: Yeah. That’s the way people get better. What an opportunity for some of these programs.

Charles Olney: There’s a large group of teams that I have in the ‘shrug emoji’ part of the field (Japan, Brazil, Sweden, China, Norway, Italy, Spain, South Korea). All of those are arguably better than Scotland, but I could see several of them having disastrous tournaments, too.

RJ Allen: Has Norway figured out if one of the best players in the world is playing for them again?

Allison Cary: I don’t think so.

Charles Olney: If I had to bet, I still think she probably does play. But I haven’t actually seen anything suggesting that it’s in the mix.

Luis Hernandez: So I know the team hasn’t qualified for the World Cup yet, but if they do, are New Zealand going to get out of the group stage?

RJ Allen: I don’t know we can say that until we see the draws. A good draw might see them get out but a bad one and they are last in their group.

Allison Cary: I’ll be surprised if they make it out of the group. A good draw could help them, but my instinct is that they won’t go far.

Charles Olney: New Zealand is an interesting one. I think a lot depends on their draw, as you both have said. They’re probably one of the five or six weakest teams, but if they happened to get drawn with a Jamaica or someone, they could potentially pick up 4 points and go through.

RJ Allen: I do hope that Erceg pulls a Brett Farve and un-retires again.

Charles Olney: For New Zealand, bringing in Sermanni was a great move. I don’t think he’s a guy that can beat the odds all by himself, but I think they’re in a much stronger position now.

Luis Hernandez: the draw is 20ish days away, so that’s something to look forward to…and Christmas music.

Allison Cary: I think Erceg will, assuming she is satisfied with the federation.

Charles Olney: In many ways, that mid-to-bottom tier is the most interesting to me. It’s very likely that one or two of New Zealand, Nigeria, South Africa, Chile, etc. make the knockout rounds. But I certainly wouldn’t bet on any individually.

Allison Cary: Yeah. It will be fun to watch.

RJ Allen: This has been a wild year for women’s soccer. I really hope it stays that way in 2019 and we get an exciting World Cup. I want to see some upsets. Just no PKs in the knock outs.

Allison Cary: Agreed.

Luis Hernandez: if you had to put money on a non-front-runner team, who would it be? I’d hedge my bet on one of the Scandinavian teams

Allison Cary: Yeah, probably Sweden.

Charles Olney: If Germany counts as a non front runner, I think they’re a lot better than they’ve played recently. If you want to go down a full additional rung, I think Japan might pull it together. I wouldn’t bet on it, but I tend to trust teams that build with a system. Sweden is also a good call.

RJ Allen: Canada vs Australia in the final playing at their peaks would be fun.

Luis Hernandez: I have a weird feeling about Norway. Don’t know why

Allison Cary: I’m pretty sure in a previous chat, I promised that if France won the Women’s World Cup and the Men’s World Cup, I would be obligated to move to France. Not sure what I’m rooting for lol. Wouldn’t be opposed at this point.

RJ Allen: I do have a related topic I want to get some thoughts on. I think one of the things we’re seeing, maybe more than ever with the US, in the idea that good players are somewhat disposable.

Sofia Huerta was good but she wasn’t as good as Morgan, Press, Williams, so on so she got converted to an outside back. But she wasn’t an outside back and no one in their right mind plays her there for club so she’s out even if she got the US to change her status so she can only play for the US.

Chioma Ubogagu plays for us on a youth level but never really made it on the senior team and goes on to get some shots playing for England. Dropping quotes like:

“When I went into the [U.S.] senior camp last year, the environment wasn’t for me. I guess that’s the best way to put it,” Ubogagu admitted. “Then coming into this environment, it just felt right immediately. Some things in football, it’s just like an instinct, and it felt like this was the place I’m supposed to be.”

I think one of the issues is because the US is so deep if you don’t come in and fit in right away you have a limited shot overall. It sucks but I’m not sure what else the US can do having so many players they can pull from. (edited)

Charles Olney: Yeah, the Ubogagu quotes on the US team were pretty interesting. I do think the US is a friendlier place than it was historically, when it probably resembled a frat house in the middle of pledge week more than anything else. But I don’t think it’s necessarily that welcoming to the folks who are on the margins.

Which is to say: I think the individual players are generally very nice, but it is definitely a closed circle, and until someone proves that they are going to stick around for a long time, they don’t really get integrated that much.

RJ Allen: If you are Mal Pugh level break out star, you have a real shot. But if you’re a role player or in that grey area you have a hard time and might want to see what other options you have. It sucks but that seems to be the thought process.

Charles Olney: And as you say, there’s just so much talent at the top that it’s really hard for any of those 20-30ish players to do so well that they can get over that hurdle.

RJ Allen: And I am not sure I can blame it being the process, to be honest.

Luis Hernandez: I’ve heard it from Ubogagu and Kristen Edmonds when they were at camp that the speed of things there was very high, I’d imagine most new call ups get a lukewarm reception until they have been to multiple camps and there’s more of a friendly vibe, versus a professional vibe.

Charles Olney: I would love to see more honest commentary about what it feels like to be a bubble player. I remember a few quotes from Colaprico a while back which made it seem pretty grim. For Ubogagu, the circumstance of having dual nationality gave her the chance to speak her mind and not worry about repercussions. But I bet a lot of other folks feel the same way.

Luis Hernandez: It raised a question if speed was only an on the field thing, or it also meant film study and the like.

RJ Allen: I would think it is just all of it. We’ve all spoken to collage players who the step to pro is too much. I’d think it is like that just more so.

Luis Hernandez: Since the pool of players is so big, the chance of falling out of favor can happen quickly. Hello Jane Campbell and Taylor Smith. Casey Short to some extent…Ashley Hatch…

Charles Olney: One thing to look forward to over the next 5-10 years is the increasing professionalization of the NWSL. Right now, the difference between ‘just on the outside’ and ‘just on the inside’ for the national team is the difference between living with your parents and having a real stable professional life. But at some point the gap won’t be so extreme. That could make the transitional process much healthier.

RJ Allen: For as goofy and as much as a teenager as she is, on the field Mal Pugh knows the ins and outs of soccer and how to get her body to do things most 22 year olds who played 4 years of D1 can’t. That’s why she’s on the team.

I think outside of the living wage question – and I think it’s a huge question – I’m not sure it’s a problem that the US cycles so fast. Yes, good players get overlooked. But on some level if you can play to the level the NT plays on, you’ll likely find yourself on the team.

Charles Olney: Andi Sullivan is another interesting example there. Based on her NWSL season, she shouldn’t be anywhere near the national team right now. But they can see, quite reasonably, that she has potential above and beyond some other folks. So I get why they make exceptions for a player like that. And I also get why it would be so frustrating for other NWSL players who might think “but I outplayed her for an entire season!”

RJ Allen: I think “pedigree” feeds in to it a lot. Where did you play college, did you play for the U20s, did Ellis give you early camp calls. All of that feeds in to which horse they bet on.

And then there is McCall Zerboni.

Charles Olney: Yeah. I think that’s an important point RJ. I think I said this in a previous chat, but at the end of the day the identify of the 20-23 spots on the US roster just isn’t that important. Much as we all enjoy arguing about it. The US isn’t really losing a huge amount by not bringing in DiBernardo or Amber Brooks or something. Even if they could integrate perfectly, the US just doesn’t need them. So I do think it’s worth discussing the process, and I do wish it was more responsive to form. But I also don’t think it’s anything close to a crisis in terms of overall team performance.

Luis Hernandez: You know what solves this Charles, a general manger!

RJ Allen: I don’t know if I agree that solves anything. It has the power to do a lot but what power does a GM have to change the fact the US just has a ton of very good players and you can only put 23 on a roster?

Luis Hernandez: perhaps we can get the system to develop those players sooner. More Mal Pugh level of 18 year olds.

RJ Allen: The problem is the NCAA is a thing and has a ton of sway in all of that. And I can’t see that going away. Not with pay like it is. Mal Pugh could afford to go pro and be on the NT. If she was from a family with an income of $35,000 a year she’d be at UCLA right now.

Charles Olney: I think larger institutional reform would be good, but it’s a longer-term process for sure. I don’t think reorganizing the system would alter the basic inputs that much right now. If they were to get rid of Ellis and bring in someone who evaluates talent differently, that would obviously make a difference. But that ship has sailed.

And yes, the weight of the college game is also a big part of how young talent gets developed (or not developed).

Charles Olney: Alright, well, speaking of NWSL development, why don’t we take a moment to discuss the state of the league. We’re a couple months into the offseason and…we’ve had very little news. Sky Blue is still doing their Sky Blue thing, with no real evidence of progress. Three teams are still looking for coaches. The draft is still a couple months away. So what are people looking forward to once news starts moving again?

RJ Allen: I can’t wait to see the trades that Harvey, Vlatko and Riley pull off this offseason.

Charles Olney: Houston has been dropping hints about the hiring process being resolved soon, but I’m not sure if that means this week or just…in 2018. But I’d love to see all the teams get settled well before the draft.

Luis Hernandez: Frankly, I think that the teams without head coaches are already behind the power curve

Allison Cary: Me too.

Luis Hernandez: I don’t think we’ll get any ideas of which teams are going to be looking at trading if they don’t have a head coach in place. I also think that it is hard to figure if a team needs to bring in more players if we don’t have information on the expanded roster size

RJ Allen: I’d like to see more former players as coaches personally. I saw that Nadine Angerer got a contract extension in Portland and really highlights what former players of the league can bring to it.

Charles Olney: My impression from Duffy’s comments at the final was that we could expect roster sizes to expand by a couple slots. I hope that encourages coaches to think more seriously about filling out their rosters, and rotating a bit more to keep everyone fresh. I wonder if it just means a few more bench players that only get playing time when the national teamers head out for France.

Allison Cary: I will be hoping for the former, but I expect the latter.

RJ Allen: I am happy, very happy, for the idea of each team carrying three goalkeepers. I think that is a huge win for the league.

Charles Olney: I mean, let’s wait for the official announcement to call it a win, but yeah, I agree.

RJ Allen: Do we think USSF will give the NWSL a commish once they have a new CEO? Is that the hold up, do we think?

Luis Hernandez: I won’t consider it much of an advancement unless it’s a roster size of 26 or something along those lines

RJ Allen: It will not be 26. It will be 22 or 23. Jumping to 26 would crash the cap and minimum salary for players.

Luis Hernandez: Oh I get that it will only be a bump of two or three but it should be a raise of six players. Not fielding a full bench is bush-league

Charles Olney: Yeah, I’d expect 23. I do think that’s a big deal. If that were combined with another decent bump to the minimum wage, I’d call that a successful offseason

RJ Allen: I don’t think 26 is needed right now. I don’t know if I’d ever agree it would be. 23 is 11 vs 11 with an extra goalkeeper.

Luis Hernandez: well, (and I know RJ will love this) MLS roster size is 30

RJ Allen: And I care about that because?

Luis Hernandez: The NWSL needs to have more than a couple of spares. It’s a World Cup year, let’s also create some depth with teams

Charles Olney: I do think that men’s league provide a useful standard for comparison, of how things should run if the money is plentiful and capacity isn’t a constant danger. But I also think MLS rosters are a bit larger than many other teams around the world, which generally clock in around 23-24, and then have development teams.

RJ Allen: It would also be crazy to ask teams to jump up $100,000 in the salary cap to go to 26.

Luis Hernandez: I’m not even saying add more internationals, they can be domestic players. $100,000 more in payroll, welcome to higher standards

RJ Allen: That would be everyone on minimum pay. Not really want you want to encourage.

Charles Olney: Alright, kind of a dark question but: will Sky Blue be in the league in 2019? If yes, will they make any meaningful improvements to the problems they have been facing, or will it just be the bare minimum of window-dressing?

RJ Allen: The NWSL has shown a full dereliction of their duties when it comes to Sky Blue. They seem not to be pushing them to do anything. I don’t know if it’s because of how the owners are, because Duffy and co don’t have the power to force their hands, I don’t know.

Charles Olney: Yeah, I can’t really tell either. But if they were making any serious progress, it sure seems like they’re be talking it up. So the general radio silence feels bad.

Luis Hernandez: I’m not even remotely close to the Sky Blue situation, but I can’t believe that current ownership group can’t make it work

RJ Allen: Cloud 9 has been banging the drum trying to get people to pay attention as the attention has left them.

Allison Cary: Yeah, the silence is not good.

RJ Allen: But there is no more information. I don’t know what to make of it. The owners there have the money. That doesn’t seem the issue. The issue is caring about this as more than a pet project to show your daughter some form of “girl power”.

Allison Cary: But like Charles said, if there was serious progress, it seems like they would be talking about it.

Charles Olney: I wish I had something more intelligent to say. But I really don’t. It’s terrible, and a major stain on the league, and they just need to fix it. But I don’t think they will.

Allison Cary: Pretty much sums it up.

RJ Allen: Honestly it might be better for all involved for the team to fold. As heartbreaking as that might be for a group of very dedicated fans.

Charles Olney: That’s tough to say, especially in a year after we lost Boston and KC. But it’s also hard to disagree with. I’m going to hold out hope. But not very much.

Allison Cary: If the club is too toxic, better to fold than drag out a situation bad for everyone involved.

Luis Hernandez: I feel that it may be better to relocate the team a la Utah. Here’s to NWSL to Louisville City.

Charles Olney: Alright, my final question comes from a reader, who asks: “What will it take for Adi Franch to get a chance with the NT?!?!” To which I’ll add: what is it about Harris (or Franch) that I’m not seeing? Franch isn’t perfect, but I’d describe her as almost strictly superior to Harris, in that she’s good at all the stuff Harris is good at, while also being better at the other stuff.

RJ Allen: I almost don’t think it matters. Naeher is the number one and no one else will play in France or much at all in 2019. After 2019 there will be a chance. But Ellis has made it clear what she wants for goalkeeping.

Allison Cary: Unless Naeher gets injured.

Charles Olney: Yeah, it probably won’t matter. But if Naeher breaks her foot in the opening match next summer, Harris is (apparently) going to play it out from there. If we discussed the potential strange circumstances where the US loses up above, surely Harris making a major blunder is one of them, right?

Allison Cary: I think Franch is superior to Harris, but Harris has been around longer. I don’t think that should translate to playing time, but I think it does.

Charles Olney: It just feels like a weird own goal. Lots of things that Ellis does, even if I don’t agree, I understand the logic. I’m just kind of baffled here.

RJ Allen: Harris is not a great goalkeeper. She is not in my top three for the US. But NT wide, is she less than average? I mean, I can’t believe I’m the one to ask. But it feels like post Scurry and Solo we just have the goalkeeping bar too high sometimes.

Charles Olney: Yeah, I suppose I should default back to my ‘goalkeepers are overrated’ prior here. And restore the normal balance of our conversations.

RJ Allen: I don’t think goalkeepers are over rated. I do think the US is judged on an unfair curve that Scurry and Solo set. If we were going from 15 years of Barnie to Naeher and Harris, it would not be seen the same way.

Luis Hernandez: I’m just going to hold on the keepers we have until the end of the World Cup then I’ll be clamoring about who the next group should be.

RJ Allen: Jordan Small 2023.

Charles Olney: Alright, well that’s as good a place to end as anywhere. Thanks for chatting everyone.

Image courtesy of Lora Charles
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