The USWNT needs to win the SheBelieves Cup.
If they don’t win it, they at least need to come out of it answering more questions and putting more doubt to rest than they did during the 2017 version, or last summer’s Tournament of Nations.
The last year or so has not been kind to this team—this team who suffered losses to England and France. On home soil. This team who was beaten by Australia. Also on home soil. It’s as if a spider that had been soaked in some glowing green goop crawled to their hand and sung its fangs in deep. The DNA of this team has been transformed.
And yet, they still win, much as they always have. Sometimes convincingly, over teams like Denmark, who, don’t forget, were in the Euro final just last summer. Sometimes against Canada at home. They have both big-name standbys and players still a little wet behind the ears—players who can make magic happen in the space of a heartbeat.
But time isn’t on the USWNT’s side. France 2019 is next year. The minutes are ticking down, the pressure is ratcheting up, and it’s time the World Cup roster gets put together in theory.
Thankfully for those of us who engage in punditry, Jill Ellis isn’t hard to read. Like it or not, she makes nearly all her intentions loud and clear, if you know how to decode the writing on the wall. Taking a look at the 26 players heading to the pre-SheBelieves camp shows she is as consistent as she sometimes is maddening.
Becky Sauerbrunn, Sam Mewis, and Tobin Heath would be there if they were healthy, but rest will do each of them good.
Ellis called up Jane Campbell, Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher as her goalkeeping trio—the same group she has called up, more or less, since Hope Solo walked herself in to a suspension after the 2016 Olympics. Adrianna Franch is reportedly out of camp due to injury, but what would it matter if she were there? Ellis has settled on her number one in Naeher. The other goalkeepers are there for training, and in case the worst happens to Naeher. At this point they are more ornamental than functional.
As the focus turns to the defense, there is a pretty major difference in experience between Kelley O’Hara and everyone else. O’Hara has 105 caps. Every other defender called in has a combined 58 caps. Abby Dahlkemper, Tierna Davidson, Sofia Huerta, Casey Short, Taylor Smith, and Emily Sonnett join O’Hara as Ellis’s options in the back.
While it is a good time to see how the likes of Dahlkemper, Short, Smith, and Sonnett do against some of the top talent in the world, I can’t help but worry that Huerta has not adapted well enough to her new position to be a sound option as a starter or sub. Davidson was green in her 90 minutes against Denmark, but for a first attempt, we’ve seen much worse. Hailie Mace, who was in the 26-player camp, didn’t make the final roster, but just being in camp was likely good experience for her.
I expect Short to be used as a left back who can go to the center if needed—but then, she could also be deployed centrally alongside Dahlkemper. Without Sauerbrunn, a question arises about who to start at centerback. If Davidson plays—and I expect her to at least get some minutes after Ellis had her play 90 against Denmark—these matches will be the deepest of deep ends for the young defender to be thrown into. Sonnett is always an option, but Ellis has a history of calling the talented centerback in only to leave her on the bench or off the roster altogether. While Dahlkemper seems a likely lock, based on Ellis’ history, to start all three games, her partner in this tournament remains one of the few real questions when it comes to the defense.
Ellis has options in the midfield. Morgan Brian, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Carli Lloyd, Allie Long, and Andi Sullivan are all solid names for her to pull from. Rose Lavelle wasn’t included on the final roster, as she’s still rehabbing her hamstring injury.
With Brian not in camp, everyone else—all central midfielders, as the wide players are all listed as forwards—will have gotten a chance to work on their chemistry going into the games. Ertz has been nothing short of a revelation since she has been given the freedom the midfield offers. Horan has been coming in to her own more and more lately between Portland and the USWNT. Lloyd and Long are known entities who will give what they always do.
Say what you want about the rest of the USWNT, but when it comes to world-class forwards, the USWNT’s cup is running over. Having a group of forwards that includes Crystal Dunn, Savannah McCaskill, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Mallory Pugh, Megan Rapinoe, and Lynn Williams is like playing FIFA on easy mode. There are few, if any, wrong choices when it comes to who should be played and who should come in as a sub among this group. If anything, this is the place where the USWNT should feel the most comfortable going in. It might be possible to shut down Morgan or Press or Pugh or any one of them for a game—but shutting down two or more becomes a much harder task.
Over the next 18 months, the team is going to have to take several steps forward if they want to defend their 2015 World Cup win. Doing well at the She Believes Cup would go a long way toward getting their heads right before the NWSL season takes their attentions in other directions.
March 1: vs. Germany, 7 pm ET/4 pm PT (ESPN2)
March 4: vs. France, 12 pm ET/9 am PT (ESPN2)
March 7: vs. England, 7 pm ET/4 pm PT (ESPNews)