The Future of the USWNT is in the NWSL: Defense

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With the USWNT beginning a new cycle and the team in transition, it’s time for new blood. In this two-part series, I take a look at whose NWSL play has earned a call-up to National Team camp and the chance to make an impression on Jill Ellis. Part One examines the defense.

Goalkeeper

Few positions on a National Team can be as impenetrable as goalkeeper. A goalkeeper is a long-term investment, and once a #1 is established, she can hold that spot for years longer than field players. For the majority of its 31-year lifetime, the USWNT has had three main goalkeepers: Mary Harvey, Briana Scurry, and Hope Solo. Harvey came aboard in 1989 and led the team to victory in the 1991 World Cup. Scurry received her first cap at age 22, became the starting goalkeeper before the 1995 World Cup, and held the spot for a decade. Solo made her first appearance at age 18 and took the regular starting position in 2005. Her ambitions for her career after the Rio Olympics have been unclear; often ambiguous, her statements about the future have ranged from assertions that her best is yet to come to more vague words that imply the time has come. Regardless, it’s clear the U.S. will soon be grooming a new #1, and probably should already have started.

The current backups, Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, are both more than capable of holding the spot and performing well. However, as stated previously, the USWNT likes to find its goalkeepers young, allowing them to mature into the role and gain plenty of experience while doing such. With the record the U.S. has and the reputation both Scurry and Solo hold, it’s hard to argue with that. So which young NWSL goalkeepers could we see in U.S. colors soon?

Jane Campbell leads the discussion of probable Solo replacements, but the Stanford senior hasn’t played in the NWSL (yet). Abbie Smith is another talented college and Youth National Team goalkeeper who should be in the mix. Known for her booming goal kicks and punts, Smith was on her way to living up to her reputation as a top-notch keeper when she took over for Libby Stout on the Boston Breakers, but a knee injury in May took her out for the season. Assuming she regains her form, Smith should be on the USWNT watchlist.

The best option may well be Katelyn Rowland. A U-20 Women’s World Cup veteran like Harris, Naeher, and Smith before her, Rowland also starred at UCLA, setting NCAA shutout records and picking up two assists as well as leading the Bruins to the 2013 NCAA Championship. After a season and a half of serving as backup to Nicole Barnhart, longtime Solo backup herself and possibly the league’s best goalkeeper, Rowland made the bold move to leave FC Kansas City and assert herself as a #1, seeking a midseason trade to the Western New York Flash, where she soon secured the top spot. Rowland is an excellent shot stopper who rarely shows indecision off the line. As she earns more playing time at the professional level, Rowland should continue to grow and work her way into the National Team pool.

Centerback

The centerback position is fairly deep on the National Team currently. Becky Sauerbrunn is seemingly set to go another cycle with Julie Johnston at her side, while Whitney Engen is ready as backup and Emily Sonnett waits in the wings, not to mention Ali Krieger who spent a game and a half at the position this year for the team. It could be difficult for anyone to break into that group, but that’s not to say that the opportunity doesn’t exist.

Megan Oyster leads the pack. After a strong rookie season, Oyster started this year where she left off, helping propel Washington to the top of the table. However, after a dreadful game in Portland, Oyster has since struggled at times to regain her form, particularly when she was called upon to anchor the backline after the departure of her Rio-bound teammates. That said, her good performances far outweigh her mistakes, and Oyster has it in her to compete at the top.

Kassey Kallman is another option. After being a key part of the 2012 U-20 World Cup championship team, Kallman is on her third NWSL season, where she currently serves alongside Engen on Boston’s backline. The two are quietly one of the better centerback pairings in the league, where their record belies their solid work.

Another option may be Cari Roccaro. A youth NT standout and once considered a possible number one draft pick, Roccaro’s stock fell considerably when it was revealed she had been playing with two labral tears in her hips and would undergo surgery in the offseason, delaying her NWSL debut. However, her former Notre Dame head coach Randy Waldrum took a chance on her and brought her to the Houston Dash, where she completed rehab ahead of schedule and soon earned a starting position. Still not yet back to 100%, Roccaro is a disciplined player who is comfortable pushing up into the attack.

Finally, Abby Dahlkemper deserves a look. A former UCLA teammate of Rowland, the pair has reunited at Western New York, where Dahlkemper has stepped up. Most promising from Dahlkemper is that although her youth and relative inexperience occasionally show, she has shown definite improvement in her sophomore season. She also brings significant youth national team experience.

Fullback

Unlike central defense, the outside back pool for the USWNT is extremely shallow. Ali Krieger appears to have fallen from favor, while neither Kelley O’Hara nor Meghan Klingenberg had good tournaments in Rio. Jaelene Hinkle is the only young player to have seen any time at the spot recently, and although her National Team debut wasn’t stellar, her allocated status and tremendous season for the Flash may earn her a return appearance.

Lauren Barnes was invited to camp earlier this year but didn’t see any playing time. Barnes brings versatility to the role, as she can play both fullback and centerback. She hasn’t had a solid 2016 for the Seattle Reign, but who on the Reign this year has? If Barnes can regain her form, either central or outside, she could work her way back into the mix.

Finally, any discussion of outside backs would be remiss not to mention the best pairing in the league: the Chicago Red Stars’ Arin Gilliland and Casey Short. The two bring exactly what Ellis likes to see from her fullbacks – fast players, comfortable with the ball at their feet, who will push into the attack and don’t shy away from taking the shot themselves. However, both Short and Gilliland are also strong on the opposite side of the pitch, something Ellis’ current wingback system lacks. They’re skilled on 1v1 defense and demonstrate great awareness of when to drop back. It would be baffling to see January camp without at least one of the two on the list.

Although some old faces will be departing, the options are there for the USWNT to have a strong defense once again, which, as they undergo that rarity of a goalkeeper change, is absolutely necessary.

Up next: Part Two of the series, which will focus on offense.

2 thoughts on “The Future of the USWNT is in the NWSL: Defense

  1. Nice analysis. Fullback is definitely the most unsettled of the 3 defensive positions, but there are some interesting NWSL players who could step up.

    I wonder if, when the time comes for Solo to move on, Ellis will keep either of the two older keepers around or go for broke and look to bring in three young keepers immediately. The three you mention do seem like strong contenders, perhaps with the addition of AD Franch as a 4th option and a bit older player to round out a group of newbies competing for the top spot.

  2. Don’t be so quick to write off Ali Krieger. While Jill Ellis may have chosen Kelley O’Hara over her for the Olympics, one can hope that she sees the value of a OB who can actually play defense.

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