The Future of the USWNT is in the NWSL: Offense

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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 examined the defense, while Part Two takes a look at offense.

Center Midfield

Of all the many, many takes offered after the USWNT’s early exit from the Rio Olympics, perhaps none were louder than those pointing out the issues in center midfield. Last year’s retirements left two gaping holes in the shapes of Shannon Boxx and Lauren Holiday. Jill Ellis never really tried to replace Boxx, a U.S. legend at defensive midfielder, who hadn’t been a factor for the U.S. since early 2013. Morgan Brian occupied the spot during the latter part of the 2015 World Cup and performed admirably, but since then Ellis has preferred her higher up the pitch. Holiday, although perhaps never used to her potential on the NT, was nevertheless a formidable presence in the midfield that has been sorely missed. Like fullback, the time is ripe for young center midfielders to enter the fray, and thankfully, the NWSL has plenty.

Leading the charge is Danielle Colaprico. Called to camp last year, the backbone of the Red Stars midfield was recovering from injury and did not see any playing time. Colaprico is possibly the best heir to Boxx’s crown—an intelligent defensive midfielder whose command of the field belies her diminutive size. She can drop back to defend on top of the centerbacks, restart the play, push into the attack, and make it look easy. Last year’s NWSL Rookie of the Year, Colaprico was a huge part of Chicago’s success in making it to the playoffs and is an equally large reason they remain in the mix this year.

The other key to Chicago’s strong midfield is Vanessa DiBernardo. Like her teammate, DiBernardo has been called up to senior camp but did not play. Strong in the attack, she has a keen eye for finding seams in which to send balls to catch her forwards at the perfect time on their runs into the box, and she has a rocket of a shot of her own at her disposal as well. As a member of the 2012 U-20 World Cup championship team, DiBernardo already has international experience.

Yet another member of that 2012 U-20 team, as well as part of the 2013 UCLA championship squad, Sarah Killion has been quietly working her way back toward another call-up. She’s been as instrumental in Sky Blue’s midfield as her teammate Raquel Rodriguez, while only receiving half the attention. Rather like Holiday, she can be a box-to-box midfielder, honing her defensive skills on one end while setting up plays on the other. Killion has excellent distribution and a calm presence on the field. She’s also taken three penalty kicks for Sky Blue this year, converting all of them.

Winger

Kealia Ohai has been on the fringes of the National Team since arriving in the NWSL in 2014. Often in the discussion but never on a roster, Ohai started off this season slowly, struggling to find the back of the net. Then, due to a diminished roster after Houston’s Olympians departed, Ohai moved to outside midfielder, and she hasn’t looked back. Tied with Rachel Daly for the team lead in both goals and assists, Ohai has been tearing up and down the flanks of any pitch she’s stepped on. Her speed and turns have bested every fullback she’s faced, including WNT veteran Ali Krieger, while both her crosses and diagonal runs into the box have led to goals. Ohai is playing with newfound confidence and leadership, and as a small, fast forward converted to winger, she should be right up Ellis’s alley.

Sam Witteman has been an intriguing player to watch on the Orlando Pride. The rookie, who played in seven different positions in 2015 for California, has continued her versatile play in the NWSL. No matter which line she plays on, it’s clear she belongs on the flank. Witteman has great service from the outside and plays with an intelligence that makes one forget it’s her first professional season. Going forward, she is certainly one to watch.

Forward

Apart from goalkeeper, forward is likely the hardest position to break into on the USWNT. Often the face of the team, from Mia Hamm to Alex Morgan, the team tends to carry a lot of depth at forward. That said, the years in between cycles are the best time for turnover, so now is the time for NWSL goalscorers to make their mark.

Shea Groom struggled initially this season as the lone forward atop FC Kansas City’s formation, but once Tiffany McCarty was inserted on the flank, the two found a chemistry that has pushed Groom to third in the league for goals. The scrappy striker brings a quality that is missing among the WNT’s star forwards—a willingness to sacrifice her entire body to push the ball over the goal line, regardless of what (or who) is in her way. Groom messes with defenses across the league, getting under their skin with her relentless pressure and tireless work ethic.

It would be hard to ignore any of the Western New York Flash’s high-scoring front line of Lynn Williams and Jess McDonald, helped out by Makenzy Doniak. Williams and McDonald lead the league in goals, and McDonald also leads in assists. The three have combined for 17 goals in 15 games, propelling the Flash to third place. The trio makes up the speediest front line in the league and can score seemingly at will from both the run of play and set pieces. It’s hard to imagine any of them staying under the NT radar.

Another forward worth a look is Bev Yanez of the Seattle Reign. Yanez brings a wealth of professional experience, culminating in a 10-goal season last year, earning her a place in the league’s best XI. A technically gifted player in the vein of Christen Press, she is underrated, with both a nose for goal and a playmaking ability that shouldn’t be overlooked.

As Jill Ellis continues to place her emphasis on offense, she is fortunate to have a vastly talented pool at her disposal in the NWSL. These players are just a few of those who’ve earned the chance to wear the crest for the U.S.