The Path to Madness and Heartbreak: Letting Go of 2015


The 2015 Women’s World Cup is one of the most exciting sporting events we’ve ever watched. It had drama, emotional release of all those years of waiting, and is still the most-watched soccer game for the US. It was the very best result the US could have hoped for.

Even now if the first few chords of Rihanna’s “American Oxygen” came on, the power of memory would transport many back to those Canadian fields where America broke a 16-year drought that felt like a lifetime of frustration.

And now it’s time we let it go.

As much as it was important and brought forth a new wave of excitement for the USWNT itself and for women’s soccer as a whole, we have to step away from the shadow it casts and move down the road. 

We see it all the time in the suggestions both fans and media make toward the roster. It’s in the small details people hold as fact that haven’t been true in two years. Things have shifted and it’s time we face the facts. The team of now is no longer the team of then, and trying to fix this team with those players only leads to madness and heartbreak.

Letting Go of Important Players

It’s never easy to say goodbye to the players who were key to big moments. No matter how much the program needs to grow past who they were and who they are now, there is always a bittersweet taste left in doing so.

The last two years have changed the very core of who this team is. They are no longer the outstanding defensive team that matched the record for minutes played without allowing a goal at the World Cup. They no longer have a goalkeeper and backline that are unyielding in the face of the world’s best attacking players.

They are above average in the world in terms of the defense but no longer sit at the very top. They have changed into a hyper-attacking style of defense that Ellis has used to start, and in some cases equally participate in, the attack in a way they did much less of in 2015. In this system, we’re going to see more attacking players converted rather than defensive players. It leads to the kind of high risk, high reward play that O’Hara and Short have shown us Ellis is comfortable with, even as the rest of us find ourselves squirming from play-to-play.

The game played in 2017 doesn’t put as much value on the “defend first, attack second” outside backs of years past. North Carolina, Sky Blue, Chicago all have defenders in the USWNT’s usual rotation of players, and all use an attacking style of outside back, either as a result of, or because Ellis is seeing how well it works and using those players in a similar way herself.

In talking about letting go of players, we have to talk about the two that seem to be the hardest to give up.

We have to talk about Ali Krieger and Hope Solo.

I’ve written about my thoughts on Krieger and her quest for 100 caps. She is as deserving as anyone to hit the milestone, but 2017 Krieger is no longer 2015 Krieger.  And 2017 Krieger isn’t a good enough outside back to make it into the Starting XI over O’Hara or Short or Smith. And when building a team for the future, Krieger isn’t who you pick over some of the players making their way onto this team. Screaming into the void about how Ali Krieger would solve this, that, and the other thing is just screaming for the honor of defending her honor at this point.

Krieger is likely to make the switch to centerback permanent going forward. As outside backs get older some are able to find a second life in central defense. Some get an extra few years making the swap and at club-level Krieger is surely good enough to keep playing as a centerback. Maybe even as an outside back.

But for the USWNT? She’s not better than O’Hara or Short in the system they want to play. She doesn’t have the speed to get back, cut players off and keep the fastest forwards at bay anymore. She can mentally make the runs but defenders, and outside backs even more so, slow down as they age. And Krieger isn’t immune to Father Time.

As sad as many find it, myself included, calling Krieger up and starting her at right back simply are no longer options going forward as the team prepares for France 2019. And neither is calling in Hope Solo.

As much as many of us long for the days when Solo seemed ten feet tall and bulletproof in goal, those days are gone. She has had two major shoulder surgeries and as far as we know from the second, she hasn’t been medically cleared to dive on her shoulder yet, much less fully train with any team. Goalkeepers do have a habit of being able to outlast field players but it’s time to accept that Alyssa Naeher is the new Number One. As much as Solo might tease on social media about a comeback to club, a comeback to country is a bridge she and USSF have both burned down.

Moving past Solo was going to happen sooner or later. She wasn’t going to wear the #1 for the US for more than another cycle, and that was if she was able to come back at all from her latest surgery. Add on top the issues she has with the federation and the issues the federation has with her, and as messy as the break up was, it was always going to happen sooner rather than later. 

At this point, we have to want them to move away from her. As much as Solo has given to the USWNT she has managed to dig herself into a hole with breathtaking efficiency.

To paraphrase a popular song, Solo and USSF are never, ever, ever getting back together.

Remembering Without Idealizing

It is possible to both remember fondly the team that won the 2015 World Cup and understand the current state of the USWNT. It is possible to understand that it won’t be helped by either bringing those same players back in or reverting to the style that won those games. As much as Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd aided in 2015 win, in the world of 2017 we can do better in those positions and we must in order to keep up with the rest of the world.

Carli Lloyd played 16 minutes of the most out-of-her-mind soccer that has ever been played. And it’s possible to remember how wonderful those three goals were without over-compensating for her as an overall player, and her in the current women’s soccer environment. She is not good enough to start for the USWNT anymore. And while that is a hard pill for some to take it is a face we’ve seen each time she isn’t in the XI for the USWNT. They play better without her reorienting the attacking formation around herself. 

Morgan Brian gets this treatment all the time. “She was an amazing attacking midfielder in college” someone cries into the void. And she was.

But she isn’t that player for the USWNT, and with her injury history, there is a chance she won’t be one of the 23 players on the roster for the 2019 Women’s World Cup. And that sucks, but it’s reality. And as much as soccer media and soccer fans like to think about all possibilities, we do have the ground ourselves in the possible. Without it, we’re just writing a novel that has as much to do with the world we live in today as any fantasy novel written by an able craftsperson would.

Maybe Brain gets healthy this offseason. Maybe she beats out Ertz, Mewis, and Horan and works her way back into the Starting XI for the USWNT. Maybe in 2019 she’s the best midfielder on the team and in the world. Wouldn’t that be great? It would be. But right now there are so many “what ifs” attached to it that it’s a murky future at best.

This trickles to players who will almost certainly be on the roster for 2019 and likely will still be starting. It isn’t reserved just for players hurt or past their prime.

Becky Sauerbrunn, the overworked captain, isn’t in 2017 what she was in 2015. Is she still the best centerback in the USWNT pool? Yes, I believe she is. But is she invincible? No. She has lost a little spark as of late which we can only hope she finds after some rest and time off. But fooling ourselves that she will be 2015 Sauerbrunn forever doesn’t change the basic facts. It just keeps our heads in the past and makes our pain more certain when things don’t work out that way.

Honoring the deeds done by players while still accepting who they are now has to become something we are okay with doing.

What Does Letting Go of 2015 Mean?

It’s hard to let go of 2015. Of the defense that was such a strong unit. Of the style of attacking that was so of its moment but ended up winning the day with one of the most magnificent performances we’ve ever seen. Of the players whose names we wear so proudly on our backs.

But moving on is needed to be able to understand the team as they are now. Comparing Naeher to Solo at every turn does nothing but lead to frustration. Comparing her to the players of now, Harris and Campbell, is going to at least keep us focused on the moment.

It’s okay to miss the players and the moments that are important to us. Going back and watching games is something we all do. It’s natural to want to feel a little tingle of that glory again. But wishing players back and pretending that we can’t see the writing on the wall does nothing but lead to anger and frustration, for everyone.

The team of 2017 has faults and flaws and needs improvement in areas that I’m not sure we’ll see in time to save their hopes for a fourth star in France. But wishing the 2015 team was in its place? Pretending like they can ride back in and save the day? That way madness lies. Madness and heartbreak. 

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