A few days ago I wrote a piece about which 23 players I’d put on a roster for a mythical tournament in December.
One of the results of doing so was spending a lot of time thinking about the size of the USWNT pool of players. Who was in? Who should be? Is it better to bring in more players even if the talent isn’t as high to find a possible diamond in the rough or should it remain, as it has often been, hard to get one call up to get and even harder to get a second?
The answer is somewhere between the extremes. The US needs a big enough pool of players for the coach to keep the talent pool fresh, but a wholesale turnover can produce too much instability. There has to be a middle ground between “one at a time” and “everyone at once” in terms of new talent on the team.
At a minimum, bringing in a handful, even a few handfuls, of new players for a January camp or in the “off” years where the USWNT isn’t fighting for a World Cup or an Olympic gold seems necessary. But there’s also value in making sure the core is strong and not too paranoid about imminent replacement. Getting the balance right is key to creating an environment that is stable enough for growth but dynamic enough to allow that growth to happen.
Constructing the player pool
But that doesn’t answer the question of who actually constitutes the extended pool of players.
There are really three ways to think about this. You can speak to the players who have been called up in the last year, but who aren’t part of the consistent core; you can talk about the players right on the edge, who might reasonably expect to make a camp soon; or you can go very broad, and talk about all possible players who are even plausibly available.
The last one is the least useful. It ranges all the way from players like Ella Maser (who calling a ‘long shot’ would be kind) to all the squads from the U23 through U15 teams. At the far edges, you’d have to include every American semi pro and pro player. It’s not so much a pool as a long beach. You can be on the sand that waves haven’t touched since the last flood, the high tide area, in the shallows or out deep. There’s not much value in drawing that broadly.
However, the first approach is too narrow. Identifying who have earned recent call ups is helpful to orient a player in the cosmos of the USWNT, but it hardly tells the whole story. A player who is fith or sixth on the depth chart for centerback, behind a load core, might not get any call ups, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be in the conversation.
So I mostly default to the second approach. Players who are reasonably likely to get called in, whethe or not they’ve actually made an appearance yet.
To try and draw this group, in order to write “Who Should Make a 23 Person USWNT Roster?” I started with this group of 84 players, which I then whittled down. It’s not quite the ‘every plausible player’ approach, but it’s a pretty generous list, so it’s a useful starting point for developing a reasonable assessment of the player pool.
I decided to work toward a pool with a set number. That’s not because I think there is a necessary cap at any number, but simply to impose some restraint on the project. This group of 80 players is really just a list of good players, who you could squint and maybe make a case for calling them up. It’s not a good picture of what the pool does (or should) look like.
30 felt too low, 60 too high. I decided to cut the difference and go with 45. Why 45? Because it feels like a manageable group size but it’s not small enough to drowned in a bathtub.
Dividing the pool: locks, in the mix, and depth players
So, if I were to list 45 players for a USWNT player pool, who would I list?
To be clear, the point of this exercise is not to define the pool as Ellis sees it. Only she and the peacocks know who she sees in the pool. My goal is to think more broadly, about who should be in the pool. To answer that question, I first created three sub-groups.
First, my “locks” – those players it’s impossible to leave off and be serious.
Second, the “depth” players who might not be locks but almost always end up on rosters or lists like this. It’s possible to leave them off but they are usually there.
And finally the “borderline” players. Those players you’d love to have on the roster, but who are never requirements. They’re good players, solid. Sometimes they’re young and hungry–not there yet, but could use a chance to grow. Sometimes they’re old vets, no longer at their peak but useful for stability. Sometimes it’s something else. The US is strong enough that this group is full of great players; they just aren’t quite good enough to regularly break through.
The locks were the easiest group to pick out for this roster. These are the work horses. The ones that show up regularly in everyone’s preferred starting XIs. The ones who you measure all new players by.
Alyssa Naeher is the best option the USWNT has in goal right now. She is the most capped goalkeeper in the program right now, which helps to see where they are building. USSF has never been much for spreading the wealth around in goal. They like running their goalkeepers out for 150 or so caps at a time before searching for the next 150+ capped goalkeeper. So while there are goalkeepers I’d like to see get some more time, to put Naeher under pressure if nothing else, right now if I had to pick a lock at goalkeeper, it’s Naeher.
When it comes to locks as defenders, things get a little murkier. In the end it was Becky Sauerbrunn, Casey Short and Kelley O’Hara. Sauerbrunn and O’Hara are the two most capped and experienced defenders in the bunch. I don’t see either of them being left out of a starting XI against a top 10 team in the next 2 or 3 years. Not unless a coach is trying to experiment to find the next Sauerbrunn or O’Hara.
What Sauerbrunn provides is a rare combination of security and dynamic play that can start off a scoring run. She’s the default option when it comes to passing the ball back under pressure, and her skill as a pure defender is well known. She doesn’t run forward much, but when she does she has the vision to put the ball on the head or foot of any attacker she chooses.
O’Hara meanwhile is the sort of player you need if you want to play the high attacking style the US has employed of late. She is fast, unrelenting in her defensive duties and willing to be whatever the coach needs her to be. Right back, left back, winger, forward. Outside of goalkeeper (which she might eventually cover if the keeper is ever sent off after all the subs had been used), O’Hara can play pretty much everywhere with the same sense of purpose she plays outside back. Without her the backline might have attacking presences but it lacks a tenacity of spirit that is hard to go without in key moments.
Of these three, Short is probably the least “locked in,” but she’s made a strong case for herself. And right now finding anyone apart from O’Hara getting starts on the left is a hard sell.
The midfield locks look different today than they would have 6 months ago. But if healthy, these four are vital to helping the US be a version of their best self.
My midfield locks are Julie Ertz, Megan Rapinoe, Sam Mewis, Tobin Heath.
The key here, as always, is when healthy. When healthy Rapinoe and Heath are two of the best wings in the world. When they aren’t they can be ineffective, sloppy and require the outside backs to do much of their work for them. But beautiful soccer happens when they’re at their peaks. Rapinoe is the most vulnerable of the four due to mainly age. Heath has been battling a back issue all year and after making a few appearances at the end of the NWSL season, once again was forced to sit out the Canada friendlies. But when healthy these two are both locks any day of the week.
Julie Ertz and Sam Mewis are the future of the American midfield. Big, strong, smart, and willing to do just about anything to put themselves and their team in a position to win. Ertz has played both midfield and defending roles on the USWNT and can play anywhere from the 10, to 8 or 6 for the team. Sam Mewis is a candidate for captain of the 2023 USWNT World Cup team and has seen incredible growth over the past two seasons. When both are on the field the US plays with a vision and a skill level that is hard to match.
The forwards should shock approximately no one. Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Mallory Pugh are among the best. Pugh is still growing, but the talent is already there, so I could find no reason to keep her from the locks at this point. She still isn’t the finished product yet, but she has that intangible quality that some players fight their whole careers to find, without ever managing it. And if you don’t know Press and Morgan then I worry about you. Most teams in the world would count themselves lucky to have one striker even close to this level. We have two.
The Depth Players
What is the difference between the “locks” and the “depth” players?
Well, if I leave Sauerbrunn off a roster, and instead bring in Dahlkemper and Menges, you’d raise an eyebrow (or maybe look at me like I have lost my mind). But a roster without Dahlkemper, with Sauerbrunn and Menges as the central defenders wouldn’t provoke the same response. Sure, you might have questions, but it’s not a total miscarriage of justice.
So, these are the players with very strong cases, but who aren’t (yet) locks.
Goalkeeping wise I think I am going to have the hardest time selling my picks. Adrianna Franch and Katelyn Rowland should be called up to the USWNT nearly every time there is a camp to call them up. Both helped their teams make it to the NWSL championship. Both are fantastic shot stoppers who have learned how to organize a defense filled with world class players. And both have often been overlooked because they don’t have the flash of some other goalkeepers.
I hope in 2018 we see both of them get consistent call ups. They have shown they have the tools to make the USWNT goalkeeping pool a little bit deeper.
And while we’re talking about pools that need to be deeper for the USWNT, let’s talk about defending.
Across the NWSL there are three defenders that stick out in the “really hard to ignore how good they are” camp: Abby Dahlkemper, Emily Menges, and Emily Sonnett.
Dahlkemper has become a regular in 2017, and is close to entering the “lock” stage, but there are still some questions to be answered there. While she has proven to be a worthy free and corner kick taker, maybe the best on the team since Lauren Holiday left, there’s still some gaps in her defensive playbook. Some of that is surely youth and can be fixed the more time she sees. Soon enough, she might be a lock. Sonnett has seen time with the USWNT while Menges has so far been shut out of the selection process. All three had strong NWSL season, Sonnett and Menges pairing up for the Thorns as a pair of formidable centerbacks that helped keep North Carolina from the championship crown.
Each of these should be in the pool to try to supplement a defensive core that has grown weaker over the last half of a cycle. Sauerbrunn, Short and O’Hara can’t do it on their own and won’t be around forever. Growing the next generation of locks now will save us pain later.
Even though center midfield in the current USWNT call ups has been a little thin, the US is blessed with a crop of 20 something center midfield geniuses.
The 5 pack of center midfielders of the future: Andi Sullivan, Danielle Colaprico, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Vanessa DiBernardo.
Each brings a level of vision, talent, and skill that the US has never really had in such high doses before. Imagine a future where the USWNT has an in-form and healthy Lavelle, Colaprico, Horan, Sullivan and DiBernardo, plus Ertz and Mewis, to pick from when composing a starting XI. That will be a bright day for those who believe that a strong midfield paired with a strong defense is key to winning companionships. Colaprico, DiBernardo and Ertz have shown in Chicago just how well they work together. Add in Mewis, Horan, Lavelle and Sullivan and that is a midfield core that few other countries could beat.
One difficulty here: all of these players are center midfielders. Only Lavelle has seen time for the US on the wing and that was more a matter of finding her a spot than a reflection of her natural position. The same with Colaprico, who played on the left for Chicago this year, but is really a central holding player. This is a consistent problem in the US pool, with lots of central players and almost no true wingers.
However, it may just be a matter of perspective, because the forward group certainly contains some width. Lynn Williams, in particular, has seen time for the USWNT as a wide forward in a 4-3-3. And while that’s not her ‘natural’ position, she’s been pretty successful in the role. Williams has all the tools to start the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France as the right wing if she can keep progressing the way she is.
The Borderline Players
‘Borderline’ isn’t an insult here. Having someone able to come in to fill in for another player is an underrated quality in a player and on a roster. These players are stuck behind some stars, but that doesn’t mean they’re not great themselves. The point of this group is to identify those players who might sit on the bench, or see 15 minutes at the end of a match, or who could play a full 90 in some cases. And you need a stable of good depth players, because reality is often less forgiving than hypotheticals. When your first and second choices are hurt, having a talented player ready to step in can be the difference between winning a tournament and going home early.
In terms of goalkeeping, the list is long. Ashlyn Harris, Michelle Betos, Abby Smith, Aubrey Bledsoe and Jane Campbell all have the skills to be a second or third choice goalkeeper. And at least historically, there’s been very little difference between second and fifth. Mary Harvey then Briana Scurry and then Hope Solo, with their supporting cast rarely seeing more than a game here and there. Each time a strong number one has risen the others in the pool have all taken, not the backseat, but the seat in the back of the car behind them.
Of this group, Harris and Campbell have received the most call ups, but neither have seen much playing time. Bledsoe showed herself to be a capable backup when Harris was hurt this season. Betos was one of the best in the league before heading to Europe. There’s plenty of other options here, but it would be nice to bring her in for a camp to see her progress. And Smith is similar to Campbell: a young and up and comer, worth keeping an eye on.
The defensive core has grown a little lightweight, and needs to be bolstered sooner rather than later. Looking at the NWSL gives us some clue as to who might be in the depth pool for the US. In my eyes, this group is composed of: Ali Krieger, Amber Brooks, Erica Skroski, Jaelene Hinkle, Katherine Reynolds, Katie Naughton and Taylor Smith.
Krieger may not have a spot in Ellis’s eye, but still has plenty of talent and could be a calming force for the team. But while she made a name for herself at outside back, it’s at center back where she’d be most useful now. She played nearly all of the season there for Orlando, and showed that it was a good fit for her now. She isn’t the speedster she once was at outside back but she is still fast for a centerback and has the soccer smarts to be able to help lock down a game late on the national team.
Brooks, Skroski, Hinkle, Reynolds, and Naughton all have shown their chops in the NWSL over the last season. Brooks moved into the role partway through the season for a weak Houston team, but took to the role very well. Skroski’s sophomore season wasn’t as dynamic as her rookie year, but a lot of that can be chalked up to minor injuries that nagged her all season. If she’s back to full health, she remains a useful option at outside back. Hinkle had a solid season in North Carolina with an attacking presence on the left to help spark the North Carolina offense. Reynolds and Naughton both deserve looks after solid seasons on playoff level teams. Naughton in particular really showed growth between last year and this year.
For depth in the midfield I went with Allie Long, Christina Gibbons, McCall Zerboni, Morgan Brian and Sofia Huerta.
Allie Long was given a shot to shine on the national team and never quite was able to show there what she had in Portland. With the strength of the other central midfield options I think we are likely to see less of Long both on the bench and on the field for the national team.
McCall Zerboni had a wonderful 2017 and she deserved the call up she got, warm body call or not. But the problem going forward for her is there are players nearly a decade younger with the same range of talents and ability. I wish things were different, but her peak likely has come a bit too late. If she has any role with the team, it’s likely to be a late sub in a game where the US needs to stay tough and hold a lead.
Who would have thought in 2015 anyone would be talking about Morgan Brian as a depth player? If it were just about talent, she’d still be up there as a lock, but at this point her injury history is a serious red flag. While I think she has a chance to recover with some extended time to recuperate, as of right now, it’s hard to see her in the XI or even on the 23. Every game she isn’t playing is another chance for a center midfielder to write their name above her’s on the list.
Sofia Huerta has seen some calls up as an outside back, but in the long term I don’t see that as a long term solution for either player or team. Christina Gibbons is also a possible defensive option, but her transition into the central midfield at FCKC has shown that the midfield is her best position. Still, when you’re talking about depth, having players like these with a lot of positional flexibility is never a bad idea.
The forward pool is one of the most interesting we have to talk about. I’ve gone with Ashley Hatch, Carli Lloyd, Crystal Dunn, Margaret Purce, Merritt Mathias and Shea Groom.
Dunn has sadly taken a step back after going to England in 2017. Maybe that’s a matter of different usage, maybe it’s simply a regression in form. For now, she’s a depth option, though we all know what she’s capable of. If the form returns, maybe the placement changes.
Carli Lloyd is simply not the player she once was. Nor is she the player that the USWNT needs now. When she comes on the field the formation has the bend to her to keep her from becoming a liability, and she just isn’t good enough anymore to justify those contortions. At this point the trend is moving in only one direction, as she slowly fades from starter to bench player.
Ashley Hatch Margaret Purce, Merritt Mathias and Shea Groom are a tale of two groups.
Hatch and Purce are both up and comers. They have bright futures if they can grow as players. Hatch could very well be a nice pairing in a 4-4-2. She worked well with Williams this year in North Carolina and might fill the type of roll Amy Rodriguez did for much of her national team career. Purce could be a nice wide player to bring out when the US needs a bit of a spark late in a game. She has a nice cross in and showed a resilience during her season with Boston.
Mathias and Groom are not rookies. But they do bring something that a lot of the players don’t on the current team. They have the type of hard-nosed play that befuddles opposing teams. That can be risky–they both have disciplinary records to match their styles–but it can be very effective when a team needs to go full out. Mathias and Groom also could, in theory, play wingback if needed.
The Final 45
It was much harder to find players to find players for some positions than it was for others. It shows where the US could do with some investment as they move toward 2019 and 2020.
So this invites the question. If you were coming up with your own 45, who would you add to my list and who would you take off?