U.S. Women's National Team
U.S. Women Wrap: Saying Goodbye and Looking Ahead
December 17, 2015
WITH A 1-0 LOSS TO CHINA on Wednesday night in New Orleans, the United States women’s national team closed out its World Cup Victory Tour and bid adieu to all-time international goal-scoring leader Abby Wambach.
Wambach ended her illustrious career without a goal. On another level, the defeat—which ended a 104-game home unbeaten streak for the United States—represented a final changing of the guard and new opportunities for a host of youngsters looking to break into the squad.
Over the last two camps, head coach Jill Ellis has begun the process of retooling her team, bringing in a host of new faces as the four World Cup veterans, including Shannon Boxx, Lauren Holiday, Lori Chalupny, and now Wambach, retired one by one. Next month, the U.S. will start fresh as it begins final preparations for February’s Olympic qualifying tournament. As that process develops, Ellis faces two pressing questions:
- Who will make the 20-player qualifying roster?
- How will the post-Lauren Holiday midfield take shape?
Here is a breakdown of Ellis’ choices in the month ahead.
For Olympic qualifying, Ellis’ 20-player roster will include three goalkeepers, and seeing that Ellis hasn’t brought in anyone new at the position in the last few months, picking three net minders should be an easy decision.
Hope Solo remains the U.S.’s undisputed No. 1 and, barring an injury or major development in her ongoing legal situation, she will keep that position.
Backing up Solo in the 2015 World Cup and throughout the Victory Tour have been Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher. Harris proved herself a more than capable backup in two friendlies earlier this year against France and England, while Naeher did well against China on December 13 and made a solid save late in that match to preserve the shutout.
The interesting decision for Ellis will be what happens after qualifying. Bizarrely enough, while 20 players are allowed to be rostered for qualifying, only 18 players (with two goalkeepers) are allowed for the actual tournament in August.
It is very odd that Naeher got a game, but Harris didn't. I am interested to see if she can get minutes in Oly qualifiers.— Sarah (@DasGherkin) December 17, 2015
Harris seemed to be the established first-choice back up over the past year, but in the U.S.’s most recent trio of games, Naeher received the only minutes of the two—perhaps signaling a re-ordering of the depth chart.
Anchoring the backline, World Cup duo Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston are locks for qualifying, but who Ellis will choose as the team’s backup is anyone’s guess.
Whitney Engen would seem to be the natural choice and has repeatedly proven herself to be a top-class defender. However, Ellis hasn’t put Engen into any of the last five matches in a span that stretches back to September.
Instead, Ellis has given those minutes to University of Virginia standout Emily Sonnett. Brazil’s talented attack roundly torched the youngster back in October but Sonnett played mistake-free on Wednesday against China under limited pressure. Whether Ellis has given Sonnett the minutes because she simply wants to give the young defender a proper run out, or because she has lost faith in Engen remains to be seen.
Finally, Ellis will have to make a very difficult decision regarding captain Christie Rampone. The U.S. veteran will turn 41 years old this summer and missed this last set of friendlies with a bone bruise. Another such injury, back in March, is what opened the door for Julie Johnston to claim the starting role. Whether her body can hold up for another nine months, and whether or not she will remain one of Ellis’ top three choices at the position are big question marks.
This is one position with overflowing depth for the Americans. Not only can Ellis rely on World Cup standouts Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg to shut down the flanks, but she can also use Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn in a pinch.
Both O’Hara and Dunn have seen a fair amount of action in wide midfield roles of late and both are also capable defenders. In the 2012 Olympics O’Hara shut down her side of the field as a left back. In that same year, Dunn won a U-20 World Cup with the U.S. as a right back.
The player likely left out of the mix with a such a small roster for qualifying is newcomer Jaelene Hinkle. Hinkle is a natural lefty and has shown flashes of her ability in limited minutes during the Victory Tour. But at 22-years-old and with squad rotation unlikely, Hinkle will probably have to wait until the 2019 World Cup cycle to get a real shot.
In the middle of the pitch, Ellis will rely heavily on Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd to get the U.S. through qualifying and beyond. The big question is: Who will replace Holiday?
Lately Ellis has relied on Lindsey Horan. Ellis first pulled the former Paris Saint-Germain and U.S. U-20 forward into the midfield against Trinidad and Tobago last week and she has played the last three games at the position with mixed results. Horan excelled against Trinidad and Tobago, but then struggled against China on Sunday night. On Wednesday, against China for a second time, Horan put in a middle of the road performance. While uninvolved for long stretches, she also looked to nick the equalizer late in the match before being ruled offside.
That being said, Ellis faces two potential problems with making her strategy dependent on Horan and giving the youngster the bulk of the midfield minutes in these recent games. First, what happens if Horan is unable to get the job done against better competition? The coach hasn’t used these matches to vet her other options in Sam Mewis, Danielle Colaprico, or Rose Lavelle. The second potential problem is: What happens if either Horan, Brian, or Lloyd is injured?
Tobin Heath is one option and could slide into an attacking or defensive role in the middle. But the more likely option—and one Ellis tends to revert to when she doesn’t have her three first-choice midfielders available—is to drop Lloyd into a more defensive role and play a 4-4-2. However, this strategy has repeatedly proved ineffective in the past and sets the U.S. up for a slew of additional problems.
In a 4-4-2 against inferior opponents, both Lloyd and Brian tend to go forward, leaving the team vulnerable to counterattacks. Against quality sides, the two midfielders usually get pinned back, are unable to join the attack, and get dominated in the possession battle against teams using three central players.
With Megan Rapinoe out injured and unlikely to make it back for the Olympics, Tobin Heath has become the No. 1 option out wide. The team also has plenty of depth at the position with Kelley O’Hara, Crystal Dunn, Heather O’Reilly, and Stephanie McCaffrey all fighting for spots.
O’Hara and Dunn should be locks, especially considering their versatility to play in the backline and even up top. The real decision for Ellis will come down to bringing both O’Reilly and McCaffrey, or only one of the two.
If Ellis decides to bring a fourth center midfielder—which she should—Ellis would likely have to drop a wide midfielder. O’Reilly’s tenure with the team goes back over a decade, while McCaffrey has impressed in the U.S.’s recent matches displaying some fantastic 1 v. 1 ability on the flank. In the end, either can get the job done.
Up top, Ellis has no shortage of options with World Cup veterans Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez, and Sydney Leroux available. Ellis has preferred Morgan up top for the last six months in a single-striker set, while Press has provided a spark off the bench tallying four goals in the team’s last five matches.
Morgan struggled through much of 2014 and 2015 with injuries but showed a return to form in recent matches. However, she limped out of Wednesday’s contest after an apparent hamstring injury.
For her part, Press is coming off an uneven year. While she shined early in 2015 for the U.S. and throughout the entire NWSL campaign, she fell off with the Americans during the World Cup and has struggled to reassert herself in a starting role since then.
Rodriguez is another player who shined in the NWSL but has yet to be given a full run out by Ellis. Still, she is a veteran who seems to have accepted a role off the bench—a difficult trait for a coach like Ellis to find among so many talented players.
Finally, there is Leroux. The striker showed herself to be nearly unstoppable in late 2013 and early 2014 under former coach Tom Sermanni, but then hit a rough patch of form to finish up 2014. Leroux failed to regain her footing and saw her minutes dramatically decline in 2015. Then, after the World Cup, she underwent ankle surgery and has yet to make a return to action. Those factors could make Leroux expendable should Ellis elect to take a fourth center midfielder and still want to bring both O’Reilly and McCaffrey as wide midfielders.
The U.S. returns to action on January 23 against Ireland in its only primer prior to Olympic qualifying.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.