Following the early ouster of the USWNT at the Olympics, Head Coach Jill Ellis made no secret of her desire to reshape not only the roster but the philosophy of the women’s national team. Gone are longtime players Heather O’Reilly, Whitney Engen, and Hope Solo – although Solo’s departure was expedited by her history of questionable decisions – and in are a bunch of new faces. Gone, for the last 4 games, is the traditional 4 back set that the US has played in for over 2 decades, as the team switched to a 3 back defense, either as an experiment or as a new formation for the future. Also gone is the importance of seniority in earning a roster spot, a long standing tradition on this team. This leaves the team with an influx of new players – from both college and the NWSL – a heightened sense of competition, and endless tactical possibilities.
In the past we’ve written about how the ongoing negotiations for a new Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) might shape the USWNT rosters of the future. For now, it is apparent that Ellis wants to take long looks at a lot more players in the next two years as the team prepares for the 2019 World Cup. For now, it seems, the switch to the 3-4-3/3-5-2 that the team has employed recently is more of an opportunity to change the attacking culture of the team, generate focus on combination play, and test out the versatility of some of her key players. What this might mean moving forward is yet to be determined, although if the US can play against better teams from a 3 back set it will be much more difficult for their future opponents to bunker in against them, which might make them unbeatable to all but the top 2-3 remaining teams. If the team decides to move on from the formation, then Ellis has gotten some more work for the players in her already crowded midfield and forward positions while getting some much needed experience for players like Casey Short at fullback. Moving forward this is where the team appears to stand.
Center back – Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Allie Long, Emily Sonnett. Sauerbrunn is still the best center back in the game and doesn’t appear to be losing much of a step if any. Although she was moved to the outside over the last few games it is difficult to see Ellis moving to a 3 back defensive alignment without the best center back in the world playing the sole center back position. The 3 back set appears ready made for Emily Sonnet’s skill set and Julie Johnston held up well in the last two games. Allie Long received most of the minutes in the center but her play was up and down, as to be expected from a career midfielder getting her first starts on defense. Ellis appears to have some strong options here moving forward, and as long as Sauerbrunn retains her superior form a good chance to be stellar.
Fullback – Kelley O’Hara, Casey Short, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Jaelene Hinkle. O’Hara remains an Ellis favorite, for good reason. Klingenberg has been hurt an unavailable during the last few months but as the best left back in the game it is difficult to see her not competing for minutes moving forward. Ali Krieger is still sublime but her age might be a factor since the team is still two and a half years away from the World Cup. Hinkle got a call up but was injured and Casey Short looked very good in her extended playing time this fall. What the depth chart looks like will almost certainly depend on the formation moving forward but the defense, already one of the best in the world, is now one of the deepest too.
Holding Midfielder Morgan Brian, Andi Sullivan, Brian has been pushed up into the #8 position with Carli Lloyd taking time off to get married Brian is still the best holding mid on this team but she is rea starting to show that she is among the best playmakers from central midfield as well. If Sullivan can continue to play well and the combination play from the team continues to improve then Brian might start to take away some of Carli Lloyd’s minutes at the #8 spot.
Central Midfielders Carli Lloyd, Lyndsey Horan, Samantha Mewis. Lloyd is still the leader of this team and their best scoring threat. Her game doesn’t currently look like a great fit for the team’s new direction but Lloyd is a fighter and is more than capable of changing if she thinks it best for the team. Horan has proven capable as a goal scorer in her first full season with the team but her passing still leaves a lot to be desired. After a promising start to 2016 she looks like she is going to be a backup player moving forward, albeit one that can absolutely contribute once she is in the game. Mewis looks like a natural #6 who is capable of playing the #8 as well. There is an asterisk next to her name because she has also gotten some minutes on the outside for the US recently. Mewis has excelled at scoring off of the bench and brings a physical presence to this team.
Wingers Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Kealia Ohai, Mallory Pugh. Heath has been the most consistent offensive player for the USWNT over the past year. Although she doesn’t score as much as she probably could, her ability to creatively attack in 1V1 situations and distribute the ball allows her teammates better scoring opportunities. She appears to be moving towards being a featured player for the next cycle. Megan Rapinoe is still not fully recovered from the injury she sustained last December. Her age and very visible stance regarding the National Anthem are going to make it difficult to regain her starting job. Rapinoe is still a good enough player to do that, however. Kealia Ohai had some very good moments this fall and looks like she could be a contributor moving forward. Mallory Pugh, despite sitting out the post-Olympic games, appears to be the future of this team for the next decade and her speed and 1V1 ability make her the heir apparent to Heather O’Reilly.
Forwards: Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, Lynne Williams, Christen Press, Jessica McDonald, Sydney LeRoux* Amy Rodriguez* Morgan is still the team’s best forward. She still does things that no other player is capable of doing and at 26 should still be in her prime come 2019. Crystal Dunn appears headed for a starring role as well and might just be the featured scorer that will free up Morgan to be the goal scorer that she naturally is, as opposed to the focal point of the opposing defense who creates scoring opportunities for her teammates by her mere presence. Christen Press is making as solid a case for herself as a person can for playing time. Press has been on fire as of late with both her goal scoring and her ability to set up her teammates. She has rebounded nicely after missing her penalty kick at the Olympics. Lynne Williams has also played well. She should be able to earn a full time roster spot based on what she has shown so far. Jessica McDonald looked good in her brief game action. She has a lot of players ahead of her though. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez have yet to announce their decision to return to the team, although both certainly will. How they fit in is yet to be determined. Both are excellent players but both will have missed over a year whenever they return to camp. Let’s not forget that, in a 3-4-3, center forward is Carli Lloyd’s best position either.