Dure: Did Jill Ellis and U.S. women find the right mix with their Women’s World Cup roster?
The two extreme reactions to Tuesday’s announcement of the U.S. Women’s National Team roster for this summer’s World Cup were as follows:
1. “What a wonderful group of people! Isn’t it exciting to see stars like Abby Wambach, Christie Rampone, Hope Solo and Shannon Boxx?”
2. “We’re doomed. The team is old, there’s no defensive midfielder, there’s no left back, and no one got a chance to earn a spot. Avenge Crystal Dunn!”
I’m going to suggest a middle ground here. Yes, the player selection process looks as preordained as rush at the Omega house. But coach Jill Ellis, who jumped into the hottest of hot seats after Tom Sermanni’s controversial dismissal a year ago, has put together a team that just might harness the experience of the Old Guard while providing fresh legs for the grueling series of games on unforgiving Canadian turf.
Consider what Ellis has done in her year in charge:
1. Eased Wambach into a “supersub” role. Maybe Wambach’s bruised and aging body won’t make it through seven starts in Canada, but bringing the most dangerous scorer in the last 15 years of women’s soccer off the bench will make a few opponents uneasy.
2. Opened up a legitimate competition for Rampone’s starting spot at center back, thanks to the emergence of Julie Johnston, who has all of nine caps to Rampone’s 304. Ellis confirmed in a conference call Tuesday that Johnston is competing for that spot.
3. Gave Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher a chance to nail down backup goalkeeper spots.
4. Spread playing time so that 17 players have seen at least 180 minutes on the field in the team’s seven games this year. That doesn’t include Rampone and Megan Rapinoe, both working their way back into fitness. For all Ellis’ talk of a core of 13-14 players, she actually has 18-19 who have had significant roles this year.
5. Brought Lori Chalupny back in the fold and let her win a place on the roster.
Yet some of Ellis’ decisions have been baffling, and Chalupny’s placement is one. In a 2-0 loss to France, Chalupny looked out of sorts at left back while the central midfield pairing of Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian was overrun. Avenging that loss in the Algarve Cup with Holiday and Brian still in the middle was only partially reassuring — France was weakened by an ill-timed series of injuries. Why not give Chalupny a shot at her more natural role in central midfield?
(The good news on that front: With Rapinoe healthy and able to occupy one wing, Carli Lloyd can move back into the middle.)
And what happened to Dunn, the energetic youngster who can play left back and virtually any other position on the field? Dunn has had some injury issues, including an October knee injury that opened the door a bit for Johnston, but Ellis attributed her absence from the World Cup roster to a matter of preference, not health.
We don’t know what happens every day at training camp, and it’s always possible Dunn — and other prospects — just weren’t up to speed. But while Ellis hailed Johnston’s performance when thrown into the relative big time of the Algarve Cup, the coach gave Dunn only 12 minutes of playing time this year.
[player_box id=25471 leftright=right]And the Old Guard hasn’t gone anywhere. Of the 18 players who were on the 2012 Olympic roster, one (Heather Mitts) has retired, and three (Amy LePeilbet, Rachel (Buehler) Van Hollebeke, and goalkeeper Nicole Barnhart) have had injury problems. The other 14 made the World Cup roster. Only eight players are going to their first World Cup, even with rosters expanding from 21 to 23.
When Ellis replaced Sermanni, most of the roster experimentation ended. Sarah Hagen, Kristie Mewis and Erika Tymrak dropped out of consideration. A few others — Lindsey Horan, Amber Brooks, Leigh Ann Robinson and Yael Averbuch — haven’t been capped since 2013.
[player_box id=13257 leftright=right]The NWSL is supposed to expand the player pool. Beyond Johnston and the two backup goalkeepers, it’s hard to see any players who enhanced their bids for the national team in league play.
It’s even harder to see anyone else who got much of a shot at claiming a roster spot. U.S. Soccer counts 29 players who have played for Ellis during her year in charge. In the six games between World Cup qualifying and World Cup roster selection for the U.S. men in 2009-10, Bob Bradley fielded 42 players, and that didn’t include two who made the final roster.
Perhaps it’s unfair to make such comparisons, though. Ellis faces political realities that most international coaches do not. The U.S. men can sell out a home game against Mexico with whatever roster Jurgen Klinsmann cares to pick. The crowds that come out to see the U.S. women want to see familiar names.
Women’s soccer has a growing base of hard-core fans who don’t need to hear any more “Christie Rampone, soccer mom” stories and don’t want to hear how hard Wambach works when they see hard-working fan favorites every week in the NWSL. But the sport’s mainstream appeal is still driven by stars.
So give Ellis credit for finding suitable roles for the aging stars. Wambach’s role makes sense. So does Boxx’s role as a savvy player who can help kill off a game when the USA has a lead. Heather O’Reilly, who isn’t even particularly old (30), is a solid bench option. Rampone doesn’t have to play all seven games at center back. The other three-time World Cup players, Lloyd and Hope Solo, have yet to hit the downslopes of their careers.
Ellis also accounted for the strain of the tournament with depth at outside back. Her system, especially when Rapinoe is out and the team has no natural wingers, demands a lot of her outside backs, and Ellis will have plenty of options.
Maybe Ellis will end up regretting her limited look at the U.S. talent pool. Maybe the Old Guard will wilt this summer or lose to a more tactically advanced team like France. Or maybe Ellis will prove to be a mad genius who got the chemistry and the balance of experience and youth just right.