USWNT: Doing the same thing and expecting different results, World Cup Edition
Six months ago, when the U.S. Women’s National Team was drawn into the Group of Difficulty, I asked whether we already knew the squad that Jill Ellis was going to take to Canada. Now we know for certain that, give or take a Boxx, the answer was yes.
Today is the deadline to announce the 35-player provisional roster. The WNT, never one to do things by halves, opted to announce its final 23, instead, a month early. (No word on the 35, or even whether the WNT will name the full set of 12 other players to fill out that roster, given that Ellis has only called up 34 players in total.)
Unsurprisingly, the roster features a smaller number of World Cup debutants than in either 2011 or 2007.
“I feel like we’ve vetted the process well and I feel very comfortable with the players selected,” Ellis told media on a post-announcement conference call when asked about naming the roster now, rather than closer to the World Cup.
“For the month of April, just to put the players in a good place. And I actually called the players on Friday and Saturday to let them know. I wanted to have 23, so it just kind of made sense to do it right now before the NWSL season.”
It has long been clear that outside a very, very few spots, the roster was largely a foreordained conclusion, but this is still a touch on-the-nose. Only the USWNT could try to spin the effects of an absence of competition for places as a good thing.
And while it is not news that Ellis et al. have no interest in players not already in the WNT picture (NWSL performances be hanged), it bears repeating that this lack of interest is not merely short-sighted but a shocking waste of the talent – and sacrifice – of those who merit WNT consideration or selection, but won’t get it because they’re not already in the club.
Put aside questions about fairness, or the future, though. Even from a purely pragmatic standpoint, the decision largely to stick with the existing set of players raises questions about the roster from back to front:
Hope Solo is inarguably a top goalkeeper. But if she were injured or suspended, Ellis has inexplicably chosen to give her understudies (Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher) minimal exposure to the international crucible at senior level.
Center back Christie Rampone, nearly 40, is finally showing her age on the field and has been beset for months with different injuries (most recently an MCL sprain), such that she’s barely seen the field in that time. (Most recently, Rampone was only able to play in Sky Blue FC’s NWSL opener against FC Kansas City with a heavily wrapped knee, and could not go the full 90 even so.)
Yet her omission from the squad remains inconceivable. We are apparently to assume that she will be 100 percent fit, and up to the task, should she be called upon to play (or to start) in Canada.
Lori Chalupny has been chosen at left back, though she doesn’t play that position for the Chicago Red Stars, has not played that position at international level in more than five years, and has played poorly at that position in each of her several caps since returning to the WNT in December. Ellis has now made it official that she would still rather have Chalupny (and Kelley sometimes-gets-to-play-fullback O’Hara) over Crystal Dunn. Other than Chalupny’s long history with the WNT, though, it remains unclear why.
Shannon Boxx has been chosen for those limited situations in which even Ellis is willing to admit that the WNT will need a specialist defensive midfielder. Boxx is undoubtedly able, and vastly experienced. A single closed-door match against New Zealand aside, though, it remains unclear whether she is a full-game player in an international tournament setting.
Even if she is on the roster simply to help close out matches if necessary, one would think that Ellis might have preferred, or even just considered, players who can not only fill that role but also reliably go 90 minutes at a stretch. Evidently not.
Since Ellis came in, Heather O’Reilly has, for all intents and purposes, been left to rot on the WNT bench. Ellis seems not to want to use O’Reilly if she can help it – to the point of suggesting before the recent New Zealand friendly that the absence of Megan Rapinoe forced Ellis into the failed 4-2-2-2 experiment for lack of other wide players. At her best, O’Reilly has shown world-class ability, but does Ellis even rate her?
Even O’Hara, similarly disdained under Ellis, has gotten more opportunities. Yet whatever Ellis thinks of O’Reilly on the field, she is nonetheless again on the World Cup roster. Perhaps Ellis is willing to bring a player she doesn’t rate because she thinks that O’Reilly, given her experience, makes an important contribution to locker-room chemistry. Yet if we are at the point of selecting players on what they bring off the field, something somewhere has gone badly wrong.
And then there is Abby Wambach. Wambach, now 35, has been in marked decline against quality international opponents since the 2012 Olympics. Her solution – one that only she could make stick – was to abandon her erstwhile club team so that she can play fewer matches between now and the World Cup. Ellis has assured us that Wambach will be getting adequate training between now and the pre-World Cup training camp, but that’s still no substitute for regular minutes in actual matches. Wambach has a nailed-on roster spot.
Most of these players, to be sure, will not be starters in the opening match against Australia. But the World Cup is not won by a starting XI, or a “core group” of 13 or 14 players, but by the full squad of 23. The USWNT may yet win the World Cup in Canada. It may be that given where we are right now, in terms of international exposure, chemistry, and experience, Ellis has (mostly) chosen the 23 that will give us the best chance to win.
But the process by which she narrowed roster selection down and limited her options to reach this point? It was simply not conducted in a way to select the 23-player group that will maximize the United States’ chances.