Nearly six weeks before the deadline, but with a timing that reflects the lack of drama around the squad, United States Soccer and women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis have seen enough. On Tuesday, the federation gave a big “naaaaaaaaaaah, we’re good” to six more weeks of information and informally finalized this summer’s World Cup squad – the 23-woman crew that hopes to claim the team’s first world title since 2003.
The reveal was completely devoid of surprises, with the omissions of veteran defender Rachel van Hollebeke and young defender/midfielder Crystal Dunn the only decisions likely to spur meaningful debate. The rest of the inclusions – from household names like Abby Wambach, Hope Solo and Alex Morgan to team stalwarts like Carli Lloyd, Christie Rampone, and Becky Sauerbrunn – could have been written in ink three years ago. With the possible exception of 37-year-old midfielder Shannon Boxx, who has seen little time with the team since the returning from pregnancy, there are no doubts in Ellis’s squad.
The biggest talking point: Why now? FIFA regulations hold rosters have to be finalized 10 days before the World Cup kicks off on June 6. Rather than take in the first month of the National Women’s Soccer League season before deciding, Ellis is locking in her team now. Ellis is also shirking the chance to call in a large team next month, take a look at more than 23 options, and potentially optimize her team based on form. As is, nobody’s going to be able to play their way into or out of this squad.
This is a team that’s largely been intact over the last three years. With the exceptions of players like Christen Press, Morgan Brian, Meghan Klingenberg and potentially Julie Johnston, every current regular played at least a bit part in the last two major tournaments. Continuity is being valued over innovation, which often entails risk. With today’s announcement, U.S. Soccer has elected to ride its current core through at least one more tournament.
This can always change between now and May 26. Even after that, serious injuries can be swapped off the squad until the day before the tournament. For now, however, here’s the U.S.’s 23 for Canada, by position:
In: Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), Alyssa Naeher (Boston Breakers), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
Whys and wherefores: The farther we get from Hope Solo’s winter suspension, the more speculative it becomes to hypothesize a lingering, potentially debilitating problem. We just don’t know, and based on all the information we have, the U.S. is going into this tournament with the same plan as every competition since Solo (above) fell out with (and recovered from) then-head coach Greg Ryan at the 2007 World Cup.
As the team opens up play and becomes willing to swap goals, Solo’s superior athleticism becomes a potentially game-swinging virtue. She could be the best goalkeeper at the World Cup.
Depth chart: Solo, doesn’t matter, doesn’t matter (but probably Harris, then Naeher).
In: Lori Chalupny (Chicago Red Stars), Whitney Engen (Western NY Flash), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Houston Dash), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
Whys and wherefores: Ali Krieger had a huge scare this weekend when a clash of heads with Houston Dash (or not?) forward Jessica McDonald sent her face-first into the BBVA Compass field, briefly lying face-down, unconscious before eventually being carted off. While it appears as if Krieger will be fine, the incident was a reminder: One unfortunate moment over the next three weeks, and this roster if going to look premature.
A healthy Krieger would be one of the two givens along the back, the other being central defender Becky Sauerbrunn (above). If her knee holds up, captain Christie Rampone will likely assume a place to Sauerbrunn’s right, even if that means knocking the surging Julie Johnston down the depth chart.
The one other uncertainty, Klingenberg at left back, looks less iffy with every appearance. The Dash defender is nailing down her spot.
RB: Krieger, Klingenberg, maybe O’Hara
CB: Sauerbrunn, Rampone, Johnston, Engen
LB: Klingenberg, Chalupny, O’Hara (possibly O’Hara, Chalupny)
In: Shannon Boxx (Chicago Red Stars), Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)
Whys and wherefores: The center of what’s shaping up to be a four-woman midfield is becoming more certain by the moment. Despite fiddling with three-woman middles and Carli Lloyd in a wide position, Ellis looks likely to rely on a Lloyd-Lauren Holiday tandem, with Brian and Boxx making up the next line of the depth chart.
As for the wide positions, that’s less certain. Christen Press, listed as a forward, may be the player most likely to start at right midfield, with missing posters of the forgotten Heather O’Reilly set to be stapled on telephone poles from Nova Scotia to Victoria Island. On the opposite flank, Megan Rapinoe made an impressive return to health against New Zealand and gave fans reason to remember the 2012 Olympics semifinal, when an at-times dominant performance from the now-Seattle winger helped push the U.S. toward the gold medal.
RM: Press, Rapinoe, O’Reilly
CM: Lloyd, Holiday, Brian, Boxx
LM: Rapinoe, Heath, Lloyd
In: Sydney Leroux (Western NY Flash), Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Abby Wambach (unattached)
Whys and wherefores: As much as the three goalkeepers were assumed, these five forwards were givens. As noted, above, Press as a forward is a slight misnomer, though it is possible she could end up starting along with Alex Morgan (above) in Ellis and Tony Gustavsson’s two-front. Amy Rodriguez seems slightly more likely to fill that role right now, though depending on circumstances, rest and fitness, it wouldn’t be a total shock to see the 35-year-old-to-be Wambach get a start.
More abstractly, the starting XIs are shaping up to have Morgan up top with either Rodriguez or Press, with Wambach and Sydney Leroux poised to be a ridiculously intimidating duo coming off the bench. For all the hand-wringing from roster nitpickers (guilty), the forward corps is approaching Canada with a nice sense of balance and versatility. The acclaimed depth the U.S. had at the beginning of the cycle may actually pay off.
F: Morgan, Rodriguez, Press, Wambach, Leroux
Rachel van Hollebeke (above) was a valuable contributor both in central defense and at fullback during the last cycle, but once Julie Johnston started scoring goals (as she has, of late), the former Stanford standout was the clear odd woman out. Her exclusion may have been both the most difficult and most obvious choice.
Crystal Dunn is a slight surprise, as few would consider her an inferior player to Boxx, but given the state of the midfield depth chart, another defender probably needed to be sacrificed. Sure, you could argue somebody like Lori Chalupny (a natural midfielder, listed at defender) could give Ellis the cover Boxx provides, but Ellis and staff obviously see things differently. That would also assume the U.S. doesn’t also want depth that can cover a potential three-woman central midfield. Take the staff’s assumed side of those views, and cutting a central midfielder is no longer an option.
Dunn, 22, still looks like a key player for the 2019-2020 cycle, but Van Hollebeke’s future is less certain. At 29, she could have another cycle in her, but her playing time is unlikely to pick up until Christie Rampone retires, and although the captain turns 40 this summer, she could very well continue through the Rio Olympics. Even if van Hollebeke is open to returning, she’ll still be a clear fourth on the depth chart, waiting to be knocked off when the next Johnston reemerges.
Of course, there were a series of other implied snubs – the handful of proven players in various leagues who never got a sniff over of the last three years. At this point, though, that qualm is a footnote rather than a top line complaint. Yes, it’s a major problem, one the U.S. may rue this summer, but it’s also something that has been beaten, pressed, stretched and stomped into the ground. There’s been no progress. There are new angles. The staid nature of the squad is as given as the stars above the crest. Unfortunately.
With today’s announcement, the U.S. has ended any time it could have used to expand the player pool. Now, it’s time to focus on what this 23 can do.