Will USWNT roll out next generation at France 19?
Background photo: Erik Drost, CC BY 2.0
The inaugural Women’s World Cup took place 61 years after the men’s. It took FIFA that long to realise they could make money from both genders.
Seven tournaments have been staged since 1991. One team stands out. The United States won three competitions, lost in a fourth final and made the semifinals in the remaining three.
Their success for more than two decades can be credited first and foremost to the players but, surprisingly, also to the system. While not perfect, everything that US Soccer has gotten wrong with the men’s team is counterweighted by all that it’s done right with the women’s.
In nearly eight cycles, the USWNT kept winning under eight managers, four men, four women. Professional leagues came and went stateside during their dominance. The top women players plied their trade at home, journeyed abroad when necessary and returned again.
The squad remains cohesive despite conflicts with the USSF over equal pay and FIFA over artificial surfaces at the 2015 tournament in Canada. Nor have they allowed political activism to distract from matters on the pitch. When Megan Rapinoe knelt for the national anthem in the wake of Colin Kaepernick, the Federation dealt with her protest in a respectful manner. She remains a leader on the team. Hope Solo failed to handle personal matters with dignity and discretion. She was disciplined, then phased out.
Look at the men's team and the opposite occurred. When Tim Howard questioned the patriotism and commitment of German-born players in the squad, creating a rift in the clubhouse, the USSF allowed it to play out in the press. No discipline was forthcoming and the man who stood up to him, Jermaine Jones, was the first to become surplus to requirements.
The USWNT leadership torch has passed from Mia Hamm and Brandi Chastain to Julie Foudy and Abby Wambach to Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe to Alex Morgan and Tobin Heath but the team has remained consistent. You can expect the next generation’s leaders to emerge when the tournament in France unfolds.
In at least one manner, a comparison between the United States women and the post-war Selecao sides is valid.
Those old Brazilian teams were a mystery to their European counterparts because they all played their club football on a different continent. Pele and Garrincha shocked UEFA players who knew nothing of the rough and tumble Campeonato Brasileiro.
The USWNT isn’t nearly so isolated, not with the freedom of movement that exists between countries today. Nor with the world at the fingertips of those who choose to stay home and surf YouTube, Twitter and Instagram for highlights.
That said, the American team is solely comprised of players from the NWSL whereas so many of their opponents compete against each other regularly in UEFA leagues. Not only can manager Jill Ellis field an XI filled with renowned, world-class players, she can keep a few surprises up her sleeve.
@AlexiLalas breaks down the ethos and culture of the U.S. women's national team on the State of the Union Podcast ⬇️🇺🇸 https://t.co/U66Eekbhey
Nearly half of her 23-woman squad will appear in their first World Cup at some point in the next month or so. If you’re wondering who the future leaders of this side might be, Lyndsey Horan, Sam Mewis and Tierna Davidson stand out. The trio is among the eleven going to their first World Cup.
Horan, 24, won the NWSL Player of the Year as the creative midfielder at the heart of Portland Thorns. Mewis, 26, plays for North Carolina Courage. A complete midfielder, her work on and off the ball projects her into an ideal partnership with Horan in the centre of the park for future tournaments. At 20, Davidson is already pushing for a starting role at centre-half. For now, Horan is pushed out wide by a [for once] healthy Rose Lavelle’s presence in the No.10 role with Mewes and Davidson both coming off the bench.
In France, Ellis will field an XI with Alex Morgan leading the line, flanked by Heath and Rapinoe. Christen Press will come on late to run tired defenders into the ground. Julie Ertz should be the third midfielder. Sauerbrunn will likely have Abby Dahlkemper alongside at centre-back unless Ellis decides to throw Davidson into the mix. Kelly O’Hara will play right-back with Crystal Dunn on the far side.
Dunn is a player to watch. A natural winger with ridiculous attacking skills, she can’t seem to escape being pencilled in at left-back. Her versatility allows the gaffer to use her like Bayern does David Alaba or Joshua Kimmich, sliding her into an attacking role late in matches while introducing Casey Short or switching O’Hara over to bring on Emily Sonnett. Those substitutions occur less frequently because the Americans are chasing the game than to eliminate Dunn’s sub-par defensive skills when they’re leading.
Ellis’ other real concern is in goal. Alyssa Naeher and back-up Ashlyn Harris can do a job but neither holds a candle to retired No.1 Hope Solo. Although she couldn’t dial down her intensity off the pitch, there’s no denying Solo was a world-class keeper whom the USSF hasn’t been able to replace.
When watching the USWNT in this World Cup, don’t be surprised to see opponents trying to get at them down the right attacking side, trying to overload and expose Crystal Dunn. If they fail, be even less shocked that the Yanks are celebrating on the winners’ podium for the fourth time.