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Opinion: Three up, Three down on the USWNT

Let’s be blunt here. The United States Women’s National Team is not the same team from the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Clearly, there are plenty of different players filling in roster spots. There is no more Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx or Lori Chalupny. All four players – who were on the World Cup winning roster – have since retired and moved on to greener pastures.

However, despite the losses of legends, there have been news players that have risen. Mallory Pugh and Rose Lavelle are two young, strong players that have attacked well in matches.

Despite their young ages, both are professionals – in more ways than one. Both now feature in the NWSL, the domestic women’s professional league in the United States.

Furthermore, other new players to the national team have excelled, including Crystal Dunn, Allie Long, Casey Short and Lindsey Horan.

Let’s not forget the leaders too. Becky Sauerbrunn won the respect of her teammates by seemingly leading the fight in the wage equality battle. The USWNT earned a new collective bargaining agreement in 2017, spearheaded by Sauerbrunn and other players’ efforts. Meanwhile, Carli Lloyd continues to lead on the pitch, with her demand for excellence.

However, excellence isn’t how the United States Women’s National Team can be classified lately. Again, this is the U.S. Women’s National Team, one of the most accredited and successful women’s football programs in the world.

In this column, I look at three positives, and three negatives from the USWNT in the 2017 calendar year. Let’s take a look at the negatives, first.

Three Down

1. No communication by the forwards

Two friendly matches were recently played against Sweden and Norway, over in Scandinavia. The results produced wins of 1-0, but the performances were lackluster at best.

In both matches, combined for a mere five shots on goal. Against Sweden, Dunn and Lloyd were paired up top, and could not find any connection. Against Norway, head coach Jill Ellis changed up the forward lineups, starting Christen Press and Dunn. The communication was better, but not as good as it could’ve been. Despite this, Press scored the lone goal of the match.

Ellis elected to not even play Sydney Leroux in the match, who returned to the national team for the first time since October 2015. However, a combination of Leroux and Lloyd, and possibly even Leroux and Pugh would have been effective. Leroux is an experienced player, and plays similarly to Pugh.

Also, the “Carli Lloyd forward” experiment taken by Ellis should be one-and-done.

2. The goalkeeper situation needs figured out

There an old saying that consistency is key. Ellis switching between goalkeepers constantly is, well, not all that consistent.

Ashlyn Harris is injured, so she was ruled out of the last two friendlies. However, during the SheBelieves Cup, Ellis switched between Harris and Alyssa Naeher. In the last two friendlies, Naeher got the easy start over Abby Smith, who received her first international call up.

First off, it’s never a positive to see a team switch between goalkeepers during a tournament. The SheBelieves Cup isn’t the biggest tournament in the world, but the goalkeeper switch can be credited for why the USWNT didn’t win. Losses to England and France put the USWNT in third place in the tournament.

The team has another tournament coming up, the Tournament of Nations. Again, this will include elite teams, including Brazil, Australia and Japan. Ellis needs to decide on who she wants in goal.

If you ask my opinion, Hope Solo needs to be back in net. But that’s another story for another article.

1. Kelley O’Hara is fine – but why as a defender?

Kelley O’Hara features for her club team, Sky Blue FC, as a forward/attacking midfielder. So why, on earth, would Ellis play her as a right back?

Ellis can’t give a good reason. She doesn’t want to play Ali Krieger? Krieger is a starting right back for the Orlando Pride in the NWSL. Even Jaelene Hinkle – who declined an invitation to the USWNT for their Norway and Sweden friendlies due to “personal reasons” – has improved with the North Carolina Courage.

O’Hara is successful with Sky Blue FC up top, but she lacks on defense for the USWNT. O’Hara can come back and assist on defense at times, but going a full 90 minutes as a defender isn’t really what Sky Blue FC want to see from their starting attacker.

It’s a similar situation that Fabian Johnson endured with the United States Men’s National Team under Jürgen Klinsmann. Klinsmann elected to play Johnson, a natural midfielder, as either a right back or left back. Meanwhile, for his club Borussia Mönchengladbach, Johnson features as a right back.

Haven’t we learned from Klinsmann’s mistakes?

Three Up

1. Lavelle, Pugh excelling as players of the future

Lavelle and Pugh have been beacons of hope for the U.S. Women’s National Team. Both players are young, and can only get better. Lavelle scored the USWNT’s lone goal in the win over Sweden, as well.

Pugh just became a professional in the NWSL as well, signing with the Washington Spirit. There, her development will be tested even further. Other professionals aren’t going to take it easy on Pugh, just because she’s 19 years old. Playing against her national team opponents, and other NWSL great players, can only make her into a fiercer competitor.

As for Lavelle, she’s brought the Boston Breakers back into the spotlight. After two dismal NWSL seasons, the Breakers are having a much better start to the 2017 season than predicted. There’s still plenty of season left for the Breakers, and more goals to be scored for Lavelle.

On the pitch, the two have become starters for not only their clubs, but also for their national teams. What more could you ask for the brightest young players in women’s football.

2. Allie Long is the defensive midfielder the USWNT has been waiting for

Ever since the retirement of Boxx and Holiday, the USWNT haven’t had a true defensive midfielder. Then, Allie Long came back into the radar of Ellis.

Long isn’t just tall, but she’s a perfect mixture of defensive and attack minded. She’s great on set pieces, with all of her five international goals coming from headers. In 27 caps, Long has provided stability at the defensive midfielder position, which is something the team needs.

A mixture of attack and defense. Just what Ellis likes.

3. Morgan Brian and Tobin Heath will be back soon

With a depleted midfield, Lloyd has had to feature as a striker, and Pugh has sometimes been pushed back as a midfielder. However, Morgan Brian and Tobin Heath should be returning to the pitch soon.

Heath’s timetable is much different from Brian’s, in the sense of there are a lot of question marks. Meanwhile, Brian should be back in action for the Houston Dash soon, and presumably should be available for selection for the Tournament of Nations.

Brian is young, but has quite the resume. She was the youngest on the FIFA 2015 World Cup roster, and now holds 66 caps to her name, including six goals. She isn’t the tallest, or the oldest, but her stability in the midfield is uncanny. Against Sweden and Norway, it was clear to see that the midfield was missing her.

The midfield looked rusty without Heath there as well. Heath has plenty more experience than Brian does – Heath has racked up 131 caps – but the two have much in common on the pitch. Heath has always played freely, with a calming presence amidst chaos. Her ball movements are spectacular, and she’ll be put to work once she returns.

There is no date for when either are expected to come back, but I presume that Brian will be back sooner than Heath. However, as long as Heath’s recovery isn’t delayed, she should be back by the Tournament of Nations.

 

Photo of the USWNT courtesy of Mitchell Leff/Getty Images.

Follow @RachaelMcKriger on Twitter for all USWNT coverage.

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Rachael McKriger
Sports Journalist
Rachael McKriger writes for Pittsburgh Sporting News, RSEN Report (Lead Editor), Pittsburgh Sports Castle and Politically Incorrect Sports Talk, in addition to being a copy editor at the Herald Standard newspaper. McKriger also has a freelance photography business called "McKriger Photography."
You can follow her on Twitter, @RachaelMcKriger, where you can find all of her articles. Search "McKriger Photography" on Facebook.
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