US Women’s Soccer Landscape: Growing the Game
We’re baaaaaack, folks, and I am chomping at the bit for some soccer action. Honestly, off-season in the winter is the worst! No one wants to go out in the cold and there are no *women’s* sports to keep me company in my apartment. It’s just me insta-stalking all my favorite players hoping for some action and fuming over outrageous trades between club teams. But I digress. Things are finally picking up again and we’re getting glimpses of what we can expect from our girls during 2018, and I’m here to tell you: buckle up folks. This will be a huge year for Women’s Soccer.
The US Women’s National Team is gearing up for a grueling, competitive year on the international stage.
Over 130 teams across the globe will compete to represent their countries in the Women’s World Cup, hosted in nine cities across France next summer. Qualifying tournaments begin as early as April and as late as December, with the US competing in the CONCACAF—the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football, Women’s Gold Cup October 4-17.
Unlike the men’s team, the women have never failed to qualify for a spot in international competitions (aka I’m already planning for my month-long stay in France to cheer our ladies on, so hmu if you know French—I’ll need a tutor). Also unlike the men’s team, the Women’s National Team is the defending World Champion, so there’s mounting pressure for the players to perform to the highest standards and defend their title.
In addition to the CONCACAF Cup, there are two major tournaments in which the team is expected to play…mostly because they are hosted on US soil and not participating would be like pulling a Jay Gatsby: throwing ragers while silently watching from the window of your giant mansion. The SheBelieves Cup, the most elite Women’s tournament in the world, is a 6 game round-robin style tournament composed of the US, England, Germany, and France. It’s in its third installment and is played in three US cities between March 1-7 (yours truly will be on the front line at the game in New Jersey, natch). The Tournament of Nations, which follows a similar format and hosts Australia, Brazil, and Japan, debuted last summer on the West Coast and is expected to become a regular annual affair. So, yeah, big soccer year.
Internationally, the US didn’t really show up last year: they were served 3 losses and a tie for an overall record of 12-3-1. Now, folks, this isn’t a bad overall record, not even for the reigning World Champs, especially considering seven opponents were ranked among the top-10 in the world. What makes this record—and these losses—hard to swallow is that the WNT has never been defeated 3 times in a calendar year at home, and certainly never came in dead last in its own tournament (SheBelieves, more like SheChokes, amirite?). Some fans blame team chemistry, some blame inexperienced players being granted playing time over veterans, and some blame poor coaching tactics. Regardless, I’d say it all points to coaching performance; it’s no surprise that I’m not a fan of Jill Ellis, the National Team coach.
Some fans argue that Ellis’s constant switch-up of the starting XI pushes players toward improvement and creates depth on the bench, but others point out that stability in a player’s rank on the team lends a sense of trust in coaches and recognition of skill, ability, and dedication to the team. I can’t go out on a limb and state that not having a solid starting lineup the year of qualifiers is unprecedented, but it is strange to be tinkering with the team this close to games that deliver heavy consequences.
At this point, a lot of fans expected the team to have a set starting XI, but Ellis is still calling up new recruits and testing them on the pitch. We’ll have to see how they navigate this landscape over the next ten months, but I wouldn’t be surprised if we’ve got a different lineup every game during qualifiers and even into the World Cup. Suffice it to say, I’m ready for a coup.
Aaaaaanygay, our girls are going to shake that all off and get in gear.
Training is underway in Los Angeles for fifteen days, culminating in a friendly against Denmark on Sunday, January 21 (7:30 p.m. ET on ESPN). Jan Camp, as it has affectionately become known, is an annual US Soccer tradition where players come to test and strengthen their fitness and field skills under careful evaluation from coaches and trainers.
At the risk of sounding hypocritical, I, for one, hope Ellis switches up her starting goalkeeper and shifts her focus from Alyssa Naeher, who’s had a mild to lukewarm showing the past season, to Adrianna Franch. Franch had a record-setting season with her club team, the Portland Thorns, with 11 regular-season shutouts, and has a real chance to stand out with a top-ranked US team.
She’s young, too, so there’s opportunity to mold her into a star between now and the 2023 World Cup, if not long before with the 2019 cup and 2020 Olympics on the horizon. Ellis has been investing in a lot of her newest recruits, toying with formations and placing players in new positions (like switching forwards to defenders, to which I just say enough already, Jill), so it wouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility to extend a cap to Franch. My hope is that with another strong season with the Thorns and an impressive international game or two before qualifiers, she’ll be Ellis’s go-to keeper come October.
We also have co-captain and veteran center back Becky Sauerbrunn ruled out, leaving an open space in our back four. Ellis called up one of my favorite promising defensive players, Emily Sonnett (an alternate for the 2016 Olympics in Rio and starter for her American and Australian club teams), who has racked up plenty of minutes playing against aggressive, efficient international players on the world’s biggest stage. She’s also willing to join offensive play, a very important component of Ellis’s defensive plan, scoring four goals last season for Portland. She’s a clear choice to replace Sauerbrunn and potentially earn a starting spot for October and beyond.
Our midfield seemed pretty set before Sam Mewis was ruled out due to a knee injury, but Ellis has great stock from which to choose. Andi Sullivan, the 2017 Hermann trophy recipient, has seven appearances with the senior team and will almost definitely see playing time Sunday. We also have Julie Ertz, who had a breakout season last year after being switched to defensive mid and earned recognition as the 2017 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year. And Carli Lloyd, the most-capped player on the roster with 246 games played,
is 2 goals away from 100 career goals—she could become the sixth player in USWNT history to reach the iconic benchmark, so that might light a fire in her belly this game.
The roster is further saturated with forwards, but Ellis has been rotating them pretty consistently lately. I’d like to see more of a Christen Press/Alex Morgan combo up top, but Jill has been ignoring my fan mail and screening my calls, so who knows what she’ll decide. We’ve finally got Crystal Dunn back from Chelsea FC, so it will be fun to watch her tear up the pitch should she garner some playing time. Maybe we’ll luck out and have Press or Dunn paired with Lynn Williams or Mallory Pugh, resulting in some #blackgirlmagic up top.
Overall, Denmark will be a tough opponent–they are the UEFA runners-up, after all–but we have the depth and versatility of which many top-ranked teams could only dream. So, folks, get ready for a fun game that will give us a little glimpse into the future of the US Women’s National Team.
Tune in to ESPN at 7:30 pm (or join me at O’Keefe’s in Brooklyn Heights), don your best USA gear and help us grow the game.