Jill Elliss decision to cut veterans loose may be changing the culture of a team that has historically treated new blood cautiously
The scene on Thursday at Dicks Sporting Goods Park has becoming increasingly familiar for the US womens national team: they scored a bunch of goals, which was positive, except they had to score them because they had conceded so many of their own. In this case against Australia, it was three goals the Americans conceded en route to a 5-3 win, and it marked the fourth time in their last six games that the Americans had conceded multiple goals, a worrying pattern.
What a difference four years make. It was then that the US rode its defense all the way to a World Cup title, going 540 minutes in the tournament without conceding a goal. But that defensively sound US team was nowhere to be found in Colorado and neither are many of the players who made up that defensive unit.
The starting fullbacks four years ago Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg were phased out in 2017 after the Rio Olympics, along with backup center back Whitney Engen. Goalkeeper Hope Solos exit came first, as she had been unceremoniously kicked off the team and never invited back. With Julie Ertz moved up to central midfield and Christie Rampone retired, the only remaining defender from the 2015 World Cup is Becky Sauerbrunn and, with the US conceding so many goals lately, the question lingers: was coach Jill Ellis too eager to turn over her roster and cut veterans loose once the last cycle ended?
It would seem that maybe even Ellis had considered the possibility Krieger, after two years out of the national team picture, was surprisingly called into the current US camp due to an injury to right back Kelley OHara, which exposed a disconcerting lack of depth at the fullback position, such that centerback Emily Sonnett has been the No 2 right back.
What Ive always said is no door is closed, Ellis said this week. Coming out of Olympics, it was a time where I wanted to look for depth. The outside back position to start with hasnt been one with an overwhelming amount of depth, so I gave myself that time to look, to explore. Alis never been off the radar. Players that have played at that level are never off the radar but you look and explore.
Explaining the Krieger call-up, Ellis added: With Kelley not being here, sometimes the experience piece is something you have to take into consideration going into a massive event like this.
Krieger did not get on the field Thursday night. Instead it was Sonnett who started and was to blame for Australias first goal as she pinched in centrally like, well, a center back, and didnt shut down the space in front of Australias Lisa De Vanna.
The arguments for moving on from the likes of Krieger and the other 2015 veterans are clear. Krieger, for instance, is 34 and has lost a step in her speed, such that she has moved from right back to center back for her club, the Orlando Pride. The US teams current starting fullbacks, Crystal Dunn and OHara both converted attackers are also superior options for bombing up the flank and adding numbers in the attack, which the 2015 veterans simply cant do as well anymore.
But its a wonder that players like Krieger or Klingenberg, who still compete at a high level in the National Womens Soccer League, havent been getting call-ups all along, at least to offer some mentorship and leadership if not competition to the next generation of defenders.
Megan Rapinoe didnt mince words when asked about Kriegers return: I think shes been good enough to be here along but thats not my choice.
Shes very good, but the experience that she brings, even just mentoring other players and the understanding she brings for what it takes to be an elite defender is invaluable, Rapinoe added. You have to have that balance of young and old, and you have to let the younger kids learn for themselves, but if you can help them in any way, then its a loss not to. She deserves to be on the team, and I think she can valuable member of the team.
But the reality is that veterans like Krieger have quickly been phased out with seemingly no opportunity to fight to keep their job while young inexperienced players have walked into starting roles under Ellis.
Up until recently, head coaches for the US womens national team had limited power to turn over the player pool in any given year. Since 2005, a provision in the teams collective bargaining agreement specified that 20 or more players would be under contract as year-round employees while so-called floaters players trying to break into the team could only be called in a maximum of four times per year for a total of 42 days out of a year. Only eight floaters total could earn call-ups each year.
But Ellis has been free to do whatever she pleases with the roster since 2017, when a new CBA lifted all the restrictions on floaters. In contract negotiations, the players were supportive of expanding the player pool but lately, theres been lingering concern from some veterans that Ellis has taken that freedom too far, and youngsters have been thrown into the mix far too quickly.
For instance: Alex Morgan, who today is an undisputed starter and the backbone of the US attack, had to wait almost a year under then-coach Pia Sundhage between her first cap and her first start. It took another year until Morgan earned back-to-back starts, even though it was obvious early on that Morgan would be the future of the US attack.
Compare that to 20-year-old Emily Fox, whose first three caps under Ellis as left back were all starts and all rather shaky. Taylor Smith, another left back like Fox, also started in her first two appearances for the US but never played well enough to keep the spot. Meanwhile, a veteran like Klingenberg couldnt even battle them for the job that used to be hers, nor could she mentor them.
In Tierna Davidsons case, Ellis trial-by-fire approach has seemed to pay off at 19 years old, she walked into a starting job in 2018, with her first nine US caps all starts, and now she seems to be a virtual lock at center back for the World Cup roster. But notably, her consistency has grown more suspect as the World Cup inches closer and she struggled in last months SheBelieves Cup.
Cutting veterans loose and handing starting spots to young players may be changing the culture of a team that has historically treated new blood cautiously and forced youngsters to prove themselves before earning the embrace of the rest of the team. But the bigger concern is the more immediate one: its left the US team without some of the leadership and experience it clearly needs along the back line, and its costing them goals.
Theres little Ellis can do about the past two years of call-ups now, unless she wants to give Krieger minutes on Sunday or maybe even consider Krieger for the World Cup. But if OHara is healthy, that seems unlikely because there wont be any other open spots for Krieger. As Ellis put it: I havent blinked in terms of Kelley not being at the World Cup if shes healthy, shes a player we need.
Now, the US women have to ride out the experience they have on the back line, regardless of whether it includes World Cup appearances or not.
Experience helps but I also the players Ive been playing on the back line have now really gone through it, Sauerbrunn said. Theyve played in the SheBelieves Cup, theyve played in Tournament of Nations, theyve played in qualifiers, so theyve played in big games and they do have experience now.
Whether its enough experience or the right kind of experience will become apparent this June at the World Cup.
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