Does the NWSL matter enough to the USWNT's World Cup plans?

Yahoo Sports

Every single player that will represent the U.S. at the Women's World Cup this summer plies her trade in the National Women's Soccer League, and when coach Jill Ellis announced her roster Thursday for the tournament, she espoused the importance of the NWSL.

"The NWSL as a platform and environment is absolutely necessary for us to be able to compete for world championships," Ellis told reporters. "Every top team in the world has a league that's thriving, so I think that's critical.

"I can't say enough in terms of the importance of having a strong domestic league."

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And yet, despite that, the World Cup roster as constructed seems to give little credence to what happens in the NWSL in comparison to each player's international history. Many U.S. players are being asked to play different roles than they train for daily with their clubs. Other roster decisions seem to have nothing to do with club form.

It raises the question: how much does the NWSL really matter in national team decisions, and should it matter more?

One of the biggest roster snubs offers clear-cut reasons to wonder. Missing out on the 23-woman roster is Chicago Red Stars fullback Casey Short, who two weekends ago did an expert job closing down one of the world's best wingers and fellow American Tobin Heath. Short has been one of the most consistent fullbacks in the NWSL, but she failed to earn a World Cup spot.

What is more surprising, however — at least purely from an NWSL standpoint — is who earned spots over Short.

Crystal Dunn is a forward for the North Carolina Courage, but will be switching to defense for the USWNT. (Getty Images)
Crystal Dunn is a forward for the North Carolina Courage, but will be switching to defense for the USWNT. (Getty Images)

Crystal Dunn will be starting at left back, Short's usual spot for the U.S., despite the fact that Dunn doesn't play as a defender at all in the NWSL. Dunn is an attacking player for the North Carolina Courage, so much so that she currently leads the NWSL Golden Boot race with four goals and one assist in three games so far this season.

At the U.S. right back spot, it's the same thing. Emily Sonnett, who has been the No. 2 U.S. right back and has started while Kelley O'Hara has been injured, plays as a center back for the Portland Thorns, not as a right back. O'Hara, the presumed starter, has moved around the field in NWSL play over the years, switching from the back line to the attack.

But it's not as if O'Hara has played much this season anyway. She's coming off injury, and even though she's been playing limited minutes for her club, Ellis believes the national team can get the most out of her.

"We now have four or five weeks, so my anticipation is that Kelley will be back, productive and willing to help us whether it's starting or off the bench," Ellis said. "Once a player has shown me they're playing, I still think we have enough time to build the fitness in the next few weeks."

That raises the question of club form and how much it mattered in Ellis' decisions.

Central midfielder Morgan Brian has struggled with the Chicago Red Stars over the past two years, both due to injury and apparent confidence issues. When Brian went on loan to Olympique Lyon last year, she could barely crack into the lineup even when healthy and her loan ended early. Those issues with her form have spilled into the national team and Brian struggled at March's SheBelieves Cup, which apparently prompted Ellis not to call Brian in for April's friendlies vs. Australia and Belgium.

And yet Brian will be headed to France. It's not based on club form, which has been poor. Rather, it seems to be based primarily on her past experience with the U.S., particularly at the 2015 Women's World Cup.

"As much as you want to focus on here and now, you also know what someone is like," Ellis said. "Some players you don’t know until they're in that moment of the pressure cooker of a World Cup quarterfinal. Having been on that journey with Moe helped her and helped me in my decision."

If Ellis had made NWSL form a priority, there's no question McCall Zerboni would be on the roster instead. Zerboni has been an enforcer for the North Carolina Courage, the best team in the NWSL, and she's proven repeatedly she can lock down the central midfield. Zerboni fills an obvious need too as Ellis' World Cup roster has just one defensive-oriented central midfielder in Julie Ertz.

But Zerboni is the only player from last season's NWSL Best XI that won’t be at the Women's World Cup.

Club form also wasn't a factor for Ali Krieger, another surprise call-up. The right back spent two years seemingly written off by Ellis, but then in April — before the 2019 NWSL season had even started — Krieger was called back in. When Ellis selected Krieger to be on the World Cup roster, that may have been the right choice all along, but the timing was curious — Krieger hadn't played a minute of soccer since the NWSL season ended in September of last year.

Jessica McDonald is the rare example of a player who not only earned her spot on the World Cup team almost entirely through her club play, but will also be asked to do the same job as she does for her club. McDonald has been a lethal striker for the North Carolina Courage, notching 10 goals and a league-high eight assists last year.

"I remember sitting at the NWSL final last year and watching Jess," Ellis said. "She's a player that, when you look down the roster, she has the ability to change the game."

Orlando Pride forward Alex Morgan (13) during an NWSL soccer match against the Utah Royals on April 27, 2019, at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Getty Images)
Orlando Pride forward Alex Morgan (13) during an NWSL soccer match against the Utah Royals on April 27, 2019, at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando, FL. (Getty Images)

But the best American goal-scorer in the NWSL over the past two seasons isn't Jessica McDonald, and it's not even Alex Morgan. It's been North Carolina's Lynn Williams, who has scored 25 goals in her last 49 regular-season games – more than any other American player.

Williams' strike rate is indisputable, and yet her last cap with the national team came last year, and she hasn't been called in since. For whatever reason, Ellis has found that her other attackers are better fits, and Williams won't be in France.

But Morgan is perhaps the perfect counterpoint to argue against worrying about the NWSL too much.

If Ellis weighted NWSL play above anything else, it's unlikely Morgan would be a starter for the national team, and she might not even make the roster. Morgan didn't even crack the top eight for goals scored among Americans in the NWSL last year.

Yet, with the national team, Morgan is sensational. She has 101 goals in 160 international caps, and it's not just her goal-scoring that makes her so good – her hold-up play, off-the-ball movement and passing allows every player around her to be better.

In Morgan's case, part of the problem is that her team, the Orlando Pride, has been struggling. The club's coach was fired last year for failing to make the pieces work, and its new coach is going through growing pains as well. All it means is that Morgan was on a bad team – it doesn’t mean she's a bad player.

While the Pride may have made Morgan look bad, the opposite can happen – good teams can make players look better than they are. It's probably not a coincidence that Ellis called in defenders like Taylor Smith and Jaelene Hinkle while they were with the ultra-dominant North Carolina Courage, but then relatively quickly found they couldn't hack it at the international level.

And even when players are playing well in the same position for their clubs as they do for the national team, there's no guarantee that it directly translates. Across the NWSL, not every club plays the same system or uses certain positions in the same way. A fullback on the U.S. may have a whole different set of responsibilities than she does for her club.

But still, even knowing that NWSL performances can't be the end-all, be-all of U.S. roster construction, some of the selections for this summer's World Cup go directly against what the NWSL has shown us. In those cases, Ellis has cited international experience and off-the-field intangibles as being the driving factors.

"World Cups aren't moments to invest in players — World Cups are about winning," Ellis said. "So, experience is going to weigh heavily."

Ultimately, Ellis believes playing in a World Cup before matters more than doing well in the NWSL. This summer, we'll find out if she was right.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, “The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer,” is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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