The Women's World Cup is now less than two months away and there are no chances left for players on the U.S. women's national team to prove they belong on the plane to France.
Coach Jill Ellis has to whittle her very talented roster down to 23 players, with a final roster announcement expected within less than three weeks.
Much of the roster has seemingly been set for a long time, but Ellis does have a handful of rather difficult decisions. Here is Yahoo Sports' predicted USWNT roster for this summer's tournament:
The guaranteed locks (19)
These 19 players are the ones who we know will be on the roster unless they are injured and unable to play in France. The question isn't whether they will be at the World Cup, it's how many minutes each will play.
Alyssa Naeher, Chicago Red Stars: She is the starter and there's nothing that will change that, unless she physically is unable to play. This might upset fans who think there are better options in the player pool – and it's certainly up for debate – but Ellis has been very clear that Naeher is the No. 1.
Ashlyn Harris, Orlando Pride: She's a perennial backup for this team – first under Hope Solo and now under Naeher. Harris has a decent amount of international experience and figures to be the No. 2.
Adrianna Franch, Portland Thorns: She's earned this spot by being arguably the best NWSL goalkeeper over the past two years, even better than both Naeher and Harris. But she has just one international cap and, based on how that went, she looks like the last resort in goal.
Becky Sauerbrunn, Utah Royals: A veteran leader and the anchor of the backline, there is no way Sauerbrunn will miss the trip to France. She will turn 34 right as the tournament begins, so this is likely her last hurrah.
Abby Dahlkemper, North Carolina Courage: She only broke into the team in the last two years but now she appears to be the likely starter next to Sauerbrunn. Dahlkemper has been excellent in NWSL play, and Ellis seems to particularly like her pinpoint accuracy on long balls from the back.
Tierna Davidson, Chicago Red Stars: The youngest player on the roster, Davidson broke into the team a year ago at just 19 years old, and she instantly became a go-to starter. But her youth and relative lack of experience makes her a more likely backup to either Sauerbrunn or Dahlkemper. The fact that Ellis has experimented with Davidson as a fullback only helps her case.
Crystal Dunn, North Carolina Courage: She has emerged as the starting option at left back but Ellis loves Dunn's versatility – Dunn has played over the last couple years in no less than five different positions for the USWNT on all three field lines. Dunn ought to be starting as a left back in France but anything is possible.
Kelley O'Hara, Utah Royals: The only reason O'Hara would be a question is if the ankle issues that kept her out of the USWNT's recent games persist or worsen. Earlier this month, Ellis described O'Hara's problems as an extension of her recovery from surgery in October rather than an injury. O'Hara has been dealing with pain that would likely be brushed aside in a World Cup, even if it's not ideal to have a starter playing through it. But unless she can't play, O'Hara will be on the roster.
Emily Sonnett, Portland Thorns: She may have played as a centerback for the last several years in Portland, but Sonnett is making this roster as a right back. She has been starting in lieu of the injured O'Hara, and there hasn't really been any other options (at least until recently – keep reading).
Julie Ertz, Chicago Red Stars: She nominally plays a defensive midfielder for the USWNT because the team's central midfield setup doesn't feature rigidly defined roles. But Ertz's physical presence and leadership make her a vital inclusion in the starting lineup, and she is the USWNT's best player in the air.
Lindsey Horan, Portland Thorns: She's a jack of all trades in the central midfield and she can impact the game in a variety of ways. Horan starting is a given as she is coming off an MVP-winning NWSL season last year and Ellis has consistently started her.
Rose Lavelle, Washington Spirit: As long as she's healthy, it appears Lavelle is a starter. Her passing vision and flair give the midfield the playmaking potential that Ellis wants out of the USWNT's ultra-attacking approach. She's coming back from injury, but even if Lavelle isn't 90-minutes fit, Ellis will probably still want her in the squad.
Samantha Mewis, North Carolina Courage: Up until a month ago, Mewis looked like a bubble player – she hadn't started a match in nearly a year and Ellis seemed to be looking for anyone else to try in the central midfield. But with starts against Brazil and Belgium recently, Mewis looks like she has secured a depth spot as a potential rotation player. She is good on both sides of the ball and a solid option to start, even if it's unlikely.
Tobin Heath, Portland Thorns: Heath is a game-changer and she will be starting on the right wing for the USWNT in France. She's so good and everyone knows it, so it doesn't really need explanation – but it's worth re-watching the highlight of her slick finish in the NWSL this weekend, which earned her NWSL Player Of The Week honors.
— Portland Thorns FC (@ThornsFC) April 14, 2019
Megan Rapinoe, Reign FC: In the same way that Heath is a game-changer, so is Rapinoe, and that's why she will start on the left. She's dynamic, unpredictable and (luckily for us) fun to watch. When the USWNT needed some magic in their opening game of the 2015 World Cup, Rapinoe delivered – and she is plenty capable of the same again.
Christen Press, Utah Royals: A center striker throughout her career, she has carved out a winger role on this team and figures to come off the bench. But she can also play up top centrally if needed, rendering her a valuable utility player with a track record of making an impact as a super sub.
Mallory Pugh, Washington Spirit: Ellis has been trying to find a starting spot for Pugh, even testing her in the central midfield during the SheBelieves Cup. But alas, the wing is where Pugh belongs and she will have to be an impact player as a substitute.
Alex Morgan, Orlando Pride: There is perhaps no player on the roster who is more of a guarantee than Morgan. She's the focal point of the attack and her attributes help dictate the way USWNT plays. She's an excellent striker and could play a huge role in France, as long as she's fit.
Carli Lloyd, Sky Blue FC: She will turn 37 right after the tournament ends and, as she approaches what is expected to be her final World Cup, her role has changed in two significant ways. First, Lloyd isn't a starter anymore and will likely come off the bench. Second, she is now a pure striker, unburdened of any defensive duties she had back when she played in the central midfield.
The under-the-wire final picks (4)
These are the players who are less certain to make the roster, but who we project will edge out the other options that have been in contention. These four are the bubble players who will take the final roster spots.
Casey Short, Chicago Red Stars: She hasn't played a single minute in 2019, even when she's been available and Ellis has been trying other experiments. It sure seems like Short doesn't figure prominently in Ellis' plans – but the problem is there are no other left backs on this roster. Short is the only good option behind Dunn, with Davidson as a possible third desperation option behind Short. Given the importance of attacking fullbacks in Ellis' system, the left-back spot is not a place to be thin.
Ali Krieger, Orlando Pride: It will be nothing short of a shock if Krieger makes the roster, despite Krieger's inclusion in this prediction. That's because up until a month ago, Krieger was so far off the radar, she was not even considered a remote possibility. For two years, Krieger was shut out of the USWNT, but Ellis seems pretty worried about O'Hara's ankle problems or otherwise Krieger would've never been called back in. Ellis had put all her proverbial eggs in the O'Hara-Sonnett basket and there's no time to find a new option, so the coach is sticking with what she knows in Krieger.
McCall Zerboni, North Carolina Courage: It seems unlikely she will play much, if at all, but Zerboni would give the USWNT a backup who can play a defensive, physical role to shut down opponents and close out games. The USWNT roster is full of attackers but few enforcers like Zerboni. She also brings leadership qualities and a work ethic that could be useful in training every day. That more defensive, grittier profile could be enough to see her edge out Allie Long, the other central midfielder in the hunt for a spot.
Jessica McDonald, North Carolina Courage: Yes, the USWNT does have plenty of other strikers. There's Morgan, the starter. Then there's Lloyd, who can come off the bench. And if needed, Press can be a backup as well. But consider a scenario where Morgan gets injured. Then maybe Press starts and the team loses an important backup winger. Or maybe Lloyd starts and you have to consider a player at her age going 90 minutes in back-to-back games. Those aren't good scenarios, and McDonald could be the most like-for-like swap with Morgan, which would mean minimal changes to the way the USWNT usually plays.
The bottom line
Competing in a World Cup isn't just about having a talented starting 11 – it's also about having depth that can adapt to any scenario. Ellis' task in selecting her roster is to find the maximum amount of depth in the 23 positions on the roster.
The numbers per position here represent our best guess – Ellis could easily bring one more central midfielder and cut a fullback like Krieger or Short. But fullbacks are just too important to the way the USWNT plays. The outside backs are not just defenders, but they also create a numerical advantage in the attack that Ellis has built her system around, such that she will probably not risk too few options there.
This roster, as predicted, also only has five central midfielders for three spots but it's worth noting that Ellis has prepared Dunn, Heath and Pugh for worst-case scenarios where they might have to slot into that role. Thus, the central-midfield depth is deeper than it looks and that's why an extra dedicated fullback may make more sense. There are as many options who can fill in a fullback role if needed – the USWNT has more non-midfielders who can play there than non-fullbacks can fill in.
In a couple weeks, we'll see what Ellis decides.
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