The USWNT has roster problems of Jill Ellis' own making

U.S. women's national team head coach Jill Ellis (R) talks to Carli Lloyd (L) during the second half of an international friendly soccer match. (AP)
U.S. head coach Jill Ellis (R) talks to Carli Lloyd (L) during the second half of an international friendly soccer match. (AP)

When the World Cup roster for the U.S. women's national team is announced, which should happen later this week, there are bound to be some surprises on it. With a team as talented as the USWNT, there are positions with multiple contenders fighting for a roster spot, meaning someone who may deserve to be in France will be cut.

But some of the biggest roster surprises are more likely to come from the opposite problem: There is almost no depth and few surefire options.

It's not necessarily a lack of talent in the player pool that caused it, though. In some cases, it seems Jill Ellis and her coaching staff have backed themselves into serious roster conundrums of their own making.

The surest sign of this was a stunning development last month: After two years spent seemingly in national team exile, Ali Krieger, the USWNT's former starting right back, was called into the team. If it felt like that came out of nowhere, there's good reason: Krieger's last USWNT cap was in early 2017, and she herself had talked about being part of the national team in the past tense.

Krieger was called in because, to put it bluntly, the USWNT has no right back depth – and the reason the USWNT has no right back depth is, in part, because Ellis and the coaching staff failed to create any. That's not to say the pool for the fullback positions isn't thinner than other areas for the USWNT, but it's not as if there haven't been any options to develop either.

Arin Wright (Gilliland), one of the best right backs in the NWSL over the last two years, has no USWNT caps and was called in just once in 2016 before she was apparently written off. Megan Oyster, a very good utility defender who was perhaps the second-best option at right back in the NWSL last year, got two caps in 2017 and was never seen in a USWNT kit again. Ellis gave Taylor Smith repeated starts at right back until the coach abruptly soured on her, yanking her in the first half of a game and never calling her in again.

But even Krieger, who played almost every minute of the 2015 Women's World Cup, could've been getting call-ups all along. To have her swoop in at the last minute and play one game before finalizing a World Cup roster spot signals mismanagement of the depth at the position.

Now, the primary depth at the right back position consists of: Kelley O'Hara, who may or may not be fit to play due to an ongoing ankle issue; Emily Sonnett, who isn't really a right back and plays as a center back for her club; and Ali Krieger, who has been out of the national team for years (if she makes the cut).

United States' Ali Krieger (11) looks on during the second half of an international friendly soccer match. Krieger's inclusion in the 2019 USWNT World Cup roster is still up for grabs. (AP)
Ali Krieger's inclusion in the 2019 USWNT World Cup roster is still up in the air. (AP)

It's a similar story at left back.

Behind starter Crystal Dunn, the obvious next-best option is Casey Short, a natural left back who has been solid whenever she's stepped on the field for the USWNT. But, for whatever reason, Ellis and her coaching staff have seemingly ruled her out. She's made every roster of the last six months but has played zero minutes, all while Ellis has tried to shoehorn other players into the position.

There was the failed experiment with 20-year-old Emily Fox, who looked out of her depth and not yet ready for the international level of play. Tierna Davidson, the 20-year-old center back backup, has been asked to give left back a try too. But other options have been ignored.

Jaelene Hinkle, the NWSL's best left back, has essentially taken herself out of the running, but Caprice Dydasco, who has been arguably the next-best American left back in the NWSL, has never gotten a call-up (though she plays on both sides). Meghan Klingenberg, who played every minute of the 2015 World Cup, was unceremoniously cut from the team in 2017 — just like Krieger was, without a slate of clearly better options.

Now, the depth chart at left back begins with Dunn, the starter, and ends with Short, the backup that Ellis hasn't invested any time in. There's no other passable option.

This isn't a new problem, though. Perhaps the best example of a manufactured roster problem has been at the goalkeeper spot, and it started before the 2015 World Cup.

Hope Solo was the obvious No. 1 in goal and that was never going to change. She was the best goalkeeper in the world and everyone knew it. But when the USWNT played friendlies that didn't matter, well in advance of the World Cup, Ellis and the goalkeeper coaching staff never deviated from starting Solo over and over.

By the time Solo was kicked off the team in 2016 under bizarre circumstances, there was no obvious goalkeeper to step in. Alyssa Naeher had just seven caps at the time. Ashlyn Harris had just eight.

But Solo's abrupt exit meant that Ellis was forced into a quick and unyielding decision about what to do at goalkeeper without a clear-cut answer. She settled on Naeher, whose performances over the last year have raised questions about whether that was the right decision.

These roster problems of the coaching staff's own making have led to a less stable defensive unit. In four of the USWNT's last seven games, they've conceded multiple goals, and communications problems have looked like a big factor. Contrast that with the USWNT's impressive 540 minutes without conceding a goal at the 2015 Women's World Cup, which led the U.S. to win the trophy.

Roster decisions on any national team are tough. It's perhaps more art than science to whittle down a player pool to just 23 spots and try to extract the maximum depth out of that group. Injuries can quickly throw plans off course. But World Cup rosters aren't chosen in a vacuum — they are shaped by every roster decision along the way over four years.

Jill Ellis and her staff don't have very many good choices in certain spots, but there's no changing that now. The decisions that got them here have been made.

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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