The United States women’s national team is overflowing with talent. As it heads to the 2019 Women’s World Cup, it is as deep as ever. There are bonafide stars at the top end of the roster. There are capable starters throughout the 23.
The offshoots of the ludicrous depth are what U.S. head coach Jill Ellis called “exceptional challenges,” but “good problems to have,” last summer. When presented with lineup decisions that would inevitably force her to leave elite players on the bench, she joked: “Damn, dude, I got some thinking to do.”
Another outcome of the talent overload, however, is one of the more intriguing aspects of this USWNT: Nobody can agree on who the team’s best player is.
There is no Messi. No Marta. No Mia. Instead, there’s a 2018 NWSL MVP; a 2018 U.S. Soccer female athlete of the year; a 2017 U.S. Soccer female athlete of the year; and a fourth player who finished above all three in voting for the 2018 Ballon d’Or.
A 1-23 ranking of the USWNT’s stars, therefore, scoffs at the concept of objectivity. But it’s a fascinating discussion topic. So, after soliciting a variety of opinions, using analytics and eye tests, considering performances for both the national team and clubs ... here’s what we came up with:
Tier 1: The stars
1. Lindsey Horan | Age: 24 | Caps: 66 | Position: Central midfielder
Horan’s 2018 was mind-boggling. It was, as Portland Thorns coach Mark Parsons recently told Yahoo Sports, “something no one’s ever seen before.” And while Parsons may be biased, numbers aren’t – and they tell a similar story. Horan was simultaneously the best attacking midfielder and best defensive midfielder in the NWSL. Which sounds impossible; should be impossible; was impossible, until Horan exploded into her prime at age 24.
The argument against the MVP being atop these rankings is that 2018 was a perfect storm. That Portland’s system accentuated her strengths; that opponents hadn’t yet learned to game plan for her excellence; and that her less impactful national team performances are a better reflection of her true quality.
But even when Horan isn’t the all-powerful force she is for the Thorns, she’s nonetheless influential. Even when her role cuts off half her toolbox, the available tools are still plentiful. “The tackling, the heading, the duels, the engine, the running, the passing, close control, the crossing, creating, shooting,” Parsons raves. “There is not a single midfielder that has the elite toolbox she has. And I cross my fingers that the U.S. will want to take full advantage of that in the World Cup. And if they do, we’re going to witness a midfielder that we haven’t seen in the women’s game ever – maybe since Michelle Akers.”
2. Alex Morgan | Age: 29 | Caps: 161 | Position: Striker
Morgan’s club/international imbalance is the inverse of Horan’s. She’s never made an NWSL Best XI. She’s only once been named player of the week. In her top-flight club career, her goal-per-game rate is a modest 0.36.
For the national team, though? Since August 2017, it’s more than double that – 0.76.
Morgan, however, cracks our top two because she’s become more than a goalscorer. She’s a target and a link as well. She can still do this:
But she can also do stuff like this:
3. Megan Rapinoe | Age: 33 | Caps: 151 | Position: Winger
Rapinoe’s rejuvenation has been nothing short of remarkable. She’s endured three ACL tears. The latest, in December 2015, appeared to have zapped her dynamism for good. But in 2017 she re-found her dazzling mid-20s form.
Rapinoe is a two-footed menace off the left wing, capable of coming inside and shooting, interchanging with midfielders, or getting to the byline and picking out a killer cross. Her dead-ball service is dangerous. Her vision from open play is unmatched on the U.S. roster. Her soccer brain is as developed as any. She’s not exactly a two-way player, but as long as she isn’t asked to be, no matter. She’s lethal in the final third.
4. Julie Ertz | Age: 27 | Caps: 79 | Position: Defensive midfielder
Ertz is a frenetic blend of a rugged, fearless center back and a reckless box-to-box midfielder. She used to be the former. Her move into the No. 6 position brought out the latter. She fancies herself to win every 50-50 ball – even when it’s really a 30-70. And more often than not, her self-belief is justified.
Ertz is also dominant in both penalty boxes on set pieces. Her U.S. goalscoring record – 18 in 79 matches – is ridiculously good given the positions she’s played. And she’s improved on the ball. The product of all those attributes is a player who often looks like the most influential of the 22 on the pitch.
But there’s a downside to the aggressiveness. Her lack of positional discipline – which is more difficult for the casual eye to spot live than the crunching tackles and towering headers – can leave the U.S. exposed to counterattacks. And it’s what keeps Ertz outside the top three.
5. Crystal Dunn | Age: 26 | Caps: 83 | Position: Everywhere
Dunn was the toughest player of the 23 to rank. Consider her as a left back, which is where she’ll play for the U.S. in France, and she’d live on the fringes of the top tier. But consider her versatility as a unique asset – pile her value as a fullback on top of her midfielder’s creativity and winger’s 1-on-1 ability – and she could crack the top three.
We’ve leaned in the direction of the latter, less because the positional flexibility is a coach’s treasure, more because Dunn is simply a wonderful all-around footballer. It takes a special skill set to star as a striker, winger, attacking midfielder, central midfielder, right back and left back, all in the span of a few years. Dunn has done just that. Arguments over where she should be playing for the USWNT will rage on. But this isn’t the place for them.
6. Becky Sauerbrunn | Age: 33 | Caps: 156 | Position: Center back
Sauerbrunn isn’t quite the near-flawless defensive rock she once was, in part because, in her 12th pro season, she isn’t quite the athlete she once was. But she’s still so intelligent, so calm, with such great timing and organizational expertise.
7. Tobin Heath | Age: 30 | Caps: 148 | Position: Winger
Whether she’s scoring back-heel goals, turning defenders inside-out, or slipping balls through their legs, Heath is the USWNT’s daring magician. Very few players in the history of the women’s game have made so many defenders look so foolish. Heath also has a feisty edge to her, one that makes her the national team’s (and the Thorns’) best defensive winger.
So what keeps Heath at No. 7 in these rankings? Despite the ability and eagerness to put defenders on the ground, her chance creation and conversion aren’t as prolific as, say, Rapinoe’s.
Tier 2: Stars on almost any other team
8. Christen Press | Age: 30 | Caps: 114 | Position: Winger/Striker
Not quite as good a striker as Morgan, not quite as good a winger as Rapinoe or Heath. Which is why more than half of her U.S. appearances – 58 of 114 – have come off the bench. But there’s absolutely no shame in being not quite as good as those three players. Press’ speed can change second halves.
9. Kelley O’Hara | Age: 30 | Caps: 116 | Position: Right back
Like Dunn, O’Hara is, above all else, a very good soccer player who coaches feel can play wherever they need her. For the national team in 2019, that need is right back, where the former forward is as commanding as ever when healthy. But concerns that she isn’t cost her a spot or two.
10. Mallory Pugh | Age: 21 | Caps: 51 | Position: Winger
Probably the purest winger in American soccer, Pugh is an exceptional talent. She earned 50 caps before her 21st birthday. That’s absurd. Unfortunately, she happens to play the USWNT’s strongest position, and therefore has a few more years to wait until the team’s attacking keys are hers.
11. Abby Dahlkemper | Age: 26 | Caps: 38 | Position: Center back
An NWSL defender of the year at age 24 and a two-time Best XI selection at 25. But she’s our highest-ranked player without major tournament experience – which explains, in part, why she isn’t higher.
12. Samantha Mewis | Age: 26 | Caps: 48 | Position: Central midfielder
There was a time not too long ago that Mewis would’ve been ahead of Horan on this list. The disparity now, though, is more about Horan’s ascent than anything Mewis has done wrong. She remains a superb two-way midfielder. The only reason she isn’t a starter? Rose Lavelle’s skill set complements the Horan-Ertz duo better.
13. Rose Lavelle | Age: 24 | Caps: 25 | Position: Attacking midfielder
Leaving Lavelle out of the top 10 could look criminal after a few weeks in France. She lends the U.S. midfield a dynamism and unpredictability it otherwise lacks. She finds space in between the lines. She’s very clean technically. She is, as Ellis said last summer, “different.”
Unfortunately, she’s only played three full 90s for the senior national team in between injuries. And she’s the third-youngest player on the roster. So she, like Dahlkemper, is somewhat unproven on the world stage.
14. Tierna Davidson | Age: 20 | Caps: 20 | Position: Center back/left back
Davidson is smart beyond her years and skilled as well. In a few seasons – and perhaps even in a few months – she could be considered the best center back in the U.S. player pool. But starting her at a World Cup with only a sliver of her first professional campaign under her belt would be an unnecessary risk – one Ellis doesn’t appear ready to take.
15. Carli Lloyd | Age: 36 | Caps: 272 | Position: Striker/Attacking midfielder
Lloyd would’ve been in the top three of a similar list four years ago. Now, with her legs no longer equipped for 90-minute midfield shifts, you could argue she belongs a tier below this. But her technical ability and goalscoring instincts are still largely operative. In other words, she is still pretty darn good at the one thing Ellis will ask her to do at her (likely) final World Cup.
Tier 3: Also very good!
16. Emily Sonnett | Age: 25 | Caps: 32 | Position: Right back/center back
Sonnett is a very solid, serviceable backup at right back or right center back.
17. Jessica McDonald | Age: 31 | Caps: 7 | Position: Striker
Why is Ellis taking seven forwards to France? Because McDonald – a relentless worker and aerial threat – was too good to leave at home.
18. Alyssa Naeher | Age: 31 | Caps: 44 | Position: Goalkeeper
Ranking goalkeepers among outfield players is impossible and, frankly, dumb. So, uh, sorry we’re doing it!
Anyway, Naeher is probably the best of the three keepers, even if her national team performances haven’t reinforced that idea.
19. Allie Long | Age: 31 | Caps: 42 | Position: Central midfielder
Smooth. Reliable. Unexceptional in a U.S. national team context, but could start for most other nations at the World Cup.
20. Ali Krieger | Age: 34 | Caps: 99 | Position: Right back
Ellis exhausted all her options to try to not take Krieger to France, then ultimately decided that, uh, hmm ... ya know, having a true fullback on a World Cup roster might be a good thing. But Krieger is the only one. Which is wild. It’s 2010 Argentina men-esque.
21. Adrianna Franch | Age: 28 | Caps: 1 | Position: Goalkeeper
22. Ashlyn Harris | Age: 33 | Caps: 21 | Position: Goalkeeper
See Naeher, Alyssa.
(And by the way, some will argue Franch should be ahead of Naeher in these rankings. We’re going to side with Ellis for now, but not with any conviction.)
23. Morgan Brian | Age: 26 | Caps: 82 | Position: Central midfielder
Brian hasn’t been all that good recently, and hasn’t played all that much due to injury. So we’re kind of in wait-and-see mode: If/when she does return to full health, is the ability that was so evident in 2015 still there?
But the fact that one of the most influential players at the 2015 World Cup – one who, four years later, is theoretically in her prime – comes in at No. 23 out of 23 tells you all you need to know about the quality up and down this roster.
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