USWNT Stock Watch: Who looks ready to help win another World Cup, and who doesn't?

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 02: United States Tobin Heath (17) during the SheBelieves Cup match between The United States and England, March 2, 2019, at Nissan Stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Matthew Maxey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Tobin Heath was the United States' best attacker at the SheBelieves Cup, which bodes well for the World Cup. (Getty)

It was an up-and-down SheBelieves Cup for the U.S. women's national team, with the hosts finishing second to England and winning just one of their three matches. But let's face it: the SheBelieves Cup doesn't matter in the grand scheme of things. It's a tournament of glorified friendlies and, although winning it would've been nice, the results are only secondary.

Rather, the SheBelieves Cup offered important insight into which players can help the USWNT defend their World Cup title in France this summer and which players may miss out altogether. Every game the USWNT plays between now and June is about one thing: Who looks ready to help the U.S. win a World Cup?

To that end, here is a look at whose stock on the USWNT went up and who saw their chance of factoring into the World Cup team slip further away.

Trending up

▲ Samantha Mewis, midfielder, North Carolina Courage

Coming into the SheBelieves Cup, it appeared that USWNT manager Jill Ellis just simply didn't rate Mewis very highly. Mewis' last start had been in October, due to Ellis rotating her entire roster during World Cup qualifying, and her last start before that was in June.

Then, when box-to-box midfielder Lindsey Horan was injured before the SheBelieves Cup, it seemed that Mewis would've been the ideal like-for-like switch. Instead, Ellis surprised everyone by asking winger Mallory Pugh to fill in, further suggesting Mewis isn't in Ellis' plans. But after an injury to playmaker Rose Lavelle, Mewis finally got her start in the last game of the tournament, and she bossed the central midfield.

Mewis proved she could provide what the USWNT had been missing in its first two games, which was a ball-winning, physical presence that allowed the U.S. to control possession. Going forward she was potent too, using deft one-touch passes to open up the field and spark counterattacks. She had a couple dangerous chances she couldn't put on target, but she was undoubtedly a bright spot.

▲ Becky Sauerbrunn, defender, Utah Royals

The U.S. women are supposed to have a lot depth and, on paper, they do. With Sauerbrunn out for the first two games with minor knee inflammation, it seemed that Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson should be fine to take over the center back pairing – after all, both those players have been go-to starters under Ellis for the past 18 months.

But when the USWNT defense faced English and Japanese attacks designed to pull the Americans out of their shape, a Sauerbrunn-sized hole emerged along the back line. The USWNT wasn't just missing Sauerbrunn's positioning and ability to read plays – there was an obvious leadership vacuum that led to miscommunication and sloppy mistakes. When Sauerbrunn stepped in against Brazil, the U.S. back line looked better, and Sauerbrunn's vocal style of directing play was clearly a factor.

The current USWNT back line is not the same one that went 540 minutes without conceding a goal in the 2015 World Cup – only Sauerbrunn remains from that group. And it's hard to see remotely the same level of success at the 2019 World Cup without her.

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 02:  Becky Sauerbrunn #4 of the USA plays against Jodie Taylor #9 of England the 2019 SheBelieves Cup match between USA and England at Nissan Stadium on March 2, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Becky Sauerbrunn affected more than just her own stock at the SheBelieves Cup. (Getty)

▲ Tobin Heath, forward/midfielder, Portland Thorns

Sometimes it's hard to decide who the USWNT's best attacking player is because the attack is so good. Is it Megan Rapinoe, who scored twice in the SheBelieves Cup and managed to change games all on her own? Is Alex Morgan, whose off-the-ball movement, hold-up play and passing were exceptional, in addition to the goal she scored? Or could it be Christen Press, who off the bench was so effective that Ellis admitted she may be forcing coaches to rethink their starting lineups?

Over the last three games, it was Heath. She scored twice, including an emphatic game-winner against Brazil, and she continually created danger with her ability to bypass back lines through skill and creativity. Heath can drag defenders, open up channels and finish well.

But more than that, Heath proved her versatility and why she sits firmly in Ellis' plans. When Ellis wanted to tinker, she turned to Heath, asking the winger to play in the central midfield and take on extra defensive duties. It certainly isn't ideal to have Heath playing anywhere other than the right wing but, to Heath's credit, she performed admirably. On a 23-woman roster, Heath's expansive skill set makes her virtually irreplaceable.

Trending down

▼ Casey Short, defender, Chicago Red Stars

▼ Jessica McDonald, forward, North Carolina Courage

How can a defender and a striker be part of the same "stock down" entry? It's because Short and McDonald are here for the same reason: They didn't get the time on the field to prove they can push for a role in France this summer, even though both could contribute more for the USWNT than they have lately.

In Short's case, she got exactly zero minutes on the field during the SheBelieves Cup. It's frankly surprising – Ellis has been willing to try out the USWNT's starting left back, Crystal Dunn, in other roles, but despite Short being the obvious second-best choice, she’s never slotted in. Instead, Ellis has given the inexperienced Emily Fox and Dahlkemper those minutes lately. If Dunn were to get injured or otherwise be unavailable, it seems Short ought to be the backup. But right now, based on Ellis' squad selections, it's impossible to be sure.

McDonald did see the field during the SheBelieves Cup, but only for a grand total of three minutes plus stoppage time. Look, no one is taking Alex Morgan's spot on the field anytime soon. Carli Lloyd and Christen Press are very capable backup options, if Ellis wants to use them as strikers behind Morgan. But McDonald could solidify herself as a backup too – in January she looked solid against Spain and her play in the National Women’s Soccer League has been excellent. Like Short, however, she didn't get the chance to improve her stock and, by default, it looks like her chances of changing the depth chart have gotten worse.

▼ Abby Dahlkemper, defender, North Carolina Courage

▼ Tierna Davidson, defender, Chicago Red Stars

It's another twofer because it's another pair of players in the same boat. Dahlkemper and Davidson have proven themselves to be plenty capable in the past. In fact, it was at the 2018 SheBelieves Cup one year ago that a Dahlkemper-Davidson tandem helped the U.S. win the tournament because Sauerbrunn was injured.

But in this go-around, the Americans didn't have an ideal central midfield to prevent oncoming attacks, and with Sauerbrunn again injured, the pairing struggled to stay structured and communicate with the players around them. Some of the blame belongs squarely on the soft midfield created by Ellis' tinkering, but when put under pressure, the center backs failed to step up and keep control of the situation.

Coming into the SheBelieves Cup, it looked like Dahlkemper and Davidson were duking it out for the right to play alongside Sauerbrunn at the World Cup. That hasn't changed and neither of them asserted herself as the top choice.

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 02:  Goaltender Adrianna Franch #21 of the USA kicks the ball during the second half of the 2019 SheBelieves Cup match between USA and England at Nissan Stadium on March 2, 2019 in Nashville, Tennessee. The U.S. Women's National Team are wearing the names of iconic and influential women on the back of their jerseys (Brianna Scurry). (Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images)
Adrianna Franch will likely make the World Cup roster, but playing time in France is a much hazier proposition. (Getty)

▼ Adrianna Franch, goalkeeper, Portland Thorns

There was very little that Franch could do to change her standing for USWNT at the SheBelieves Cup. That fact is, Ellis has been perfectly clear: Alyssa Naeher is the USWNT's No. 1 goalkeeper and that will remain the case heading to France. If Naeher hadn't gotten a minor shoulder injury, she would have played every minute of the SheBelieves Cup.

Once Franch did get her first cap against England, anything short of a show-stopping, stand-on-her-head type game was not going to help Franch. Unfortunately for the NWSL's best goalkeeper over the past two seasons, her first cap fell well short. There was a weird miscommunication, which again points to problems in the central midfield and along the back line, but it was ultimately Franch's mistake to own. That error aside, Franch couldn't do enough to shake up the depth chart, and it may have been impossible anyway.

Despite her excellent form in the NWSL, Franch has been the USWNT's third-string goalkeeper and that's where she'll stay for now.

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