HARRISON, N.J. — As the Olympics draw nearer, so does the time when U.S. women’s soccer team coach Vlatko Andonovski must make the tough decisions to pick an 18-player squad.
There will be especially hard choices on the forward line. Not only must he pick how many to take, he must factor in Alex Morgan’s pregnancy absence. She is due in April, and would have just enough time to try to make it back.
It helps that Carli Lloyd, Christen Press and Lynn Williams are all scoring goals. Lloyd has two in five games this year, Press has six in seven games, and Williams — who didn’t make last year’s World Cup team — has three goals in six games.
Lloyd and Williams started and Press came off the bench in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Spain in the SheBelieves Cup at sold-out Red Bull Arena. It was an enthralling contest despite the low score, a much better soccer game than the foul-fest in last year’s World Cup round of 16.
The scoreboard was a measuring stick for the forwards, but so was this: When Press and Tobin Heath entered in the 67th minute, Lloyd exited and Williams moved from the right flank to the center. Jessica McDonald, a reserve who’s likely not going to Tokyo, didn’t enter until the 90th minute when she replaced Williams.
Wiliams pressed and harried as best she could, and of course Lloyd gave her usual all-out effort. But Spain’s defense was rock-solid, combining physicality with terrific possession skills. The visitors did not yield until the 87th, when Press served a free kick from the left wing that Julie Ertz finished with a leaping header.
That 20-plus minute span when the front line was Press-Williams-Heath was a definite opportunity for Williams to make a mark. Though she didn’t score, Andonovski liked what he saw.
“I thought that was a little bit of our DNA and who we are, stepping up aggressively and putting teams under pressure,” he said.
Lloyd and Press are locks to make the Olympic team, as are true wingers Megan Rapinoe and Heath. But Williams’ situation is complicated, because Morgan’s situation is complicated — and no one can know how it will play out.
Nor can we guess whether Andonovski will take five or six forwards, because as he admitted the day before the game, he doesn’t know yet. But there is a competition of some kind going on.
“Everybody is competing, and everybody is competing every day, and I love the fact that nobody feels locked on this roster,” he said. “It’s a competition and they embrace it, they embrace the challenge, they love it, and that’s what helps them get better.”
Not surprisingly, Lloyd is one of the embracers.
“If you look at it as not a competition, there's something wrong," she said. "We're here to compete and get the job done, and we have unbelievable forwards that can come in and do an unbelievable job.”
It helps that Press and Williams can play multiple positions, especially because the Olympic schedule makes those small squads play six games in 17 days.
Press has been stellar on the left wing lately. She was a striker for a long time, and if she continues to be this good on the flank, it becomes easy to rotate her and Rapinoe on that side.
“A lot of the responsibilities of the No. 9 [striker] on this team aren't perfectly suited for who I am as a player,” Press said “So I think I get more reps in wide spaces, because that is where, the way that we are tactically playing, that suits me better.”
Andonovski confirmed that by describing Press as “a great forward, and when I say that I mean she’s a great forward as a wide player but also as a center-forward.”
Williams has been getting some minutes on the right side, deputizing for Heath. She has also been a good provider, with a team-high six assists this year (Lloyd has three and Press has two).
“Just trying to stand out in any way I can, and just being myself,” she said. “That’s all I can do, and just hope that he likes what he sees. … As long as I’m making an impact on the field, if they need me to be the No. 9, that’s what I’ll do, and if they need me to be a wide forward, then that’s what I’ll do too, to the best of my ability.”