U.S. women’s soccer team coach Jill Ellis left a clear impression in picking her World Cup roster: veteran experience is one of her top priorities.
“As much as you want to focus on the here and now, you’ve also known what someone is like. Some of the players you don’t ever know until that moment that they’re in the pressure-cooker of a World Cup quarterfinal or semifinal, etc.,” Ellis said on a conference call with reporters after announcing the squad on Thursday. “It’s everything when you look at a player: it’s not just what they can do on the field, it’s trusting them to execute. … On this roster, based on their psychological makeup, no one is going to melt."
But Ellis also left the impression that she might have valued veteran experience a little too much. The proof of that came in omitting Casey Short, the top true left back in the U.S. pool for the last two years, from the 23-player American squad. Crystal Dunn is the only regular left back among the seven defenders chosen, and she is a converted midfielder.
What happens if Dunn gets injured, or gets a red card, or gets yellow cards in two games and is thus suspended for the next one? Ellis was asked that very question, and didn’t offer much of an answer.
She first vouched for Tierna Davidson, a 20-year-old centerback who has made some cameo appearances on the left. The results have been mixed: Davidson is a good one-on-one defender, but lacks the attacking thrust of Dunn and Short.
Then Ellis turned to Kelley O’Hara, who has played both flanks in her career, but is better on the right — and is set to start there this summer.
“We’ve played Tierna as a left back, [and] I think Kelley has played left back probably, over time, more than Crystal in terms of the program,” Ellis said. “Those were very, very hard decisions to make, those last few positions were tough, and a lot of things came into play. And they did everything they possibly could to make it hard, but ultimately the conversation turns toward the players selected. I feel good about the depth we have, I feel good about the versatility.”
That last word also came up repeatedly in Ellis’ remarks.
“If you look across the back line, I would hazard to say all of those players can play at least two positions,” she said. “Becky [Sauerbrunn] can play on the left side [of the centerback pair] or right side, so can Abby [Dahlkemper]. Kelley [O’Hara] can play left back or right back. … One of the things our staff and I do is we go through worst case scenarios over and over again. Looking at depth and versatility is a big part, and it becomes harder, I think, for a player that plays one position.”
Short can fit that bill too, though. She has played right back regularly for the Red Stars — including last Sunday, when she scored a sensational goal after a run up the right wing.
The clearest proof of how much experience matters to Ellis is her selection of Ali Krieger. After leaving Krieger off the team for a year and a half, Ellis brought the 34-year-old back last month as a backup right back.
“What I know about Ali Krieger is no moment is ever going to be too big for her,” Ellis said. “I think as a coach when you get down to this point the psychological piece is also a part of your consideration when you look at players. They’re all players that have experienced big moments, know what it takes, have lived in those moments, and I feel good about where they are in terms of their physical return and their play and their form.”
Short, 28, doesn’t have much big-game experience. She made her national team debut after the 2016 Olympics, and became a regular on U.S. rosters soon thereafter. But she only has 27 caps, and has made just two starts since the beginning of 2018. She didn’t play in any of this year’s highest-profile games: the trips to France and Spain in January, the SheBelieves Cup in February and March, and the friendly test against Australia in April.
The question of how you get experience without playing is nearly as old as the men’s World Cup, never mind the women’s version. Still, it was jarring to hear Ellis say she was willing to shift centerback-turned-midfielder Julie Ertz back to the back line, or even deploy winger Tobin Heath as an outside back in an emergency.
Short may not have the experience of Krieger or midfielder Morgan Brian, who seems have beaten Short to the last ticket to France. But she wouldn’t have to adjust to a new role on the fly.
Of all the statements Ellis made Thursday, the biggest was one she didn’t want to talk about: leaving Casey Short short of a ticket to France. It’s a risky bet, and if Ellis loses, it could cost the U.S. a shot at repeating as World Cup champion.