Aly Wagner knows what it's like to be on the wrong end of the last pick for a World Cup roster. Before she played in two World Cups and two Olympics in a 131-cap career, Wagner was left out of the 1999 World Cup when then-coach Tony DiCicco picked Sara Whalen instead.
So it’s natural that Wagner, now the lead color analyst on Fox’s women’s soccer broadcasts, paid close attention to current coach Jill Ellis’ final picks for this year’s tournament. And she was watching along with the rest of the media when Ellis sent the U.S. fan base into a frenzy by choosing veterans Morgan Brian, Ali Krieger and Allie Long while leaving NWSL stars Casey Short and McCall Zerboni out.
In a conversation after the roster was announced, Wagner started by saluting Long, a 2016 Olympian whose selection was the least surprising of the three.
"She can play the No. 6, and chemistry matters for some of these deeper spots, and she's got a great relationship with Alex Morgan," Wagner said. "I think at times, you have to consider all those different elements and experience [Ellis] spoke of, which matters a lot."
Krieger’s selection wasn’t surprising, either, but only because Ellis telegraphed it by recalling the 34-year-old this spring after nearly two years out of the picture. Wagner acknowledged that it might not be an ideal message that you can be away from the national team for so long and then return on the eve of the World Cup. But it has become clear in recent months that the U.S. needs depth at outside back, and Krieger is that.
“I think the message it sends to the players is one actually that I like, which is believe in your craft, believe in what you do, and stay ready, because you just don’t know when you’re going to get that call,” Wagner said. “Much respect to Ali Krieger for staying on top of her game and keeping herself ready to get this call-up, where when she comes into training camp she doesn’t look out of place. That’s a very difficult task to achieve when you’re playing against the best players in the world.”
Wagner spoke the most about Brian — and spoke the most bluntly.
"Taking Brian just doesn't make sense to me," Wagner said. "She hasn't been fit, she hasn't been in form, and this is a fantastic player that I have a lot of respect for, but it's just not the right time. And hopefully she'll prove me wrong."
That quote could go up on the bulletin board in the U.S. locker room, given both its strength and its source. Wagner will call the Americans’ World Cup games this summer, and the team’s May 12 friendly against South Africa in Santa Clara, Calif. (4:30 p.m., Fox; ESPN has the other two May friendlies).
It’s Wagner’s nature to be candid, though, and it’s why she has earned a reputation as one of this country’s top soccer analysts. She’s also good at seeing wider contexts, and that applies here.
"It just looked like Ellis really wanted some experienced pieces to come back into the fold when she felt like they weren't as steady, and they weren't managing games as well as they had in the past," she said.
Still, Wagner would have gone for McCall Zerboni or Casey Short over Brian — and ultimately, she would have picked Short to boost the team’s depth at left back. Crystal Dunn is the only regular player at the position on Ellis’ roster.
“I think that the Brian inclusion and not picking either Zerboni or Short, depending on where you thought you were the weakest on the roster, was the biggest shock to me,” Wagner said. “I would have had Short on the roster. ... Thankfully, Ali Krieger is added as a pure defender. But Krieger hasn’t played at the top level for a long time, and I don’t think you can consider the Belgium game to be [against] a top-tier team.”
“She should have played against Australia. ... Perhaps if you saw something there, then you know that you can put her there and shift Kelley O’Hara to that left side,” Wagner said. “I’m fine with Kelley O’Hara playing on either side. I think that’s a realistic option. I think [Tierna] Davidson is good as an outside back, so I think that’s an OK, or a plausibly successful, replacement if Dunn is not available.”
This leads into an overarching worry Wagner has: that Ellis might be too reliant on her top players. While those players are obviously superstars and some of the world's very best talents, even they risk being burned out if there isn't some squad rotation.
"The [U.S.] starting core that we know to be true, they're pretty fit and they're pretty mobile, so I'm not really worried about that group necessarily, in the early stages of the tournament," Wagner said. "I am worried whether they can go the distance."
On that point, and many others, she is far from alone.