In no sane world should Crystal Dunn be an outside back on the national team. In no world that makes sense should Sam Mewis sit healthy on the bench, or Casey Short and McCall Zerboni sit at home.
And yet this is the world we live in.
The USWNT has the deepest pool in the world. Forwards as far as the eye can see, midfielders that have the power to link play and to dominate, defenders who can make talented players look silly when they try to attack, and goalkeepers who can make jaw dropping saves.
But for all that depth, there are still some problems. In some cases, the problems come from the depth. I want to focus on three. First, the depth isn’t evenly distributed so we end up with some sections a mile deep while others aren’t much more than a puddle. Second, selection decisions aren’t correctly weighting the value players can bring. Third, the current Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) doesn’t incentivize bringing in some of the best talent.
Deep Waters with Shallow Sections
As Charles Olney often points out on Twitter, the USWNT has more options in each position than can really be comprehended. In some positions, like goalkeeper, you could swap out the current bunch for an entirely new set without anything more than a slight – if that – dip in quality.
But those players don’t get called in, and it’s a problem. A champagne problem, sure, but still a problem.
When you have 30 attackers that could be called into camp, there’s no realistic way to actually do it. Fans can all make the case for their favorite, but at some point the coach does have to draw a line in the sand and pick from the group assembled. We might quibble with the choices but we all know there are roster limits and nowhere close to everyone can go.
We can all debate if Ohai or Huerta or Lynn Williams should be moved from the “possible but probably not” pool to the “yeah there is a real chance here” pool. But I don’t think anyone would argue that Alex Morgan or Christen Press or Megan Rapinoe should be downgraded, and that’s what’s really causing the blockage.
Meanwhile, as we all go round in circles on this point, on the other side of the pitch, real honest to goodness defenders seem to be harder and harder to come by. And so you end up with Crystal Dunn at fullback, because you want to get as much champagne as possible.
The Overvaluation of Attacking Talent
Which leads to the second issue. Jill Ellis favors a system where the outside backs are really wingers and one center back really is a defensive midfielder. In that context, it makes sense to play Crystal Dunn as a left back and wait for her to work some magic, while sacrificing some of the lock down defense a Casey Short would bring.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying Crystal Dunn shouldn’t be on this roster. She should be. But as an attacking player able to bring creativity, pace and a drive to make the best plays possible – hey it sounds like the Crystal Dunn of the North Carolina Courage – without having to give up a certain level of defense.
Ellis wants the best pure talent on the pitch and she will put square pegs into role holes if it means she can get another attacker out there. She’s not the first to make that kind of choice, but it means there is some disjointness of play and a sameness of mindset from players all over the pitch.
A team with outside backs that do move forward but always have one foot firmly planted in the defense would be a significance difference from the USWNT of today. A team that valued developing defenders and not conversions for the sake of putting more attacking minded players on the field would be a shift in the way that the US prepares for the future. Neither is necessarily right or wrong, but it definitely affects how the US plays, and how others teams respond.
Soccer matches are won by players scoring goals and they are lost by the other team doing the same. With their over-reliance on the attack, the US have tipped their hand. They very well may win a World Cup doing it, but it does give a much stronger road map to how top teams can beat them.
Dancing with the Ones that Brought You
The USWNT doesn’t like turn over. Historically. Currently. Maybe forever more.
Stability is important. Having players with 100 caps, 200 caps, shows that those players have found a way to stick around and be useful through different coaches and teams up and downs.
It also shows that the US roster is not turning over. Since 2012, eleven players have hit 100 caps. Since 2015 eight have. Seven of those players are on the current USWNT World Cup roster.
There often looks to be a disconnect between form and player selection. Alex Morgan or Christen Press or Julie Ertz could be downright terrible for their NWSL teams and get call ups roster after roster while the Ohais or the Lynn Williams or the Lauren Barnes of the league barely get a chance when they are called up, and even a tiny dip in form apparently knocks them out forever.
Ellis seems unbothered by the ideas she is comparing players with no international experience to players who have appeared on the field for the team 50, 100 or even 200 times. If they are not up to the same level at first blush they are cast aside. Or if you’re Sofia Huerta you are jerked around – including having your federation changed – and then cut.
With the contract system that the USWNT operates under, bringing in new players while having to pay the players already under contract could be seen by the powers that be as a waste of time and money. Why pay Aubrey Bledsoe and test her out when you already have goalkeepers on the payroll?
The USWNT may have the deepest roster in history. They may have the best collection of 23 players you could ask heading into a major competition.
In 2019 they may be enough. But will the lasting damage of inadequate planning and managing of that pool be a major stumbling block in 2020 or 2023? Only time will tell.