Solving the Outside Back Equation
It’s no secret that the U.S. Women’s National Team is the best women’s football team in the world, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that it is one of the best teams in the world in any sport. As dominant as it is, even the greatest teams have flaws. Ours happens to be at outside back – particularly left back.
Throughout the history of the roster, the team has had an embarrassment of riches. We’ve had players at nearly every position who have literally redefined the game in some way. Among those, goalkeepers like Hope Solo and Briana Scurry. Central defenders Carla Overbeck, Joy Fawcett and Christie Rampone. Midfielders such as Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy, Kristine Lilly, Tiffeny Milbrett, Lauren Holiday and Heather O’Reilly. And forwards including Mia Hamm and Abby Wambach. That doesn’t factor in current players who will no doubt be added to the list: Becky Sauerbrunn, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press and Alex Morgan come to mind.
And then there’s outside back. There have been some great players there, but not in the overwhelming numbers almost every other position has benefited from.
Consider this: Crystal Dunn played every minute of the 2019 World Cup, and most of the Victory Tour games, at left back – which isn’t even her typical position. She helped the USWNT add the fourth star to its jersey as a highly skilled, speedy and versatile converted midfielder/forward. While all of that might make her seem superhuman, she is only one person. Having the depth to rotate and rest players is an integral part of winning – something the USWNT has shown at least four times.
Our current "natural," not converted, outside backs are few, and the list includes players nearly at or over the age of 30. Which means realistically we have only a few more years of NT playing time left from each of them. Excluding Kelley O'Hara, because she was converted by Pia Sundhage many years ago, that list includes Ali Krieger and Casey Short. Only Short has seen significant time at left back.
So, what can be done to address this potential Achilles’ heel? Tierna Davidson and Emily Sonnett have both seen time at outside back and are serviceable there, but I think they are much more effective central defenders. Vlatko Andonovski’s most recent ID camp in December seems to indicate that he is aware of the needs at outside back, and that he might even agree that Davidson and Sonnett are better center backs than fullbacks. Out of the 24 players called to that camp, nine were defenders, the most of any position. Six of those were either already outside backs or have the consistency, speed and versatility to be converted. They included NWSL players Midge Purce and Imani Dorsey (both from Sky Blue and both forwards for their club), Sarah Gorden (right back for the Chicago Red Stars), international Hailie Mace (who has been both a forward and defender), and college prospects Emily Fox (UNC) and Kiki Pickett (Stanford). All of these players have the potential to become world-class fullbacks but will need time and training to do so.
Another more immediate approach, which Charles Olney suggested recently, is to utilize Ertz in a central role in a 3-4-3, moving Dunn and O’Hara into the midfield to propel the attack. Given Andonovski's self-described preferred style of soccer as “attractive, attacking, aggressive”, a 3-4-3 with Horan as a false 9 might work perfectly.
In the near future, I don't expect to see significant changes in the formation the USWNT uses on the pitch, particularly because of the complications caused by stay-at-home orders and the uncertainty in the amount of training/playing time players will get before the next international competition. In the long run, however, our relative weakness at fullback needs to be addressed--either through new player development or a change in formation--if we want to continue to be the best team in the world.