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What we all get wrong about the USWNT roster debate

The US Olympic roster dropped yesterday, and it produced the expected number of takes, both hot and cold.

Rather than going through the roster line by line and offering my thoughts, I wanted to take a look at the bigger picture and talk about the debate over the roster itself. This may get a little meta, but I think it will be a useful exercise.

Specifically, I want to talk about the kind of assessment errors that consistently pop up in these arguments. I'm going to portion them out into two broad categories. These generally run in opposite directions, but I think most of us are subject to both biases to some extent. So this isn’t really a spectrum so much as it’s a whole field of potential errors that we might unthinkingly stumble into.

On the one hand, there’s a status quo bias. This is a strong and ingrained feature of human psychology, which inclines us to value whatever we perceive to already have more than a potential future gain. On the other hand, there’s a tendency to overvalue novelty, especially novelty that remains potential. As the proverb goes: a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

Status quo bias means relying on what has ‘always’ worked…right up until it stops working

In the first case—status quo bias—this lends itself to sticking too long with known quantities. With the USWNT, you could certainly argue (many have today!) that the roster leans far too much on the 2019 squad, all of whom are two years older, which in most cases means two years further removed from their peaks. It’s very common for dominant national team squads to do very well…right up until the moment that they don’t. Often, that’s because everyone basically gets old together and the stuff that used to work so well suddenly falls flat.

If you wanted to tell a story about how this status quo bias could sink them, it’s very easy to do. The Olympic squad is tiny (just 18 players), but they’re using two spots on players carrying long-term injuries. Tobin Heath hasn’t played in many months. Julie Ertz is supposedly not going to be healthy (even on an optimistic timeline) to play a full 90 until late in the knockout stages. Rose Lavelle is perennially injured, and is currently sitting due to an ankle worry. Supposedly that’s minor and she’ll be fine. But Lavelle has almost never managed to go more than a couple months without picking up a new injury, or re-aggravating an old one, in her career.

Then consider that Carli Lloyd turns 39 in a few weeks. Becky Sauerbrunn is 36. Megan Rapinoe turns 36 in two weeks and is pretty much a 60-minute player at this point—and even that assumes full rest. Speaking of perennially-injured, Kelley O'Hara has missed huge chunks of time over the last few years. That’s never coincided with a big international tournament, but it certainly could next time. And on and on. Put it all together and you can absolutely imagine a scenario where four games in ten days produces a creaking team that’s ripe for being ripped apart.

Every one of those roster decisions makes a lot of sense individually. But when you put them all together, you see a trend emerging: the players with experience, the ones that got us where we are now, we’re going to stick with them. And there’s a larger manifestation of the theme, which isn’t about roster selection exactly but which is about the team construction overall. Specifically: the US is still playing the exact same way they did in 2019. Which is really the exact same way they’ve been playing since the fall of 2017. Once upon a time, smart criticism focused on Jill Ellis’s limited tactics. Well, the Andonovski Era has been here for almost two years and the US is still using the same formation: a 4-3-3 that relies heavily on Julie Ertz to fix any mistakes. So why haven’t the US developed new ways of playing? Well, it’s worked like gangbusters so far, and no one has yet been able to exploit it. But will that still be true this summer? Especially if Ertz is injured?

We’ve already seen small examples of US struggles this year. I do put emphasis on small since we’re talking about a team that has lost two games in the last four years (and none since January 2019). But the US was pretty effectively neutralized by Sweden and only scraped a late draw. Canada played them far more closely than we’ve seen in a long time. They struggled mightily to find a goal against Portugal. And so forth.

Novelty bias can cause analysts to miss the forest for the trees

So that’s the case for pessimism about this veteran-heavy US roster. But does that mean Vlatko got it wrong? By no means! Because everything I’ve just written also has to be filtered through another lens. For many of us who closely follow the women’s game—especially those of us who track the NWSL, college soccer, international leagues, etc.—there’s a countervailing bias that can very easily obscure our perspective: the tendency to presume that the new thing is shinier, better, and more exciting.

Everyone suffers from this to some degree. There’s a reason ‘the grass is always greener on the other side’ is a popular idiom. It’s very easy to see the flaws in the thing you know well and to overlook the potential flaws of the new thing. But this prejudice is particularly acute among communities of outsiders who nevertheless fancy themselves to be experts.

Those of us who pay a lot of attention have a vested stake in the notion that all of that attention gives us special insight. We often fixate on players that we have seen grow and develop outside of the spotlight precisely because of that status. And we want to see them rewarded because in some sense it validates our own judgment about their value. Anyone can point to the famous goal-scorer and say she’s good. But it takes a special level of attention to detail to see the hidden value of the less-fancied player.

But beyond that, it’s also just more exciting. Frankly, there’s just not much fun in calling up the same names over and over. It’s more thrilling to see new names breaking into the ranks, especially if those new names also bring a backstory of hard work and perseverance. Look at the enthusiasm in Soccer Twitter over Kristie Mewis making the Olympic team. Look at how much energy we’ve all poured into the idea that Casey Krueger should get the chance to play in a major international tournament.

And we all have our special hype machines that we like to fire up for a few specific players. Over the years I’ve spent a lot of time arguing for Danny Colaprico, Vanessa DiBernardo, Emily Menges, Shea Groom, Sarah Woldmoe, Midge Purce, just to name a few. These are all fantastic players, there’s no doubt about that. But would they really be upgrades on what the US already has? Maybe. But more likely, they are exactly what they seem to be: incredible soccer players—among the best couple hundred on the whole planet—who nevertheless remain a small cut below the absolute elites.

But with margins this narrow, those of us watching from the outside often find that the line between analysis and advocacy is quite a bit blurrier than we might like to think. Once you’re primed to see the good in a player, you can find it much more easily. And you may also be primed to miss (or downplay) the qualities of the player with whom they’re competing.

Make arguments. But also ask questions

What does all this mean for the US roster? Well, it suggests that critics might be massively overstating the risks of valuing experience over new blood. There’s a reason those players are experienced: it’s because they’re incredibly good. And while you can point to potential problems, there are also huge risks that come from significantly re-organizing things on the fly.

At the same time, the critics might end up being proven right after all. Maybe the coaches have grown too comfortable with the familiar and have failed to identify the growing dangers. Maybe they’re undervaluing players who don’t fit into the existing mold. Maybe they’re putting themselves in danger by not giving themselves more and more varied options.

To bring this to a single specific point: the Olympic 18 includes Carli Lloyd but doesn’t include Lynn Williams. A lot of the smart folks I know on Twitter think it’s ridiculous that Lloyd made the roster. And many of them feel equally bewildering about Williams missing out. And to be clear: I basically agree with them. I think Williams is a better player now, has been a better player for several years, and will clearly be a better player going forward. I think Williams gives them options that Lloyd does not—both in terms of positional range and also in terms of pressing ability. So if I were making this roster, Williams would absolutely be on it.

But I also know that Vlatko Andonovski is a lot smarter than me about soccer, and he apparently disagrees. So that gives me pause. I ask myself: what does he see that I don’t? What biases might be influencing my perspective? What risks is Vlatko willing to run, and which ones does he want to avoid? Am I certain that he’s making a bad call?

And the answer to all of that is: I just don’t know. I still do think Williams makes more sense on this roster. But I also know that Lloyd has been unfavored among the soccer intelligentsia for the better part of a decade at this point, and yet the people making the actual calls keep disagreeing. The reality is that none of us can ever truly be ‘right’ because the game is not a perfectly-contained universe of causes and effects which can all be measured. We’re all guessing.

That doesn’t mean that all guesses are equal. And it doesn’t mean that any of us should stop offering our own assessments. That’s a big part of what makes the game fun! But we can all afford to approach the topic with a certain degree of humility. And maybe we can even learn a little bit from our disagreements.