Tournament of Nations USA roster reaction

Earlier today, Jill Ellis named the 23 players on the United States roster for the Tournament of Nations, which takes place July 27 – August 3. The US will face Australia, Brazil, and Japan.

Ellis has called in a mix of veteran and new for the tournament. Uncapped players in the squad are Abby Smith, Taylor Smith, and Margaret Purce. Jane Campbell, Abby Dahlkemper, Casey Short, and Lynn Williams all have 10 caps or less. On top of that, forward Sofia Huerta is training with the team while US Soccer waits on FIFA to transfer her eligibility from Mexico to the US.

But there are also many players in the squad with over 50 caps, including Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn, Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Crystal Dunn, Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, and Christen Press, so roster integration really shouldn’t be that haphazard.

These players are not just getting called in for random home friendlies. This is still a tournament, with three big opponents, compressed into a tournament schedule. This is essentially simulating what a tough group stage could be like for the United States, although of course they don’t need to be rotating the same way they would in anticipation of knockout rounds. But they do need to be sensitive to club needs, as most of the team will almost immediately be returning to their NWSL teams. Let’s break this roster down by position.

GOALKEEPERS: Alyssa Naeher (CHI), Abby Smith (BOS), Jane Campbell (HOU)

Naeher is the clear #1 in this group, but Smith and Campbell are both doing solid work in NWSL. Campbell especially pulled it together after a rough club debut and has had some much improved performances for Houston. Should they be here over the likes of Adrianna Franch? Well Campbell was probably always going to get called in with three GKs; Ellis seems to regard her as the top young keeper in her age group to develop for the 2023/2024 cycle. But what about Smith vs Franch? Both are pretty good shotstoppers with some decent aerial presence. Smith edges Franch on distribution, though, and Ellis may perceive Smith as doing a comparable job with less when it comes to organizing a back line. Let’s also not forget that Ashlyn Harris is due to return from injury soon, which probably means available GK slots will shrink even further. If either Campbell or Smith gains a toehold here, it could be very hard for Franch to break in before 2019 or 2020.

DEFENDERS: Abby Dahlkemper (NC), Julie Ertz (CHI), Ali Krieger (ORL), Kelley O’Hara (SBFC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FCKC), Casey Short (CHI), Taylor Smith (NC)

The noted absence here is Meghan Klingenberg, but with Casey Short in the fold, that’s not a huge concern. Short is arguably the better left back at this point, able to generate the flank attack that Ellis favors so much without as many defensive deficiencies as Klingenberg.

Taylor Smith is also a good pick based on NWSL performance. The WNT has a definite need at right back; even though Krieger is back in camp, Jill Ellis has shown a certain reluctance to play her that doesn’t seem entirely performance-related. Krieger hasn’t started two consecutive games since CONCACAF Olympic qualifying in February 2016. If Ellis is starting to phase out 32-year-old Krieger, then it’s good to have another option besides jack-of-all-trades Kelley O’Hara plugging the hole. Perhaps Chicago’s Arin Gilliland needs to be in the RB conversation eventually, and Portland’s Emily Menges at CB, who has covered for at least one if not two of her own back line for most of this season. But for now, bringing in Dahlkemper, Short, and Smith is a nice look at how the back line will eventually get refreshed.

MIDFIELDERS: Morgan Brian (HOU), Carli Lloyd (HOU), Allie Long (POR), Samantha Mewis (NC), Margaret Purce (BOS), Megan Rapinoe (SEA)

If Morgan Brian has to be in this camp, she should not play. That’s not a knock on her talent – in fact, it’s a plea to protect that talent. Brian has been managing a nagging groin injury for months, coming on and off for the Houston Dash. It’s been a tossup all season whether Brian will go a full 90, and though this tournament will test the WNT, it’s not worth straining Brian further. She needs rest to get to 100% and this would have been the perfect break for her. Perhaps she’ll be in camp so USSF staff can keep an eye on her and get a good sense of her recovery. But there are other talented midfielders who are in serious need of WNT time (that noise you hear is Dani Colaprico fans screaming in the distance) who would benefit from this ToN test.

Purce is a bit of a question mark in the midfield. She’s been a wide forward and an irregular starter for the Boston Breakers. She definitely has pace aplenty, but she hasn’t been scoring (one goal in 13 games) and seems to still be adjusting to the speed of decision-making necessary in NWSL. If Ellis truly plays her as a wide midfielder (she can switch left or right), it’s not clear that she’ll be able to provide the kind of service the forwards need. But then again, sometimes what a young player needs is a challenge and a little mentoring. If Purce finds the next gear in WNT camp, then this would be a nice payoff on a moderate gamble.

As a group, this is still an imbalanced midfield, even if you shift Horan out of the forwards and up into the mid, where she’s played for Portland all season as a partner for Allie Long. There really isn’t a playmaking CM in the group. Lloyd, Long, and Mewis can all win the ball, but none of them really open up a game with their passing. (Yes, we can still hear you, Colaprico fans. Please breathe, all this stress cannot possibly be good for you.)

FORWARDS: Crystal Dunn (Chelsea), Lindsey Horan (POR), Sydney Leroux (FCKC), Alex Morgan (ORL), Christen Press (CHI), Mallory Pugh (WAS), Lynn Williams (NC)

The United States does not suffer for attackers. It really says something when it looks like there’s probably not going to be room in your pool for Sydney Leroux. Leroux deserves a chance on the pitch to see if she can step up her performance from what we’ve seen of her at FCKC, but at the same time even a 100% on-form Leroux doesn’t have as many tools as, for example, Mallory Pugh or Lynn Williams. And then you have younger players like Ashley Hatch and possibly Kealia Ohai and Sofia Huerta on the fringe and yet younger players like Sophia Smith and Jordan Canniff in the development pipeline. It’s stressful that there’s always someone younger and just as, if not more talented, nipping at your heels, but that’s ideally how the national team works.

On the flipside, this could be an exciting tournament for Alex Morgan, who seems to have been carrying one injury or another for a while but is now healthy. Morgan looked fantastic in her last game for the Orlando Pride for all 90 minutes, and could make for a very interesting front two or three with Mal Pugh and/or Crystal Dunn. We’ll see if Ellis uses Press in the slightly deeper role she often plays for Chicago. That could end up being Carli Lloyd’s space, pushing Press either off to the side or onto the bench.

There are a lot of new-ish faces in this roster – seven out of 23 with 10 caps or less. But they’re mostly goalkeepers and defenders; the USWNT midfield needs a Rose Lavelle and it doesn’t have one because the actual Rose Lavelle is injured and the other players in camp don’t have her ability to take possession from the deep ball-winner and control the transition from middle to attacking third. Will Ellis patch the midfield together into something that’s able to hold out against three top nations, or will they collapse like a craft project with not enough hot glue? Let’s find out together.

USA vs Australia kicks off at 10 PM ET on July 27 on ESPN.

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