Defensive cover. Three solid games for centerback Tierna Davidson, who earned her first cap in January against Denmark and doesn’t turn 20 until December, provides Ellis with a viable option for the backline. She’s another member of the Stanford contingent –- which already includes Kelly O’Hara, Andi Sullivan and Christen Press – that should occupy a significant niche on the USA’s World Cup roster next summer in France.
Ellis started Davidson and Abby Dahlkemper together throughout the tournament to give that combination all the minutes available with linchpin Becky Sauerbrunn sidelined with the same foot injury that kept her out of the January camp and a 5-1 rout of Denmark. The Americans gave up their only goal in the three games when Dahlkemper lost a duel with French veteran striker Eugenie Le Sommer, who marked her 150th cap for France by sifting through a Dahlkemper challenge to score a 65th international goal.
During her long career -- even though she’s only 28 -- LeSommer has victimized many of the world’s top defenders. Dahlkemper is in good company. Yet by those crucial moments Ellis must base her decisions on who starts, who sits, and who stays home.
The Ertz factor. Davidson’s possible inclusion on the World Cup roster also allows Ellis to keep Julie Ertz in midfield, where the competition for roster spots figures to be intense as the WWC draws closer. Ertz scored seven goals in 2017 and so well-timed are her late runs in the wake of forwards Mal Pugh, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe that she’s almost impossible to track.
Ertz’s experience as a central defender provides resiliency in the middle of the field and her prowess at both ends on set plays adds yet another weapon. Her absence in the last two SheBelieves Cup matches against France and England gave Ellis an opportunity to dole out minutes and test out alternatives. The Americans have many midfielders with different strengths, but they don’t have another player imbued with all of Ertz’s attributes.
Against France, Morgan Brian started and played 90 minutes in her first appearance since a 3-0 loss to the same team in the same competition nearly a year ago. Sullivan made just her seventh start for the senior team. There were a few promising sequences, and the USA free kick from which it scored resulted from a slick Brian crossfield ball to O’Hara.
But overall the ball didn’t get forward enough from the midfield to the front three. Lindsey Horan and captain Carli Lloyd returned to the starting lineup for the final game against England, though Brian did replace Horan in the 74th minute. Ally Long got her first start of the tournament as well; Sofia Huerta took her place at the same juncture.
No locks at left back. If the midfield resembled a carousel, so did the action at left back. Taylor Smith started the defeat of Germany and also against France but was pulled just before halftime. No injury was reported and Ellis said it was a tactical decision; replacement Casey Short suffered an ankle injury in the second half and came off in the 76th minute when Ellis brought on Press.
For the finale against England, Crystal Dunn took over at left back and bombed forward on several impressive runs. It was her sharp ball from the middle third that set Rapinoe free to hit the ball that England eventually turned into its own net.
This is the same Crystal Dunn who helped the USA win the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women’s World Cup and three years ago won the NWSL MVP and Golden Boot awards at 23, which is how many USA goals she’s scored in 60 appearances. She played left back as a U-20 and at the beginning of her senior-team career, and is obviously a player Ellis will take to France regardless of which position(s) she might fill.
Injuries have hampered the efforts of Meghan Klingenberg, a standout at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, to get back into the picture. She played just four games in 2017 and her January callup turned into a nightmare; she caught the flu then suffered an ankle injury.
Rapinoe rolls on. On many national teams, a veteran who turns 34 in a World Cup year is barely on the fringe if in the picture at all. Rapinoe continues to repel challenges, whether they be from wingers like Pugh, forwards like Press, or any version of attacking midfielders.
Rapinoe bagged the goal to beat Germany by running down a long kick that had been flicked on by Alex Morgan and smacking her shot through keeper Almuth Schult. Pugh scored against France during a scramble triggered by a Rapinoe free kick.
The competition for time will toughen when regulars such as Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis come back into the team, and Pugh and Dunn are just two players who can be effective and dangerous on the flanks. A long season with Seattle lies ahead for the veteran. But in a way, Rapinoe is like Ertz; there is nobody else on the team who has the same mix of abilities, experience, and cold-blooded confidence.
Goalie go-round. Alyssa Naeher got all the minutes in goal at the tournament and only Le Sommer’s shot got past her. She came up with a couple of very big saves in the 1-1 tie with France and wasn’t called upon very much in the other two games. She took over the starter’s job last year when Ashlyn Harris was hobbled by a quadriceps injury.
The ultimate decision on who Ellis chooses for the World Cup might not seem as critical as the choices at other positions, but for most of its existence the USA team has been blessed by world-class keepers. The tradition started with Mary Harvey at the 1991 Women’s World Championship; she passed the torch to Brianna Scurry, and for more than a decade Hope Solo was the gold standard.
With the possible exception of Germany, no national team has been as strong and settled in goal as the USA during the growth of the international women’s game. At every major competition, the USA women are among those teams favored to win it, and no player feels that pressure more than the goalkeeper.