Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By CAITLIN MURRAY
When head coach Tom Sermanni took over the U.S. Women’s National Team last year, he had quite the quagmire on his hands.
He inherited an Olympic gold medal-winning squad with the best depth in the world. But that wasn’t going to carry his team to a World Cup three years away. So, he did what any national team coach would do: called in player after player, averaging almost a new player per training camp.
But now the World Cup is inching closer and the USWNT’s core group isn’t settled, even to the point where the team has appeared, at times, to lack chemistry on the field. That was never more apparent than in a historic 5-3 loss to Denmark last month. Afterward, Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan said frequent line-up changes might be the reason for the shocking defeat.
Sermanni told SBI last week that he still sees value in bringing new players on board, even with a looming World Cup not far on the horizon. After giving 12 players their first caps in 16 months as coach, SBI takes a look at how those rookies have fared:
THE BRIGHT SPOTS
It’s easy to forget that before Sermanni took over last year, Christen Press had zero caps with the USWNT and most American fans probably didn’t know who she was.
What a difference a year makes.
With 11 goals in 15 games and a spot behind the world’s most potent attacking stable – Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux – Press seems to turn the USWNT depth chart into an impossible riddle for Sermanni.
He must spend the next several months deciding how and when to use Press, who is the current top-scorer in Sweden’s renowned first division – a league that’s home to many of the world’s best players, including Brazil’s Marta. But make no mistake: Sermanni will find a spot for her.
Sermanni found a couple more pleasant surprises in Morgan Brian and Crystal Dunn. The surprise, of course, wasn’t that they are good. Both represent the very best of college soccer – to wit, Dunn won the MAC Hermann Trophy in 2012; Brian won it last year. The unexpected part was how much better they could become amongst the USWNT elite.
Luckily, they both happen to fill spots where the USWNT needs help the most.
Brian brings a calm composure and defensive ability that pairs well with the attacking-minded and physical Carli Lloyd in the center, where Shannon Boxx has left a hole the USWNT is desperate to fill. It’s a similar story in defense, except Sermanni has seemed to turn the back line into a revolving door, bringing in new players, revisiting forgotten ones and shuffling starting spots with nearly every match. While Dunn has been tried at both left and right, her potential is clear. With some more game experience and clearer role on the team, she’ll be around for a long time.
Sermanni has invested considerably in two top college players who, at the ages of 21, appear to be virtual locks for the 2015 World Cup. Not bad.
Not all of Sermanni’s first-time caps will be sticking around.
It’s hard to see where Ashlyn Harris fits onto this squad. Long considered either the third- or fourth-string goalkeeper for the USWNT, Harris earned her first two caps last spring, allowing a goal in each game.
Those performances didn’t make a strong case for her to move up in the ranking – despite Harris being one of the few good things to say about the Washington Spirit last year – but there is perhaps no bigger roadblock than Hope Solo. Harris may never overcome the unfortunate fate of trying to make it on the USWNT while Solo is still in top form. One goalkeeper – whether that’s Nicole Barnhart, Jill Loyden or someone else, who would be a starter on any other team in the world – will only get to be Solo’s back up as consolation.
Lindsey Horan probably knows something about how that feels. She’s a forward – and a very good one at that – which means she faces the daunting task of trying to overtake Wambach, Morgan, Leroux and Press for a roster spot.
That’s not to rule Horan out altogether. The 19-year-old still has time on her side and an impressive resume of experience already. She was the first American woman to skip college and turn pro, joining Paris Saint-Germain for a six-figure salary fresh out of high school. She scored an impressive 20 goals in 25 appearances for the club last year. If a spot on the USWNT depth chart does open up, she could grab it.
For forward Sarah Hagen, 24, it looks even more difficult. Unless Sermanni sees a spot for her in the midfield, she may be waiting for a spot that never opens up.
Defender Leigh Ann Robinson will also have trouble convincing Sermanni she is worth a long-term investment. At age 27, she earned her first cap after a successful season with FC Kansas City, but there’s reason to believe Sermanni will look to groom younger talent like Dunn there.
At only about seven months from World Cup qualifiers and 15 months from the World Cup, some of the rookies still have time to clarify things in Sermanni’s mind.
Based on minutes, Kristie Mewis seems very likely to be a mainstay of the squad going forward – the question is where. Long a midfielder with a penchant for long-range blasts, Mewis has been slowly converted into an outside back by Sermanni, but he still manages to start her in the midfield sometimes, too.
Sermanni told SBI earlier this year he is breaking down his World Cup roster by position, with utility players like Mewis getting their own category. That may bode well for Mewis in the eyes of Sermanni, who said he sees his line-ups changing from game-to-game in the tournament.
Mewis’ younger sister, Samantha, is another utility player, according to Sermanni. Even more important though, she could serve as a central midfielder, where the USWNT’s bench is shallow.
Erika Tymrak is also worth watching in the midfield. She had a breakout year for FC Kansas City, which helped earn her the call from Sermanni in September. But her name didn’t appear on the next three rosters, with Sermanni recommending she instead get the experience of a loan to Bayern Munich.
It seemed to work, with Tymrak scoring her first goal in her second cap by November, but she’s seen the field very little in 2014 for the USWNT. She may need to plead her case again once FC Kansas City’s new season starts this month. Tymrak gave Sermanni plenty to think about after the National Women’s Soccer League wrapped up last year and she looks primed for another big season in 2014.
Midfielder Amber Brooks and defender Julie Johnston will join the NWSL this year, too. The early half of the season may be their last best chance to convince Sermanni to bring them back in the fold.
If we’ve learned anything from Sermanni’s track record of shuffling rosters at a rate of nearly a new starting 11 per game, it’s that anything is possible.