In the U.S. Women’s national team’s year off from major competitions, roster building has become a priority for Jill Ellis. The incorporation of younger players has been an expected part of the process, as has adding depth in certain positions. A surprising development in the last few months, though, has been Ellis’s latest experiment: converting forwards into outside backs.
The trend started this summer, when Ellis brought Chicago Red Stars forward Sofia Huerta into camp for the Tournament of Nations. At first, the positional change was not clear, but once she became eligible to represent the U.S. after her one time switch from Mexico was approved by FIFA, Ellis quickly played her there. The head coach doubled down on her very specific plan this month, inviting Orlando Pride’s Chioma Ubogagu, also known as a forward, to camp as a fullback.
While Ubogagu’s inclusion as a defender might have been a surprise to many, it was not to the player herself. Having played there for the Pride at times this year, Ubogagu said that she only felt joy when she became aware of her call up. It also helped that Ellis herself told Ubogagu about her ideas.
“Jill’s been awesome,” Ubogagu told SBI. “She communicated with me what her plan [was] and her thoughts, and her vision of where she’s taking the team. That helped me in terms of preparing [and] coming into camp.”
The case was a little bit different for Huerta, who has less experience than Ubogagu, by a large margin.
“(Fullback) is the only position throughout my whole [life] — youth, college, professional — that I’ve never played before,” Huerta told SBI. “That’s actually true.”
The choice to move forwards to the back line is an unusual one, especially with natural fullbacks available to Ellis. The selection is partly a commentary on the state of fullbacks in the United States. The player pool in that position is not particularly deep, especially with Ellis no longer interested in the services of Ali Krieger and Meghan Klingenberg.
Huerta also noted that while she and Ubogagu are forwards, the U.S.’ attack is always flooded with options, unlike fullback
“I’m very aware that Jill’s in need of more outside backs,” Huerta said. “That’s the position she’s going to try and fill.”
Ellis’ choice, more than anything, speaks to her tactical preferences.
“[Ellis] could see me as an outside back because, in the league, I usually cover a lot of ground and I have the ability to deliver service into the box,” Huerta said. “I think that that was something she was interested in.”
Those two are not the only attacking converts to the outside back position on the team, though. Veteran Kelley O’Hara made the positional change five years ago, ahead of the 2012 Olympics. The change cemented her status as a frequent fixture in the U.S. team, and made her a role model for Huerta.
“Growing up, I always wanted to go to Stanford. (O’Hara) went there, and so I watched her as a forward the years that I watched her, and then I [saw] her with the national team, she’s an outside back,” Huerta said. “I do think that she’s someone I strive to be like. … She’s someone I really look up to.”
Huerta also looks to Casey Short, her club and country teammate that she goes to when she has questions. Ubogagu also relies on a club teammate in Australian Steph Catley, but both frequently head to the U.S. coaching staff for additional advice.
Both Huerta and Ubogagu admit that the defensive side of their games need some work, but that is the risk Ellis is taking with this approach. Defensive quality might not at its highest in the short term, but she clearly has confidence in her ability to teach these offensive-minded players defensive strategy.
In the meantime, the players have embraced their status as versatile options, partly because it has earned them coveted spots on the national team, and because playing different positions isn’t a new experience.
“Even with the Red Stars, I get moved around and I play forward and outside midfield,” Huerta said. “As professional soccer players, we’re used to this.
“As we’ve grown, going into college and with the pros, a lot of people probably played out of position and that becomes their new position.”