For the U.S. Women’s National Team, this year’s SheBelieves Cup represents a distinct challenge. As is expected just months before World Cup qualifying begins, this year’s tournament differs from last year. In 2017, head coach Jill Ellis experimented with formations and players, while this year presents an opportunity to refine the lineup.
Last year, it was a “broad brush we painted with,” Ellis said in a conference call ahead of the team’s training camp in Orlando. “Now we’re starting to get into the details and have consistency in lineup.”
The choice to change little in lineups means that Alyssa Naeher will start all three matches of the tournament in goal. Additionally, Ellis is also focusing on building and strengthening relationships between certain sets of players on the field. That includes the likes of Kelley O’Hara and Megan Rapinoe linking up on the left side of the pitch and Taylor Smith and Mallory Pugh connecting on the right. Ellis also believes that “goalkeeping is about building relationships with your back line,” which explains why Naeher will play all of the matches.
The combination of tournament provides Ellis and her coaching staff one of the last opportunities they have to spend an extended amount of time with their players before the CONCACAF Women’s Championship in October.
“It’s really making sure [the players] know what we’re doing,” Ellis said, “because they’ll go back to [their club] environment and obviously maybe do something different and they have to come back in. The more we can reinforce our principles in terms of how we want to defend and what we’re looking for in buildup.”
That work on first choice starting lineups, though, is coupled with a unique challenge. Ellis and company will have to figure out their preferred lineup dealing with a series of injuries.
Rose Lavelle, who made her debut at last year’s SheBelieves Cup, made the preliminary roster, but was cut, still not having recovered from a hamstring injury picked up in September. Samantha Mewis, another one of last year’s breakout players, misses a second consecutive camp with a knee injury. Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn, meanwhile, remains out with a stress reaction in her left foot, and Tobin Heath is continuing her recovery from an ankle injury that has kept her out since September. All four of those players are potentially starters for the reigning world champions, making Ellis’s task harder.
“I’d love to have all of the core players healthy at one time to really have a good look at our numbers,” Ellis said. Until then, she cannot truly fully assess her team. However, the smattering of injuries has provided the U.S. an opportunity to show off their depth.
“When you have players that are potential starters that are not here, you continue to develop depth and flexibility,” Ellis said. I
n the back four, that has opened up an opportunity for Tierna Davidson, who received her first cap in January in Sauerbrunn’s absence and continues to be praised by Ellis. “Based on what I saw from Tierna,” she said, “I would be comfortable playing her in these games.”
In the places of Mewis and Lavelle, the likes of Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan have, respectively, gotten opportunities. This camp also presents the opportunity for Morgan Brian to claim a spot in the midfield after missing January camp on club duties with Olympique Lyon. Heath may have a spot in the attacking trio that currently consistently sees Pugh and Rapinoe flank Alex Morgan.
That presents some players with an opportunity to jump ahead in the depth chart and make themselves genuine contenders to start, a situation that is not entirely new to this team.
“It’s a similar story,” Ellis said. “You have a player that’s an established player. Player picks up an injury.”
That was the situation for former team captain Christie Rampone in 2015. Waiting in the wings was Julie Ertz, who only had a handful of caps to her name going into the World Cup year. Ertz then went on to play every match on the way to the team’s victory, and has been a staple in the team since.
Despite Ellis’s roster lacking genuine surprises, it makes this year’s SheBelieves Cup an important opportunity for players to prove themselves with seven months to go before the team qualifies for the World Cup.
“I think it’s going to be competitive for those last few spots” on the World Cup qualifying roster, Ellis said. It is why she thinks this year’s SheBelieves Cup “gives us a fantastic opportunity for these players.”