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Ellis relishing chance to build depth through USWNT injury crisis

Lately, things have gone swimmingly for the U.S. Women’s National Team. The team has been on an undefeated streak since July, with their most recent result being an impressive win against Germany. Yet, they currently find themselves without four players that were standouts last year, all of them potential starters. That inconveniences any coach, but Jill Ellis is not complaining.

“These players are going to be able to help” Ellis told SBI, “and I think the players that are in there are going to be competing for starting positions. I think it creates a natural competitiveness when you have almost two players competing for every position.”

Many of the roles have gone to players who have had some experience with the national team, and could have been expected to compete for starting spots regardless, like Lindsey Horan. Tierna Davidson, though, stands out because her only two caps have come in 2018, quickly becoming a starter in her first experiences with the national team. It came as a surprise to some that Davidson started in the spot usually belonging to the currently injured Becky Sauerbrunn. Ellis, though, said that Davidson’s quick rise was part of the plan.

I saw her play over a year ago,” Ellis said, watching her in a tournament with the U-23 national team. She talked about the player with the U-23 national team coach B.J. Snow.

“She won’t be a six with us and he agreed,” Ellis recalled of her conversation with Snow. “We thought her best spot was a five.” The coach added that “all the initial boxes you kind of look for were checked” with Davidson.

“She’s a natural left footed player,” Ellis said, “she’s got confidence on the ball, she’s got good speed, [and] she’s got good size.”

Davidson joined the team for the back end of last year’s January Camp after a U-23 camp, and Ellis had plans to bring her in for the November friendlies against Canada, though commitments with Stanford University got in the way.

By the time the friendly against Denmark came, Ellis knew she wanted to see Davidson in a match.

“She just seemed … at ease, and then we started to see more and more of her qualities,” Ellis said. “She’s got great range in her passing. She reads the game exceptionally well.”

My intent was for her, truly, even with Becky [Sauerbrunn] in, was to give her opportunity and vet her as a part of this team,” Ellis added. “January was the pivotal moment to see if she would settle into her personality on the field, and she did.”

Davidson and a few of her teammates impressing does not just allow the USWNT to function while missing starters, but does the important task of building depth.

I hope, obviously, nobody picks up an injury and you hope they’re all healthy,” Ellis said, “but what we’re building in, essentially, is layers of depth that can absorb that, if it happens. … To have the depth there is key.”

Eventually, though, the strong performance of these players begin to create a dilemma for Ellis. Once the injured quartet of Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle, and Samantha Mewis return to health, the coach will have an issue when it comes choosing a starting lineup. Ellis remains positive about the situation. 

“It’s a great problem to have,” she said.

In addition to having players ready to start in case of emergency, Ellis noted that the depth will help by the time World Cup qualifying comes around in October.

The timing of having World Cup qualifiers coming right at the end of [the NWSL] season, I think that’s going to be a challenge,” Ellis said. “I think our league is very demanding physically, and [in terms of] travel as well, and the volume of games that these players are playing, sometimes three in a week.”

With depth, that naturally allows Ellis and her staff to manage players on a very specific basis, depending on their levels of rest.

Ellis also emphasized that adding depth does not just mean bringing in players to play second fiddle.

You take someone like [Julie Ertz], who was not a starter in January [of 2015] and started every game for the World Cup,” she said. “I think we just have to make sure we are open minded to players in terms of getting really good looks at them,” much like they were with Ertz three years ago. As Ellis noted, “everybody has a different path.”

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