Just like the U.S. men's national team in 2014, Jill Ellis' World Cup-bound women's national side will face a steep challenge at the upcoming tournament in Canada. ASN's John Halloran has more.
John D. Halloran
WHEN THE UNITED STATES
December 06, 2014
SHARE THIS STORY
women’s national team takes the field this summer in Canada for the 2015 Women’s World Cup, it will have one thing in common with the United States men’s national team that took the field this past summer in Brazil—it will be playing in the Group of Death.
On Saturday, the U.S. was drawn into Group D, alongside Sweden, Australia, and Nigeria—all of whom were considered to be the strongest teams in their respective pots.
Ironically enough, when FIFA made the decision to expand the 2015 Women’s World Cup to 24 teams, some pundits worried that the tournament’s quality would become diluted. And while that may be a problem in some groups, lopsided score lines won’t be among the worries for the U.S. squad next summer in Canada.
Here’s a quick look at the opponents the U.S. will face in the group stage and a breakdown of the roster the U.S. announced on Friday for the team’s upcoming tournament in Brazil.
The Group of Death
Reacting to the U.S.’s placement, even head coach Jill Ellis admitted the challenge in front of the Americans, saying: “It’s certainly the toughest group.”
However, she also expressed the confidence expected from the coach of the world’s No. 1 team, saying, “With our depth and the preparation we have over the next five to six months, I think we’ll be ready.”
The U.S. will open up the World Cup with No. 10 Australia, which has given the U.S. trouble in the past and has a front line led by forwards (and NWSL veterans) Lisa De Vanna and Samantha Kerr. Four days later, the U.S. will face Sweden, the one team all of the seeded teams had hoped to avoid. Sweden is coached by former U.S. manager Pia Sundhage, who led the U.S. to the finals of the 2011 World Cup and gold in the 2012 Olympics.
Sundhage and Sweden will be playing with a chip on their shoulders next summer after not getting a top-six seed for the draw, despite the fact that the club is currently ranked No. 5 in the world. Ellis seemed unfazed that the U.S. had drawn Sundhage’s Sweden: “It’s easier playing a friend. I have tremendous respect for her. It’s going to be a great game.” Apparently, however, Sundhage was not as happy with the draw, responding with what Ellis would only say was “a colorful expression.”
The last time the U.S. met Sweden, in the 2014 Algarve Cup, Sweden won 1-0. Led by one the most accomplished strikers in the world, Lotta Schelin, Sweden will present a formidable opponent and one that could do serious damage to the U.S.’s hopes of winning the tournament. The team that finishes second in group D will face the winner of group E (likely Brazil) in the Round of 16.
The “easiest” match of the group will be in the U.S.’s third game, when it faces Nigeria. And while Nigeria is only ranked No. 35 in the world, it is the top team in Africa, winning the 2014 African Women’s Championship. Nigeria's youth teams have also given the U.S. U-20 team fits in the past. Ellis described the Nigerian team as “very athletic," which could present a particular problem for a U.S. squad that struggled against the pacier CONCACAF teams in qualifying.
The Roster for Brazil
On Friday, Ellis announced the team’s roster for the International Tournament of Brasilia, a four-nation tournament taking place over the next two weeks. The U.S. will play China, Brazil, and Argentina in a round-robin then play one final game with the top two and bottom two teams in the group facing off against each other.
Here are the 24 players who will be joining the team for the tournament.
Ashlyn Harris (Washington Spirit), Alyssa Naeher (Boston Breakers), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
Lori Chalupny (Chicago Red Stars), Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Whitney Engen (WNY Flash), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Houston Dash), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Christie Rampone (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
Morgan Brian (Virginia), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lauren Holiday (FC Kansas City), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Samantha Mewis (UCLA), Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)
Sydney Leroux (Seattle Reign FC), Alex Morgan (Portland Thorns FC), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Amy Rodriguez (FC Kansas City), Abby Wambach (WNY Flash)
There were no surprises in the goalkeeper pool with Solo, Harris, and Naeher being named to the team. Solo is undoubtedly the team’s No. 1 and arguably the best goalkeeper in the world.
Backing up Solo will be Harris, who was the team’s No. 2 in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying tournament in October, and Naeher, who was not on the roster for qualifying, but trained with the team throughout the tournament.
The biggest shock of Friday’s roster announcement was the inclusion of Lori Chalupny, who hasn’t been with the team since 2009. While Chalupny had remained an active professional, she was not considered by U.S. Soccer for national team call-ups for many years due to her history of concussions. Then, in August, Chalupny reached out to U.S. Soccer and, at their request, was able to pass evaluations by two independent concussion experts.
The Chalupny call-up could throw a number of positional battles up in the air, as she gives the U.S. an experienced left back and can also play in the midfield. Additionally, Chalupny is naturally left-footed, an advantage none of the other candidates for left back enjoy.
In October’s World Cup qualifying tournament, Klingenberg put on a series of dominating performances and gave herself the inside track over O’Hara and Dunn. With Chalupny coming in, that battle may begin all over again.
Rounding out the choices in the back are Rampone, Engen, Sauerbrunn, Johnston, and Krieger. The callup for Johnston appears to confirm that she has worked her way in front of World Cup veteran Rachel Van Hollebeke as the U.S.’s fourth center back option as Johnston also made the World Cup qualifying roster while Van Hollebeke did not.
While Johnston also has the advantage of being versatile enough to play as a holding midfielder, it's worth noting that Van Hollebeke is currently playing on loan overseas in Japan. Ellis noted on Saturday that Van Hollebeke is still in her plans: “My plan is to bring Rachel into the January camp,” she said.
Also left out of the team were Stephanie Cox—who also missed the World Cup qualifying roster and is currently on the outside looking in—and Kristie Mewis, who is playing on loan in Japan at the moment.
The midfield pool only had one surprise: UCLA senior Sam Mewis. Mewis has received senior call-ups in the past, but will have a hard time bypassing any of the established players in time for next summer. Mewis is joined by Lloyd, Holiday, Brian, Heath, Rapinoe, and O’Reilly.
Brian will not join the team until after the NCAA Championship game on Sunday. In Virginia’s 3-1 semifinal win over Texas A&M on Friday night, Brian assisted on the team’s opening goal with a beautiful chipped ball in behind the Aggie defense.
This roster also seems to have spelled the end for Allie Long’s chances of making the World Cup roster. Long had not only been called up, but had earned a couple of starts this summer. Now, she has missed the last two U.S. rosters.
At forward, Ellis called in the usual contingent of Wambach, Morgan, Leroux, Press, and Rodriguez. Morgan is still recovering from an ankle injury sustained during qualifying, but said on Saturday that she will be joining the team in Brazil for training and “maybe a game.”
Although this team did have a few “new” names like Chalupny and Sam Mewis, it's obvious that Ellis intends on using the tournament in Brazil to work with her established players and get ready for Canada next summer rather than experimenting. On Saturday, Ellis said she plans on using the next two U.S. camps “gelling” and working on “relationships on the field.”
While fans who were hoping to see players like Amber Brooks, Erika Tymrak, Yael Averbuch, Jen Buczkowski, Kealia Ohai, or Sarah Hagen will be disappointed, Ellis’ roster, at this point, makes sense. Considering the U.S.’s inconsistent performances during World Cup qualifying, where the U.S. often struggled to find an offensive rhythm, locking down the roster early and spending the next six months working on finding that rhythm isn’t a bad idea.
What do you think of all this? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.