It’s a good time to be a fan of the U.S. Women’s National Team. We’re in the last stages of pre-World Cup prep, the team has a few key stars peaking at the right time, and there is finally a roster to discuss and, naturally, argue about.
Beyond some immediate questions—How far forward will attacker-turned-left back Crystal Dunn end up playing? How many people will Lindsey Horan murder this summer? Why are there so many forwards? (the answer to that last one is that coach Jill Ellis values versatility to such a psychotic extent that she even joked about possibly playing Tobin Heath, the team’s creative wizard, at left back)—the most puzzling thing is at the bottom end of the roster, where two names stand out as questionable additions: Morgan Brian and Ali Krieger.
Let’s start with Brian, because there’s an easier case to be made both for her inclusion and against it. Brian was one of the stars of the USWNT’s title-winning run in the 2015 World Cup, coming into the side in the U.S.’s quarterfinal matchup against China and turning the team’s lethargic performance into something more befitting of the best team in that tournament.
She’s only gotten better in the four years since, and at full health, Brian is likely as important to midfield dominance as Horan and Julie Ertz.
The problem is that Brian can’t stay healthy. Since 2015, she’s suffered at least one major injury every season. This season has been the same, as nagging injuries have kept her out of the national team setup since January. If Brian is healthy, it makes sense to pick her as a flier in case she regains form in time for the higher-stake games later in the tournament.
The U.S.’s group isn’t too brutal on paper (Thailand and Chile aren’t particularly good, and so the only concern is Sweden, who drew the U.S. 0-0 in the 2015 group stages and knocked them out of the 2016 Olympics), so throwing Brian into the action at that stage of the tournament could pay off huge later on if she recaptures her 2015 form. But if Brian isn’t fit enough to play an important role, Ellis is wasting a slot that could have gone to a less flashy but more reliable rotation player, someone like McCall Zerboni.
The story is more complicated with Krieger. Ellis kept the 34-year-old right back out of the team for almost two years, even though Krieger has been one of the better defensive full backs in women’s soccer. As Ellis began and then perfected her use of converted wingers at the full back positions, Krieger’s more conservative approach fell out of favor. It seemed like Krieger’s time with the national team had ended.
Almost out of nowhere, Ellis recalled Krieger to the side this year. Krieger impressed in a start against Belgium in April, and here she is today, headed to France for the World Cup. Her interview after the Belgium match summed up the weird journey:
As SB Nation’s Kimberly McCauley pointed out, there is a method to the madness: the main holding midfielder-left back-right back trio of Ertz, Dunn, and O’Hara will leave a lot of space for teams to attack the U.S. as they all bomb forward. By having Krieger as a pure right back rather than a converted winger like O’Hara, Ellis can stabilize the backline a bit while still allowing Ertz and Dunn to do their thing without leaving center backs completely isolated.
And though experience might be overrated in some circles, particularly on a team that already has so many veterans of at least one World Cup, Krieger’s return to the side adds another strong leader whose done it all before to the locker room. It’s just hard to see how Ellis couldn’t at least fit both Krieger and left back Casey Short to give herself that same option on both sides of defense.
The good thing for USWNT fans is that none of these issues are enough to alter the U.S.’s status as World Cup favorites. The top half of the team is just too good. It’s likely that neither Krieger nor Brian will even play all that much in France, as Ellis will probably stick to a stacked starting XI and try to overpower every other team with attackers until they lift the trophy again. The presence of Krieger and Brian in the squad is still a gamble, especially if a couple injuries to the starters throw one or both of into a prominent role, but it’s a calculated one.