This week, the United States women’s national team gets its last good opportunity to test out new players and tactics ahead of the World Cup. The three-match SheBelieves Cup pits the USWNT against fellow World Cup participants Brazil, Japan, and England, and it’ll probably be the final time the squad convenes before Jill Ellis settles on her final 23-woman roster.
Eighteen of the roster spots are virtually set, which means there’s still a slew of players competing for the final five places. How those first choice players perform in the SheBelieves Cup will be worth watching, but more importantly, the tournament could be a proving ground for a handful of players who still need to convince Ellis that they should be on the plane to France.
Here’s how the roster is shaping up ahead of the tournament, which begins on Wednesday night when the USWNT takes on Japan (7 p.m. ET, FS1).
Absolute locks — 9
Alyssa Naeher (goalkeeper)
Becky Sauerbrunn (center back)
Kelley O’Hara (right back)
Crystal Dunn (left back)
Julie Ertz (defensive midfield)
Lindsey Horan (central midfield)
Megan Rapinoe (left wing)
Tobin Heath (right wing)
Alex Morgan (striker)
You’ll get to watch eight of these players at SheBelieves, with only Lindsey Horan sitting out. She’s resting after picking up a minor injury in recent games, but she’s in no danger of losing her place — she’s arguably the best player on the team at the moment. These players, when fit, are clearly first choice.
Virtual locks — 9
Ashlyn Harris (goalkeeper)
Emily Sonnett (center back, right back)
Tierna Davidson (center back)
Abby Dahlkemper (center back)
Casey Short (left back)
Sam Mewis (defensive midfield, central midfield)
Rose Lavelle (attacking midfield)
Mallory Pugh (wing)
Christen Press (wing, striker)
It would take an injury, off-the-field incident, or truly catastrophic drop in form for any of these players to miss out on the World Cup. They’re not locked-in starters, but they’ve established themselves as key pieces on the roster. Expect all of them besides Harris, the backup goalkeeper, to get significant playing time in this tournament.
The 6 players at SheBelieves fighting for a maximum of 5 World Cup spots
And here’s where it gets interesting. The USWNT has more excellent players than it has World Cup roster spots, so this camp and set of three games should serve as a job interview for the players who aren’t quite part of the core rotation. I’ve listed them below in order of what I think are their likelihoods of making the World Cup roster.
Carli Lloyd (attacking midfield) — It’s strange to think of Lloyd as anything but a core member of the national team, but her playing time has been significantly reduced recently, and for good reason. Since her sensational hat trick in the 2015 World Cup final, Lloyd has been inconsistent, scoring the occasional outstanding goal but failing to string together two good games in a row. At 36 and in poor club form, she probably isn’t one of the 23 best American players right now. But she has value as a player who can score a goal from nothing off the bench, and it seems like Ellis values her as a leader who sets a high standard in training.
Adrianna Franch (goalkeeper) — While Franch is unlikely to see the field in this tournament or the World Cup, she’s rightfully earned a place on the roster. She’s probably been the best goalkeeper in the NWSL over the past two years, but Ellis is committed to Naeher, for better or worse.
McCall Zerboni (defensive midfield, central midfield) — Zerboni was a wildly inconsistent player during her WPS and early NWSL days, but she’s become the rock of Paul Riley’s North Carolina Courage/Western New York Flash teams, making NWSL Best XI twice and helping the team win two NWSL titles. A broken elbow kept her out of World Cup qualifying, but Zerboni returned to the team in January and looked lively in her appearances off the bench. Zerboni is an elite ball-winner in midfield, and Ellis probably sees her as a valuable substitute in games when the USWNT has a narrow lead and wants to protect it.
Jessica McDonald (wing, striker) — Like Lloyd and Zerboni, McDonald looks likely to win a spot on the team because she has a clear utility coming off the bench. Even in seasons when she’s been in contention for the golden boot, McDonald’s managers have often used her as a substitute, letting her run full blast for 30 minutes instead of asking her to play a full 90. Her speed and work rate regularly exploits tired and slow defenders.
Andi Sullivan (central midfield) — Sullivan once looked like a lock to become a star player for the USWNT, but she hasn’t quite been the same player she was before she tore her ACL in 2016. She had a poor debut season for the Washington Spirit, but the team as a whole was bad, and there’s plenty of reason to believe she can succeed on a team with a better coach. Because of the absences of Lindsey Horan and a few other yet-to-be-mentioned players, she’ll have a chance to prove she belongs in the USWNT midfield.
Emily Fox (defense) — Just 20 years old, Fox is a versatile defender from North Carolina who probably has a very bright future with the USWNT after the World Cup. But Ellis is likely to turn to more experienced options for her final roster, and is likely using SheBelieves to give Fox some camp experience ahead of the Olympics cycle.
It’s going to take a miracle for …
These players aren’t at the SheBelieves Cup, so they’re ostensibly out of Ellis’ plans. They could change her mind with some sensational NWSL performances, but don’t count on it.
Danielle Colaprico (defensive midfield) — Originally called into this roster, Colaprico had to drop out due to a minor injury she picked up while playing in Australia. I’d like to think Colaprico could win a spot with some dominant play for the Chicago Red Stars, but she’s been one of the best players in NWSL for four years and it hasn’t mattered yet for reasons that are difficult to discern. Maybe because she’s short? She’s 5’3 on a good day in cleats, while everyone who’s been picked ahead of her at her position is at least 5’6. Despite this, Colaprico hilariously won 59 percent of her aerial duels in 2018.
Allie Long (defensive midfield) — Long is in camp with the USWNT right now, but she didn’t get added to the roster after Colaprico dropped out, which isn’t a good sign for her future. She improved quite a bit under new coach Vlatko Andonovski with Reign FC last season, but that apparently wasn’t enough to convince Ellis.
Savannah McCaskill (attacking midfield) — There’s no doubt that McCaskill has a big future with the national team, especially after her excellent winter in Australia alongside Colaprico. Her ability to play wing, forward, attacking midfield, or central midfield is a huge plus. But she appears to be comfortably behind Rose Lavelle and Carli Lloyd in the battle for a No. 10 role. From a pure soccer skills standpoint, she’s better than Lloyd, but it seems she’s being made to wait her turn.
Morgan Brian (central midfield) — Brian was the hero of the 2015 World Cup. The tournament will be remembered for Lloyd’s hat trick, but it was Brian’s insertion into the lineup from the quarterfinal onward that turned around the USWNT. Sadly, Brian has been constantly battling injuries since 2015 and hasn’t improved as a player since. She appears to have played her way out of Ellis’ plans.
Jane Campbell (goalkeeper) — Previously the third goalkeeper, now justifiably behind Franch. But Campbell is only 24, and improved significantly from her rookie year to her second season in the NWSL. She could still become the starting keeper in the future.
Merritt Mathias (right back) — Mathias is an extremely fit, extremely hard working right back, but her crossing ability and defensive positioning are pretty suspect. Still, she’s probably the best backup option at the position if Kelley O’Hara gets injured. The right back depth chart is looking pretty grim.
Sofia Huerta (attacking midfield, right back) — Huerta’s situation is very strange. She asked to be traded from Chicago to Houston so that she could get an opportunity to start at right back and make the national team. Houston did the best thing for their team and started her at attacking midfield, her best position, where she’s one of the most underrated players in the league — she ended 2018 on eight goals and six assists from 65 shots and 40 key passes. She was a much better AM than Lavelle and Lloyd last season, but Ellis is unwilling to look at her in that position. I really do not like how Jill Ellis evaluates players.
Lynn Williams (wing, striker) — For whatever reason, Williams’ club form just does not translate to the national team. She’s an MVP-caliber player for the Courage, but regularly looks uncomfortable and off the pace for the USWNT, and it appears that Ellis is done looking at her for this cycle. A big start to the NWSL season probably wouldn’t help her.
Amy Rodriguez (striker) — Rodriguez isn’t one of the 23 best American players at the moment, but she still deserves consideration as a situational substitute. There’s no one else in the pool that plays as a back-to-goal deep-lying forward that likes creating for teammates more than scoring. If she starts the season in good form for Utah Royals, she should get another look.
Jaelene Hinkle (left back) — Hinkle is both the best left back in NWSL and vocally homophobic. Her omission from the USWNT is supposedly a “soccer decision,” though that’s hard to believe. In any event, she won’t be on the team no matter how well she plays for NC Courage.