To say it’s been an odd year for the United States Women’s National Team may be a bit of an understatement. But if a team is going to have challenges, few would argue that it’s best to have those challenges in a year with no championships on the line.
During the Tournament of Nations, when the U.S. opened with a 1-0 loss vs. Australia before its stunning 4-3 comeback win over Brazil and workmanlike 3-0 win over Japan, there was some social media chatter expressing frustration about the players and head coach Jill Ellis.
Yes, fans are fickle and want to win every game. We see this across the country weekends throughout the year at youth soccer games. Win first, development second.
But 2017 is really a year of testing and development for the current World Champions. Ellis has a remarkable opportunity to dip into the deep talent pool of American female footballers in an effort to find the right mix of players as qualifying for the 2019 World Cup begins to rise on the horizon.
To the credit of Ellis, she has not made it easy on her talented crew of players. She has played some out of position, and this year’s tournaments — the SheBelieves Cup earlier this year and the summer’s Tournament of Nations — featured the top teams from around the world. Those squads were not only looking to maintain their respective high FIFA rankings but also relished the opportunity to come to the U.S. and beat the world champs on their home soil.
While the results at times haven’t been to the liking of fans, and the players and coaching staff as well, the losses long-term may prove to be beneficial. Winning at times can mask what ills a team. The losses, while tough to swallow in the moment, do give a coaching staff the impetus to closely examine the problem areas and develop solutions.
The biggest challenge facing Ellis may be the age of certain players. Carli Lloyd, who in 2015 and 2016 was the FIFA women’s world player of the year, will be 37 when the next World Cup begins. Megan Rapinoe, who is clearly back from her knee injury, will be 34 and even Alex Morgan will cross the 30 age threshold.
But there is a lot of youth available to Ellis with the likes of Mallory Pugh, Rose Lavelle and Lynn Williams. The next two years will serve as seasoning for these players and allow them to develop leadership roles.
In addition, while Alyssa Naeher has been the regular keeper for Ellis the past several games, it’s not a given that she’ll be between the pipes in 2019. So opportunity exists there as well.
So while the U.S. women going through some moments of pain as they head toward defense of their world title in two years, be patient fans. The kids will be alright.