Playing three group games in less than a week in World Cup qualifying becomes more difficult with a roster of just 20 players. However, United States women’s coach Jill Ellis said she will use it as an opportunity to build continuity and familiarity among her preferred starters.
“There are a lot of moving parts with just how we have to move around the country and the short period, so [the team will have] high focus on recovery,” she told reporters in a conference call on Monday. “With the way we play, there will be a high-volume work load on certain positions. We’ll be sensitive to that. We’re expecting a lot out of our outside backs and our wide forwards, but I think trying to build a core, consistent group would be a big part of it for me.”
For the team’s last training camp in September, Ellis called in 28 players before whittling it down to 20 ahead of the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, which starts Oct. 15 with the U.S. hosting Trinidad and Tobago. In addition to the 20 selected for the roster, three players from that initial group are training with the team but will not play: goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, Julie Johnston and Kristie Mewis.
The final World Cup roster will include 23 players, but Ellis said those three are not necessarily the players who would slot into the squad for Canada 2015.
World Cup veterans Nicole Barnhart, Stephanie Cox, Shannon Boxx and Rachel van Hollebeke were left off the qualifying roster. Ellis specifically mentioned Boxx’s continuing battle for match fitness after giving birth in February.
Goalkeeper Hope Solo is on the roster despite allegations of domestic violence and ongoing legal proceedings. U.S. Soccer has received criticism from many outlets and on social media for continuing to play Solo and for celebrating her recent national-team shutout record.
On Monday, former U.S. teammate and goalkeeper Jill Loyden published an editorial on the USA Today website calling for Ellis to take a stand against the allegations being levied against Solo.
“U.S. Soccer needs to send the right message. They need to communicate that domestic violence is never okay and that it will not be tolerated,” Loyden wrote. “Hope Solo is my teammate and a personal mentor. But I cannot stand by as young fans receive the message that this behavior — even if the allegations proved to be inaccurate — can go unnoticed.”
Ellis said she and her staff stand by the decision to continue calling Solo into the national team while the case runs its course.
“I’ve had a lot of thought and a lot of discussions within U.S. Soccer,” she said. “Certainly, we acknowledge that these are very serious issues, but after careful thought and consideration, we determined to stand by our decision to let this legal process play out and have Hope remain with the team.”
Ellis also spoke at length about how she has changed the way her players think about their roles and positions. Speaking specifically about Abby Wambach playing deeper in midfield (in a playmaking, or No. 10, role) and how the dynamic changes when Megan Rapinoe plays there instead, Ellis said her goal has been to make more of a distinction in how the U.S. attacks.
“We’ve stayed away, honestly, from specifically calling players positionally. We’ve really gone to numbers, so when we look at the [No.] 10 position with Abby and the 10 position with Megan, it’s going to be played slightly differently, obviously, based on their qualities,” she said. “I think for Abby, we definitely want to have a player we can play off of, so we’re basically asking Abby to be a little bit more of a player we can bounce balls off of and really have her focus on her ability to hold balls for us, allow our players to get underneath her a little bit more, and I think we’re playing probably with a bit more width. I think that she’s embraced that.”
Star forward Alex Morgan’s role also plays into the dynamic because she and Wambach often play in the same space on the field but in different ways.
“Alex is always sort of stretching the line, and Abby wants to come underneath,” Ellis said. “I think we’ve made more of a clear distinction of how we want to come off the line. Bottom line is, when she comes off the line, people have to respect that, and her role now opens up spaces for other people, and that’s kind of what we’re looking at for her.”
Having Wambach as a presence in the middle allows the wingers and fullbacks to provide more width in attack, Ellis said. In central midfield, she has played Lauren Holiday as a holding player (No. 6) rather than her accustomed attacking role, which allows the team to keep better possession and build out of the back easier because of her natural passing ability.
“We’ve got Cheney more into the 6 role to help us build and to give us that ability, that conductor to kind of spray the ball around from deeper,” Ellis said.
Her discussion on Monday was as detailed as Ellis has gotten with her philosophy for the U.S. team, which is something national team coaches from all nations sometimes don’t like to discuss with the media. However, Ellis said she doesn’t want her team to worry too much about what an opponent does and instead focus on maximizing its own ability in each match.
“I think the philosophy and information that the coaches are imparting is, we’re really focused on our performance. We truly feel that, against any opponent, if we can maximize what we’re truly capable of — and it’s not going to be an overnight process — we think any team will have problems with us,” Ellis said. “We’re going to approach every single game the same way: there will always be a scouting report, there will always be information discussed from the opponent, but primarily, how we beat the opponent and focusing on ourselves.”