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USWNT pieces falling into place as Jill Ellis finalizes World Cup preparations

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With four friendlies left to play before the start of the Women’s World Cup in June, U.S. coach Jill Ellis says she feels like the pieces of her puzzle are coming together heading into Saturday’s game in St. Louis against New Zealand (Fox Sports 1, 3:30 p.m. ET) and another closed-door scrimmage against the Kiwis on April 6.

Hope Solo is established back in goal after returning from suspension to help lead the U.S. to the Algarve Cup title last month, and Ellis says midfielder Megan Rapinoe and forward Sydney Leroux are back at full strength after seeing limited action last month while they were still recovering from injuries.

“I’m pretty comfortable knowing who my core 13 to 14 players are when you get three subs [as in the World Cup],” explains Ellis, “and I’m using these games for those players.”

About the only continuing injury concern is defender Christie Rampone, the U.S. captain, who Ellis says has been dealing with a sprained MCL. Her likely replacement against New Zealand will be Julie Johnston, who took advantage of injuries to break out in a big way in the Algarve, starting at center back in the three U.S. victories over Norway, Switzerland and France.

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“To see [Johnston] in a stressful environment do so well was good,” says Ellis. “I’ve always liked J.J. because she can also play in a pinch in the midfield, but what she didn’t have on her side was experience. And going into a World Cup that’s a big part of it as well, putting people in stressful situations. We talk constantly about having three potential starters at two positions, and I’d definitely put her in the mix now.”

Ellis says she wants to let the players know who’s on the 23-player World Cup roster next week before they return to their clubs for the start of the NWSL season. She’ll wait until a couple days after the closed-door game to make her decisions. That might sound earlier than expected coming two months before the start of the tournament, but Ellis says she has a clear idea of what she wants at this point.

“For me, the role players, the core group, it’s certainly presented itself to me,” she says. “Now it’s sort of about getting the players fine-tuned. We’re spending this whole week [in training] focusing on our attacking play. That’s usually the last piece to come together. These next two months we’re focusing on that and reviewing our defending. I feel good about our team defending, about our accountability and responsibilities defensively. Now it’s about fine-tuning the attacking stuff.”

One important decision that Ellis has made is to bring Carli Lloyd back from a wide position to a spot in the central midfield during the most recent camp and in Saturday’s game. Lloyd’s return is tied to the improving fitness of Rapinoe (who can play out wide), and it looks to continue during the World Cup.

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“No one’s ever really asked me this, but for me, Lloyd, [Morgan] Brian and [Lauren] Holiday are going to play in the central midfield during the World Cup,” Ellis says. “Because I need all three of them. We only moved Carli out wider in January, and I think a lot of it to be honest was we lost Rapinoe in the January camp, who else can we have wide? Can we look at Lloyd in another position which gets Brian on the field [with] Holiday?”

“But going into this camp it was in my mind, Carli is going to be on the field for us, and I love that she can play in a slightly wider area in more of an attacking role. But I’ve also said if we need something else in the middle she can provide that. She’s proven there.”

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Speaking of the central midfield, it seemed like a good opportunity to ask Ellis straight-up: Why don’t you consider using a pure defensive midfielder, especially against some of the strongest opponents at the World Cup?

When the U.S. has conceded goals recently against teams like France, Brazil and Norway, the lack of midfield cover for the back line has often been apparent, especially on the counter. That has led to questions of whether it might be better to go with a player like Johnston or Shannon Boxx (or a player who’s not on the roster like Seattle’s Keelin Winters) in a spot just in front of the back line.

Ellis isn’t interested.

“In the modern game I don’t think it’s about having a pure defensive midfielder,” she says. “If you look at Germany, they’ve got [Dzsenifer] Marozsán playing in a No. 6 and No. 8 role, and she’s a natural No. 10. You’ve got to make sure you have players who can distribute the ball, who are quality on the ball. And I feel like now we’ve limited teams’ opportunities and goals.

“As a coach, it’s what you value. On the men’s side, you look at players who can really open up the game. Defending is a piece of that, but I also think that’s part of putting that accountability on a player, like a Moe Brian. She’s mobile, she’s good, she can defend. She wins a lot of balls in the air. I’ve always said from Day 1 not to label a player, meaning a center mid has to be able to playmake and also be able to defend … Lloyd and Holiday spray a ball around better than any midfield I’ve seen. So I value that. If I went for a potentially a pure defender, now am I getting that from them? Probably not.”

“It’s kind of what your preference is,” she continues. “What I’ll say also is I’ve looked at what’s out there, and I feel the players we have, I’d put more of a defensive responsibility and ask more of them to do that, rather than try to have a player who potentially can’t keep the ball and spray it around like the players I have in there now. The question would be who. I feel like I’ve done my due diligence and looked at the players who’ve done relatively well in the league in that role. And mobility-wise, I’d put this group against any of them.”

The experimenting phase is over, Ellis says. She may have had only one year on the job to prepare for the World Cup, but now she knows who she wants and what she wants them to do. What’s more, Ellis has flexibility, the option to go with at least a Plan A and a Plan B, which depends largely on who she has starting at the forward position.

This, too, will be a running storyline: Do you start Abby Wambach? The international game’s all-time leading goal-scorer will start games at the World Cup, but not each one—and perhaps, should the opportunity arise, not even the World Cup final. Wambach wasn’t in the starting XI for the Algarve Cup final, though that’s not to say she wouldn’t be in Canada this summer. No matter what happens, though, the U.S. plays a different style, one focused on crosses and getting the ball to her in the air, if Wambach is in the game.

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“We’re still eight or nine weeks out, and form is the piece that’s coming together,” says Ellis. “I feel like Alex [Morgan] can play with Abby. I know they’re comfortable playing together, they have that experience. But I also want us sometimes to have a different look. With Amy Rodriguez [who started the Algarve final], we played Japan in a closed-door, and her mobility is a good thing. She’s played very well, been very dangerous and kept the ball well for us.”

“Leroux wasn’t really a factor in the Algarve because she’d been out hurt, and now it’s awesome because right now she’s killed it here [in the most recent camp]. With Abby, what I know is whatever is presented [as a starter or sub], there’s confidence knowing she can deliver for us.”

In other words, there’s still a lot to talk about—and to be decided—in the next two months before kickoff in Canada.

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