Talent and skill are obviously foremost, as is choosing the right mix of players at each position.
When it came to the hardest decisions for her World Cup roster, however, the quality Jill Ellis kept coming back to was trust. Who do you know won’t buckle under the pressure of a month-long tournament? Who can handle the expectations of being a favorite to defend the World Cup title? Who can Ellis put on the field with 10 minutes left and be confident she will get the job done?
“World Cups aren’t moments to invest in players,” Ellis said Thursday after announcing her roster. “World Cups are about winning.”
That’s clear in looking at the veteran-laden roster. Of the 23 players on the U.S. roster, 12 are holdovers from the team that won the World Cup four years ago. Of the 11 newcomers, seven have made 30 or more appearances for the national team.
United States women's soccer coach Jill Ellis. (Photo: Bill Streicher, USA TODAY Sports)
Perhaps most telling in Ellis’ thinking: She selected defender Ali Krieger and midfielder Morgan Brian, both of whom were mainstays of the 2015 World Cup squad but who have played sparingly for the national team the last two years.
“What I know about Ali Krieger is no moment is ever going to be too big for her,” Ellis said. “As a coach, when you get down to this point, the psychological piece is also an important part of your consideration.
“They’re all players that have experienced big moments. Know what it takes. Have lived in those moments.”
The Americans open Group F play against Thailand on June 11 in Reims, France.
The World Cup is a grind like no other. The Americans go in prepared to play seven games, which would mean they’d make the July 7 final. The intensity and pressure grow with every game, and media obligations and traveling to a different city every third or fourth day add another burden.
For the U.S. women, there is the added pressure of knowing that, back home, nothing less than a place in the finals will do.
It’s why, as Ellis was drawing up her roster, she kept going back to the names she knows.
“It’s not even the caps, it’s not even the medals, it’s the moments that they’ve lived through. Those are the things you as a coach realize what you’re going to need,” Ellis said. “After a game, if it’s been a tough game, you’ve got a player in there that’s lived it, that knows how hard this journey is going to be.”
Kelley O’Hara and Becky Sauerbrunn are the lynchpins of the backline. But when O’Hara, who had ankle surgery last fall, had a setback after the She Believes Cup in March, Ellis brought Krieger back to the national team for the first time since April 2017 for a pair of friendlies.
Though Krieger did not play in the first game, she started the second. And went all 90 minutes.
Brian was the youngest player on the 2015 squad, and Ellis’ decision to start her in the quarterfinal game against China was pivotal. An offense that had been sputtering suddenly clicked, and what had been a unpredictable squad became a juggernaut.
But Brian has been slowed by a series of nagging injuries, playing just 19 games since the start of 2017, including one this year. Ellis said she flew to Chicago, where Brian plays for the Red Stars of the NWSL, and met with both the player and her coach.
Those conversations convinced her that Brian was not only ready for the World Cup but also still someone the Americans needed.
“You spend a lot of time as a coach going through every possible scenario,” Ellis said. “That’s the kind of level of depth and versatility you have to go through. When I did that, things started to really fall into place.
“When you weigh putting a player in with 10 minutes left in a game and they know their role on a set piece and the moment doesn’t get too big for them, those are the pieces you just — you can’t buy that experience.”
Defending their title won't be easy for the U.S. women. But Ellis trusts she has the right team to do it.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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