Archive for July, 2010

It wasn’t the outcome the United States wanted in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup, but there were still some standout American performances over the four games in Germany.

Crystal Dunn: The back line was never a problem for the United States, allowing only two goals on shots for which the opponents deserve more praise than the defenders deserve blame. And though not exactly imposing in stature, Dunn was the biggest reason why the back line held its own. She was composed in organization, quick to the ball in support and one-on-one situations and strong in her tackles. Replacing Whitney Engen in the middle of Anson Dorrance’s three-back is asking a lot of anyone, let alone a freshman, but Dunn appears up for that kind of challenge.

Bianca Henninger: Was she moving early on the penalty saves? It’s hard to argue otherwise, especially on the first shot. Whether she was breaking the speed limit by enough to get the state trooper moving, to borrow a metaphor, is debatable. But the ending aside, Henninger was outstanding throughout the tournament. From the distance of a television screen, she never appeared rattled but was frequently audible — a good combination in a keeper. Santa Clara lost a lot, most notably Jordan Angeli and Kiki Bosio, but it still has Henninger.

Kristie Mewis: She was the team’s most consistently creative midfield presence. Sometimes the chances might not have come with the greatest odds of success, but American soccer at every level isn’t overflowing with midfielders willing to take risks in pursuit of brilliance — and with the skill to do it in the air or on the ground. It will be interesting to see where she plays for Boston College this season. Her long-term future might be as an outside back with attacking flair in the Sergio Ramos mold.

Captain Christine Nairn still seems the most likely member of the U-20 team to make the return trip to Germany for the senior World Cup next year, if any make that trip, but Dunn, Henninger and Mewis are three I’ll be looking for in 2015.


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The United States played well enough to win during much of its stay in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup. Unfortunately, it didn’t play quite so well to ensure it did win.

And so it was that with Sunday’s quarterfinal deadlocked at 1-1 after 90 minute of regulation and 30 minutes of extra time, Nigeria eliminated the United States 4-2 on penalty kicks.

Call it a harsh ending for a tournament of harsh realities.

The game officially goes in the books as a draw, but for the first time ever in a major women’s competition, an African side walked off the field against an American team with a victory (a week and a half after an American side dropped points against an African side for the first time in a 1-1 draw against Ghana).

And for the first time ever in a women’s competition (World Cup, Under-20 World Cup, Under-17 World Cup or Olympics), the United States was eliminated before the semifinals.

If not for a few inches on Kristie Mewis’ shot off the crossbar in the second extra period, the United States might have escaped with a win. If not for half a step or half a beat of premature anticipation, at least as judged by the referee, one of keeper Bianca Henninger’s back-to-back saves against Nigeria’s Esther Sunday in the shootout might have counted and prolonged matters.

For that matter, a few inches either way in trajectory and Sunday’s blistering equalizer might have hit the wall or the crossbar instead of tying the score with barely 12 minutes to play in regulation.

Sunday’s shot was one of only two goals the United States allowed during the run of play in four games in Germany, both struck from 30 yards away and both leaving Henninger no opportunity to react and little room for anyone to blame the defenders in front of her.

It all makes for a rather severely miniscule margin of error — like NASA missing a goal-sized target on Mars by mere feet. It’s still a successful venture in the abstract — in this case, winning the CONCACAF qualifying tournament in Guatemala and winning Group D by taking seven points out of nine — but it’s ultimately unsatisfying.

There is a bigger picture in all of this. In each of the previous four Under-20 events, at least three out of the quartet of Brazil, Germany, North Korea and the United States reached the semifinals. China also earned a pair of semifinal trips in that span. In truth, only France rated as an outsider in earning a fourth-place finish two years ago. But in Colombia, Nigeria and South Korea, this year’s final quartet features not only three new faces but three new faces representing distinct parts of the globe.

Brazil didn’t get out of its group. China and Canada, the latter another habitual qualifier, didn’t even make the field of 16 teams. Mexico made it out of its group for the first time in any women’s tournament, only to lose to a South Korean team that has played the most entertaining, skillful soccer this side of Germany thus far in the event.

During the broadcast of Sunday’s game, the announcer noted that German legend Franz Beckenbauer, in attendance, had remarked on the increased parity in the women’s game. It’s the kind of thing people like Beckenbauer say when hosting a FIFA event in advance of next year’s senior World Cup in Germany and when they have aspirations to bring the men’s Cup back to Germany in the not-so-distant future.

But on occasion, even perfunctory diplomacy coincides with the truth.

The United States still has a depth of talent that’s difficult for any country to match. Through the mutually beneficial interaction of colleges, WPS and U.S. Soccer, it also has the infrastructure to take the talent at youth levels and ensure it continues improving, something countries like Nigeria, Mexico and Colombia still need to prove they can manufacture and maintain. It also doesn’t have much margin for error anymore.

To call a quarterfinal exit against Nigeria anything other than disappointing would be to diminish the talent and commitment of the players on this American team. They expected to contend for a championship because that’s what comes with putting on that national team jersey. They had the talent to contend, certainly the talent to stick around longer than four games. And they made the mistakes that will haunt them: missed finishing opportunities, difficulty maintaining possession and creating scoring chances out of sustained buildup and squandered set pieces, among them.

At the same time, it feels unfair to throw around words like “failure” without regard to to context of the bigger picture. This team didn’t fail; it just didn’t win.

Instead of only itself to blame, the U.S. also had the rest of the world to thank.

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The United States’ 5-0 win against Switzerland in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup guaranteed one team in Group D safe passage through to the next round.

Granted, it was the South Koreans, watching from the stands in Dresden, who saw their place in the knockout phase confirmed by a combination of their own 4-2 win against Ghana earlier in the day and Swiss elimination, but why quibble over minor things like details. The math means the Americans still have work to do against those same South Koreans in the final game of group play, but the Yanks looked more like defending champions than was the case in a 1-1 draw against Ghana.

What went right: Having more talent. Yes, sometimes this stuff is really complicated. If Saturday’s game was a contest involving watchmaking, bobsleighing or maintaining neutrality, sure, the Swiss might have enjoyed some inherent advantages (anything “mit Rosti” is also right in their wheelhouse).

Soccer is not quite the same story.

Going into the game, United States coach Jill Ellis said she wanted to “keep our players isolated at times so we can get players faced up.”

That’s essentially a nice way of saying the only chance the Swiss had was to put all 11 players around the 18-yard box and leave the Americans to try and dance inside a phone booth. (It occurs to me that it’s quite possible no player on this team is old enough to have ever used a phone booth. This is a somewhat depressing realization. But I digress.)

The Swiss weren’t helpless. There’s a reason Ramona Bachman already counts Umea IK and the Atlanta Beat on her professional resume, and it’s difficult to think of too many college coaches who wouldn’t happily put Danique Stein into the middle of a back line tomorrow. But on a one-for-one basis, the Swiss don’t have the skill or athleticism of Sydney Leroux, Kristie Mewis, Zakiya Bywaters or Maya Hayes, the four players who spent the most time pressing the issue in open space near the Swiss goal.

Aside from the obvious of Leroux’s hat trick on goals that ran the gamut of the skill set that puts her among the world’s best in the age group, Mewis and Hayes jumped off the screen with strong first-half performances (the second half existing as little more than a bonus cardio workout).

As exciting in open space as any Boston athlete this side of Rajon Rondo, Mewis put her team on the scoreboard in the fourth minute with a blast from 15 yards that provided something close to an instant replay of Frank Lampard’s goal-that-wasn’t against Germany in South Africa — only judged correctly this time by the referee, which would surely please Sepp Blatter if, you know, he was watching this tournament. But the Boston College rising sophomore was a force beyond that tally. She seemed to have more room to roam in the midfield with Hayes playing a different sort of forward than Vicki DiMartino did in the first half of the first game, and not many midfielders can match her for the combination of strength of shot and creativity.

For her part, Hayes didn’t disappoint after earning the start. She appears to be a good fit alongside goal-oriented players like Leroux and Mewis, able to stretch the field, open space and speed up the game but also possessing the touch to then keep play developing — as she did in setting up Leroux’s first goal with a perfect, subtle pass across the top of the box.

That the United States scored five goals for the first time since 2002 in an Under-20 World Cup wasn’t nearly as impressive as watching a lineup where, particularly in the first half, the pieces seemed to complement each other. That certainly doesn’t mean they can’t do the same with DiMartino (or Teresa Noyola or Courtney Verloo) on the field, but the more options Ellis has to work with, the better it is for the team’s prospects.

What went wrong: That the United States was going to win this game was in little doubt from the outset. That it did so with a clean sheet was as much due to Swiss bad luck as anything else. Right from the outset, when Ana Crnogorcevic (understandable that her parents would want to keep her first name short) sent an open header in front of goal just wide in the third minute, the Swiss had plenty of chances.

The American back line has generally looked good — bordering on outstanding — through two games. The only ball that has gotten past keeper Bianca Henninger, the best in Germany at her position to this point, in my humble opinion, was on a shot from 30-plus yards that will go down as one of the goals of the tournament.

Center backs Crystal Dunn and Toni Pressley are steady in the best possible sense of an adjective that can go either way. At least in watching on television from an ocean away, neither Dunn nor Pressley leave you holding your breath when the opponent has the ball near the box. As Pressley did with a number of assertive, confident tackles in and around penalty territory against Switzerland, they always seem to make the necessary plays.

But as with Crnogorcevic’s header, where she slipped into open space between Dunn and Rachel Quon, it’s tough to escape the nagging feeling that both Ghana and Switzerland had just a few too many opportunities in dangerous space for teams that don’t rank near the top of the tournament field. Against the Swiss, Christine Nairn quietly had a strong game tracking back on defense, Amber Brooks made some good plays and outside backs Kendall Johnson and Quon were solid again, but even before the score got out of hand, there were a few less-than-cohesive moments.

Beginning with the game against South Korea and continuing into any additional games, the rest of the United States’ opponents are likely to be more skilled at both setting up chances and finishing them.

Speaking of which …

What’s next: For those who don’t get ESPNU or ESPN3.com, there’s good news, with the game against South Korea airing Wednesday on ESPN2 at 12 p.m. ET.

And it should be worth tuning in. The South Koreans have their place in the next round, and in truth, Group C is in such a confusing state of affairs with Mexico and Nigeria on top of the table and Japan and England in danger of elimination that the Koreans aren’t likely to have much incentive to go for the win against the United States to avoid anyone (they’ll know the order of Group C finish by the start of the game). But all that said, no team is likely to pass up a shot at the United States, especially considering much of this South Korea team was part of the team eliminated 4-2 by the United States in the quarterfinals of the 2008 Under-17 Women’s World Cup.

Lee Hyun Young scored both of South Korea’s goals in that 2008 U-17 game and is a regular in the U-20 starting lineup, but it’s Ji So Yun who leads this year’s tournament with five goals in two games. For comparison, five goals was enough to win the Golden Ball as the leading scorer for the entire tournament in both 2006 and 2008.

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A little more than a week ago, I asked United States midfielder Christine Nairn if the Under-20 team found time between training and other summer activities to watch any of the men’s World Cup games. Not only did they watch, she said, but they sometimes used them as discussion tools in training — what would they do if presented with similar situations to those they watched unfold?

Someone should have stressed those were just hypothetical questions.

In a game that played out far too much like most of the men’s game from South Africa, the United States surrendered a goal inside 10 minutes and had to fight for dear life before finally tying the score in the second half. The major difference in this case was as the opening game of group play in the Under-20 Women’s World Cup, there wouldn’t be any extra time for the Ghanaians to score a second time.

As it was, the 1-1 draw represented the first time an African team has ever taken points from a United States women’s team in the World Cup, Olympics, Under-20 World Cup or Under-17 World Cup. And it leaves the defending champions in an uncomfortable second-place tie with Ghana behind South Korea in Group D.

U.S. starting lineup: GK; Bianca Henninger; D: Rachel Quon, Toni Pressley, Crystal Dunn, Kendall Johnson; MF: Kristie Mewis, Amber Brooks, Christine Nairn, Zakiya Bywaters; F: Sydney Leroux, Vicki DiMartino (Subs: Maya Hayes for DiMartino, 46th minute HT, Teresa Noyola for Nairn, 54th minute)

What went right, Part I: Start with the players who didn’t start the game. Jill Ellis’ first two substitutions worked out precisely as she presumably hoped. Maya Hayes came on at halftime for Vicki DiMartino and stretched Ghana, before and after she set up the equalizing goal with a great sprint down the middle of the field and showed poise in making the finishing pass to Sydney Leroux for the goal in the 70th minute. As she made her run, Hayes ended up with the ball at her feet courtesy of a pinpoint pass between defenders by Teresa Noyola. The Stanford midfielder came on early in the second half for Christine Nairn.

It’s fantastically easy to second-guess coaching decisions after the fact (fun, too), and it’s equally easy to stay quiet when the second guess you make in your mind prove far more fallible than a coach’s first guess does in reality. To that end, I was surprised (i.e. I thought it was the wrong move) when Ellis took out Nairn. Noyola was a clear choice as the kind of playmaker in the middle of the field that the U.S. needed and didn’t have in the first half, but I wouldn’t have had the guts to take out Nairn to do it. Ellis did, and that decision might have saved the point for her team.

What went right, Part II: The United States needed Noyola and Hayes because it wasn’t getting much play through the middle of the field for the first 45 minutes. What it did get throughout the game were good runs forward from Kendall Johnson and Rachel Quon, outside backs in the 4-4-2.

Talking to Ellis before the team left for Germany, she said exhibition losses against Germany and Japan left her concerned that opponents could focus too much on the middle of the field against the Americans without having to worry about getting burned by the outside backs. But until Noyola and Hayes came on, almost the exact opposite was true against Ghana – going wide was just about all the U.S. had. Quon wasn’t healthy in those earlier games against Germany and Japan, and her track record at Stanford and the international level speaks for itself as a player of attacking skill out of the back. But Johnson has a chance to be one of the truly promising long-term developments of this tournament for the U.S. program.

What went right, Part III: It’s usually not a great sign for the United States at any level when the keeper has a monster game, but credit Henninger all the same. There was nothing she could have done on the goal — beaten by a perfectly-struck ball that ricocheted in off the post — but she saved the draw on at least two occasions in the second half. Time and opponents with more sustained possession and set pieces will reveal more about her management skills, but she played the part of shot-stopper extremely well against Ghana.

What went wrong: Frankly, that’s a lot of positives for a game in which an American women’s team dropped points to an African side for the first time ever in a major competition. In part, that’s because Ghana didn’t luck its way into a point. The underdogs hit lulls and fell into a shell late, but they also showed a lot of creativity and talent. Nevertheless, the picture for the Americans is not entirely rosy coming out of the game, obviously.

Noyola and Hayes played well after the break, the outside backs provided some good push and Leroux netted a goal, but this again looked like a team for whom the attacking whole is less than the sum of the parts. It struggled to score against Costa Rica and Mexico in the late stages of qualifying. It struggled to score against Germany and Japan. It even struggled to score in the scrimmage I watched against a WPSL team over Fourth of July weekend.

It’s difficult to point to one particular pressure point. All too familiar with losing big to their regional not-quite-rival, Costa Rica and Mexico played defensive soccer, packing it in against the United States. I didn’t see the games against Germany and Japan, but from what Ellis said, it sounded like good teams bottled up a somewhat depleted United States through the middle and dared it to adapt. And against Ghana, a lack of precision and patience with passing in the first half morphed into some understandably hurried chances during the scramble to equalize in the second half.

What’s next: The United States faces Switzerland Saturday in Dresden (live on ESPNU, 12 p.m. ET). The Swiss turned in perhaps the worst performance of the entire field in a 4-0 loss to South Korea. It must be assumed they can’t possibly be that bad again. Still, this is a game the United States not only needs to win, but should win. Switzerland’s Ramona Bachmann plays for the Atlanta Beat in WPS and showed why with a few moves against South Korea, but she was also even more isolated (sometimes her own fault) and lacking for service (not her fault) for much of the game than Leroux was against Ghana.

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ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — The FIFA Under-20 Women’s World Cup is a tournament about beginnings, but pardon United States forward Sydney Leroux if she’s looking instead for a fitting farewell. 

She’s always been a little ahead of the competition when it comes to finishing.

Still in its own infancy as the fifth edition gets underway July 13 in Germany, the tournament is a chance to catch a quick glimpse of tomorrow’s stars, a place where many got their first look at players like Brazil’s Marta or Canada’s Christine Sinclair. But it’s also the stage on which Leroux has lingered in the present. It’s the stage on which she matured over the last six years from youthful novelty and tactical afterthought into one of the world’s best young finishers.

The leading scorer for the United States during CONCACAF regional qualifying earlier this year, Leroux has long embodied youthful potential. At 14 years old, she was the youngest player in the 2004 Under-19 World Cup in Thailand (the event adopted the under-20 format in 2006) when she made two appearances as substitute for Canada.

“It was tough,” Leroux said. “Being so young, I was immature — I was 14 years old with 19- and 20-year-olds. I would have to say sitting on the bench, even though I was 14, I mean, it still broke my heart. And I just remember sitting on the bench and trying to hold back tears because I wanted to play so bad.”

After shifting to the United States youth system shortly thereafter, qualifying under FIFA rules by virtue of her American mother (born in British Columbia, Leroux also attended high schools in Washington and Arizona), she was still one of the youngest players on the American team that won the under-20 title two years ago in Chile.

Even her first two collegiate seasons at UCLA were spent starring as the kid alongside seasoned senior internationals like former Bruins Lauren Cheney and Kara Lang.

So like watching a younger sibling graduate from college, it’s a little odd to see Leroux, who along with co-captain Christine Nairn is one of just two returnees from the 2008 roster, play the role of wizened veteran. Yet there’s little doubt that while nature took care of getting older, Leroux also used the years to grow wiser, a distinction that has slowed and or halted the progress of many prodigies who experienced only the former.

Count her second World Cup trip as perhaps the seminal experience in that development. Current under-20 coach Jill Ellis, also Leroux’s college coach at UCLA and one of Pia Sundhage’s assistant coaches on the senior United States national team, saw a different player return from Chile than began that World Cup cycle.

“I think the process matured her, both as a young person and as a young player,” Ellis said. “I think it was an exceptional experience for her. The confidence and understanding what it takes to succeed at that level, I think it was very good for her.”

Ellis also knows exactly what drew so many to Leroux at such a young age. It’s not complicated, but it is the most coveted currency in soccer.
“Why she was such a highly recruited player coming of high school is because she scores goals,” Ellis said. “So I think it is something that’s natural. It’s a timing, it’s an attitude, it’s a technique — it’s all these things rolled into one. But yeah, I think there are natural-born finishers.”

Leroux scored 23 goals in 24 games for UCLA last fall, good for fourth in the nation. She’s just as potent when she puts on the national team jersey. She has scored 12 goals in 14 international games this year and 24 goals in 30 games all time with the under-20 team. That includes five goals in the 2008 Under-20 World Cup, enough to win the Golden Boot for a player who didn’t even start the team’s opening game.

That nose for goal may be metaphorical, but it’s complemented by an abundance of entirely tangible physical gifts. Leroux has a particular ability to play in ways that make her seem both bigger and faster than a middle-of-the-road 5-foot-7 frame might suggest. She has the speed to outrun most defenders at her level, be it college or international, to balls in open space, the strength to hold her ground inside the 18-yard box and the touch to make everything else she does count.

And in two most important games this team has thus far played, she demonstrated how much trouble opponents are in when it comes together. 

With World Cup qualification guaranteed to the winner in a semifinal against Costa Rica in the CONCACAF Under-20 Championship, Leroux held off one defender on a throw-in, wrong-footed a second to open a path toward the box, jumped over a third player’s attempted tackle and finally crashed to ground to earn the free kick that Teresa Noyola put in for the eventual winner. And with extra time looming in a scoreless final against Mexico, she chested down a long ball at midfield, touched a short pass back to Kristie Mewis, turned and sprinted past multiple Mexican players as Mewis played the ball to her on the ground. Barely breaking stride after a quick touch sent her into the box on the left side, Leroux fired a shot past the keeper to the near post for the winner.

 “I’ve kind of seen her grow up, I guess, with the past two years — three years now,” Nairn said. “I think her just being that threat, and she’s always rising to the occasion and always putting away that goal we need. I think she’s a very strong leader, and I think we will definitely need her many times this World Cup.”

On a stage usually reserved for cameos, Leroux has earned a curtain call. She is no longer good for her age; she is simply good. And what she’s best at is scoring goals.

“You may get the ball away from me nine times out of 10, but that one time, I’m going to get in behind you and I’m going to score,” Leroux said. “That’s kind of the mentality I’ve always had, and that’s kind of what works for me.”

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ORANGEBURG, N.Y. — The United States and Ghana aren’t finished with the World Cup stage just yet.

On July 14 in Dresden, Germany, a continent and three weeks removed from Ghana’s 2-1 win against the United States in the knockout phase of the men’s World Cup in South Africa, and four years removed the men’s teams meeting in Germany during group play in the 2006 World Cup, the two nations will again renew acquaintances in one of FIFA’s grand global tournaments.

This time the two national anthems will precede the opening game in Group D of the Under-20 Women’s World Cup (Wednesday, ESPNU, 12 p.m. ET). And while the Americans are the favorites against their Ghanaian counterparts in the opener, defending the title they won at the last Under-20 World Cup two years ago will be a challenge.

The United States isn’t the only superpower in the women’s game at the senior level, so it’s no surprise it has plenty of competition at the youth levels. The U.S. won two of the first four Under-20 World Cups (contested as Under-19 events in 2002 and 2004), but it failed to reach the final in either 2004 or 2006, despite rosters stocked with plenty of players now part of the senior team. The American entry also lost out to North Korea in the inaugural Under-17 Women’s World Cup in 2008, meaning it has captured just two of the five major youth tournaments held.

Two years ago, the United States lost to China in group play during the Under-20 Cup, the first loss at that stage in four appearances in the tournament. Coached by Tony DiCicco, architect of the full national team’s memorable 1999 World Cup run, the 2008 team recovered but still needed one-goal wins against Germany and North Korea to reclaim the title for the first time in six years.

A group this time around in Germany that includes Ghana, Switzerland and South Korea, all relatively unproven in the women’s game, isn’t “Group of Death” material, but even the opening match offers something of a referendum on the increasing depth of the international game.

Nigeria has traditionally been Africa’s strongest women’s side, but Ghana opened eyes at the 2008 Under-17 World Cup. Although they failed to reach the knockout round, the Ghanaians drew eventual champion North Korea 1-1, dropped a 3-2 decision against eventual third-place finisher Germany and beat Costa Rica 1-0. Many of those players will be on the field in Dresden, offering what Ellis expects to be a fast, aggressive challenge for the Americans, who lost their final two pre-tournament internationals against Germany and Japan in June and were tested by Costa Rica and Mexico in CONCACAF qualifying.

One of Pia Sundhage’s assistants with the full national team (in addition to coaching a UCLA program that has made eight consecutive trips to the College Cup), Ellis isn’t one to lose sight of the forest for the trees at a developmental level.

“My goal is to hopefully get some of these players into Pia’s camp,” Ellis said. “So I think you do take that in mind, but obviously, yeah, we want to compete. I recognize that through this process of six games to win a World Cup, sometimes it’s going to be pretty and sometimes it’s not. It’s finding a way. And I think the other thing is this is where we develop that mentality [for the full national team].”

Here’s how the lineup may take shape in Germany.

The American attack begins, but hopefully for it sake doesn’t end, with Sydney Leroux. Fourth in the NCAA in goals last season as a sophomore at UCLA, Leroux was also the Golden Boot winner as the leading scorer in the 2008 Under-20 World Cup and was the current team’s leading scorer in qualification for Germany. In Ellis’ 4-4-2 formation, she sits at the top of the lineup and generally does most of her work in the middle of the field, tracking the width of the 18-yard box.

Boston College’s Vicki DiMartino has played all over the field for Ellis, including some time at fullback against CONCACAF teams willing to sit back and play a defensive style against the United States, but she’s a natural attacker who has recently played as a second forward stacked behind Leroux.

Christine Nairn is the only player on the roster who has earned caps with the full national team, and the rising sophomore at Penn State serves as the engine in midfield for the United States and wears the captain’s armband. As her resume suggests, she’s poised and plays with both a creative touch and a physical presence.

DiMartino’s teammate at Boston College, Kristie Mewis is a natural fit on the left side, with a strong shot from distance and good attacking instincts. UCLA’s Zakiya Bywaters and Florida State’s Casey Short both offer speed on the right side. North Carolina’s Amber Brooks earned regular minutes for the national champion Tar Heels last fall and seems to have found a home with the U-20 team as a defensive midfielder after some time in the back line earlier in the World Cup cycle. Stanford’s Teresa Noyola owns more U-20 caps than anyone on the roster except Leroux and is a goof playmaker who also scored on a free kick in the team’s qualification clincher.

The back line likely holds the key to success or disappointment in the World Cup.

“I will say, I think there’s a scarcity of quality, attacking backs, center backs,” Ellis said of the overall domestic picture in the United States. “I think there is a scarcity. We’ve looked at a lot of different players, and I think for me the attributes that are more important are they’ve got to be good in the air, they’ve got to pacey to be able to drop and cover and can they connect simple passes for us?”

Her answer is a quartet that includes two converted attacking players in Portland’s Kendall Johnson and Florida State’s Toni Pressley and one rising college freshman in North Carolina’s Crystal Dunn in addition to Stanford standout Rachel Quon.

The potential is there. Quon is a proven asset getting forward and Johnson’s emergence in recent months convinced Ellis she could safely return DiMartino to forward.  Pressley’s blend of size and speed could mean she’ll be wearing national team jerseys for years to come in the middle of the back line. But as five goals allowed in the recent losses against Japan and Germany  suggest, it’s still a work in progress in front of likely first-choice keeper Biana Henninger from Santa Clara.

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