Photo by ISIPhotos.com
By CAITLIN MURRAY
With each match the U.S. Women’s National Team plays, the roster for the 2015 World Cup and qualifiers later this year feels that much closer. But how close is coach Tom Sermanni to having his squad picked out?
“Not that close, to be honest,” Sermanni told SBI via phone before embarking on a three-game tour that ended in Atlanta earlier this month. “To be frank, at times I feel that I get close and then the competition is so intense in this squad that I get close and players keep changing my mind by performing well.
“It’s a very difficult squad to be close to a starting 11.”
Spectators have been eager to look for clues and common threads in Sermanni’s line-ups to figure out what he might do when the 2015 World Cup rolls around. But Sermanni hasn’t made it easy – he’s given 11 players their first caps since taking the job in January 2013 and tried 16 different line-ups in 16 games last year.
In some cases, Sermanni had no choice – the U.S. women faced a handful of injuries and some friendlies were scheduled outside of FIFA dates, meaning many European-based USWNT players stayed away. But Sermanni also faces difficult choices because the USWNT bench is stacked to the brim with talent.
“To say I know right now what I’m doing in a year’s time would be unrealistic – partly because I think there’s more depth than perhaps there’s been at any stage in the past,” Sermanni said.
Canada will host the World Cup in summer 2015, but first the USWNT must get through October qualifiers in Cancun and Playa del Carmen in Mexico. Qualifiers are unlikely to give the USWNT any trouble and if the rest of CONCACAF hasn’t made significant improvements in the past year, the matches are unlikely to offer much insight, either.
Domestic friendlies will be of limited help. The USWNT crushed Russia 7-0 and 8-0 in two stateside games this month. U.S. Soccer announced last week the USWNT will play China in April – another opponent the USWNT should surely rout with ease.
Next month’s Algarve Cup becomes all the more important. The USWNT will face No. 3-ranked Japan, who beat the U.S. in the 2011 World Cup final, as well as No. 6-ranked Sweden and No. 12-ranked Denmark. The U.S. will play two friendlies in June against No. 5-ranked France, but unless U.S. Soccer can bring in some more heavy-hitters later in the year, the annual Algarve Cup will remain a key benchmark for Sermanni’s evaluations.
“Friendlies are an opportunity to tweak things a little bit,” Sermanni said. While last year was a time for experimentation, Sermanni added, “performance and results become much more critical this year.”
Sermanni’s process of narrowing down his 23-woman World Cup squad is mainly about looking at the players by position, he said – that is, who are the team’s best forwards, midfielders and defenders? The USWNT has eight strikers that would be starting forwards on any other international squad in the world, he added – Christen Press, Abby Wambach, Sydney Leroux, Amy Rodriguez, Alex Morgan, Sarah Hagen, Lindsay Horan and Lauren Holiday.
“When push comes to shove, you have to compare Sarah Hagen to Abby Wambach and Lindsay Horan to Abby Wambach,” Sermanni said, juxtaposing the USWNT’s most-capped forward and world record-holder to the squad’s two most inexperienced forwards. “That’s what you do and sometimes you find yourself a bit thin in some positions. Then you’ve got the possibility that you might start to look at transporting a player from one position to another.”
Defenders pose a different problem for Sermanni. He admits the back line is “probably not as settled as we are in other positions, to be honest.” He blames a revolving door of injuries, but also points to a need for future planning as the back line lacks the depth of the front.
“It’d be great if I could know Christie (Rampone) is going to be OK for another two years, but I’ve also got a be a coach cognizant of the fact that might not happen,” Sermanni said, adding that 38-year-old Rampone remains an “unbelievable” defender and stalwart leading the back four. “I don’t want to be caught putting a player in a critical position that hasn’t played in games that matter.”
The final category Sermanni looks at is his “utility players” – that’s the group that “can play in several different positions,” he said. His go-to examples are Crystal Dunn and Kristie Mewis, who played midfield at the collegiate level but have mostly been converted outside backs for the USWNT.
Those utility players could be important additions to the World Cup roster as Sermanni looks outside a starting 11. The coaching staff must be “able to make changes as seamlessly as you can from game to game” and account for the depth of the USWNT, Sermanni said.
“When we go into 2015, I don’t think this World Cup is going to be about a starting 11,” he said. “I think it’s going to be about a squad.”
“I always like to qualify myself because I’m very new at the job, but I think there’s been a notion in the U.S. that there is a starting 11 and I think we’re very much in a situation where it’s a squad game – and we’ve got a very, very strong squad. So, the starting 11 is potentially going to vary even when we get to the World Cup.”
What do you think of Sermanni’s approach to selecting his 2015 World Cup squad? Who would you put on the World Cup squad? Who do you think will make the cut?
Share your thoughts below.