Although 2017 is very much a quiet year for the USWNT with no major tournaments, it doesn’t mean there isn’t work to be done. Far from it. The new year represents a crucial stretch where no changes or experiments are off limits. By the time 2018 rolls around, the team will start preparing for the 2019 World Cup, so this year is about figuring out the fundamentals.
Given that 2016 was probably the worst year on record for the USWNT, the team is ripe for changes, too.
What will the USWNT’s new CBA look like?
The USWNT’s collective bargaining agreement with U.S. Soccer ended when the calendar turned to 2017. By all accounts, the existing contract is simply rolling over while talks continue, but negotiations are going to be a big distraction until they are finished. The USWNT recently fired their legal representation, which doesn’t suggest negotiations have been going that well.
But the collective bargaining agreement could affect a lot of things, from how many games the team plays, to how many new players coach Jill Ellis is allowed to call into camp. A new agreement will set a new tone and the rules under which the team operates for 2017 and beyond.
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Will Hope Solo be back?
After her high-profile firing from U.S. Soccer for calling a superior Swedish team “cowards,” Solo has mostly been laying low and serving her suspension. She stepped away from her club season with the Seattle Reign and Ellis started doing something she hadn’t done in a while: letting goalkeepers other than Solo start games.
But Solo’s suspension is up in February and if Ellis wants her back, she can return. Solo has said she hopes to return to the USWNT and it doesn’t sound like she is ready to hang up her goalkeeper gloves just yet. But she is also 35 years old and trouble has followed her for the past few years. Whether or Solo returns will probably say a lot about how strong Ellis feels the goalkeeper pool is.
What is the team’s attacking identity?
For years, thanks in large part to Abby Wambach being the best header the women’s game has known, the USWNT have focused on direct, long-ball soccer. But without Wambach on the team anymore and teams like Sweden figuring out how to limit those chances to break in behind, the USWNT faces something of an existential crisis.
In terms of pure athleticism — speed and stamina to race in behind back lines for 90 minutes — the USWNT often has the upper hand. But they also looked more dangerous and able to break down defensively stout teams by attacking with the ball on the ground via the wings. Maybe they don’t have to pick one or the other approach exclusively, but they probably need to be more comfortable doing both, which they haven't been.
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Are players like Lynn Williams and Kealia Ohai the future?
In closing out 2016, Ellis did something new: She called in a slew of young, uncapped players and left veterans, like Alex Morgan, off the roster. That was already pretty remarkable, but even more was the fact that players like Williams and Ohai made immediate impacts and showed themselves to be contenders to fight for spots.
It’s a good bet that Ellis will continue calling up young players from the NWSL, and the question is how much they can push existing veterans out of the picture. If Ellis is willing to hit the reset button in 2017 some more, the team that plays in the 2019 World Cup may look nothing like the one that won the 2015 World Cup.
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Is there any room for Sydney Leroux or Amy Rodriguez?
It’s built into the USWNT players’ contract that no one can lose their spot on the team just because they have a baby. So, Leroux and Rodriguez will likely get an opportunity to win back their spots, if they want it. But with youngsters like Williams, Ohai and even Christen Press — who has been on the team for years but has seldom been used as a striker in important games — there just might not be any need for Leroux or Rodriguez.
Leroux was struggling with a goal drought before her pregnancy, with some pundits speculating she wouldn’t make the Olympics roster even before she removed herself from consideration. But Rodriguez came back in 2014 from having her first child and played some of the best soccer of her career for both club and country. If Leroux, 26, can be rejuvenated in a similar way, she could surely fight for a spot.
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What is the right role for Carli Lloyd?
The thing about Lloyd is, she's the type of player who can step up in big-game moments and score goals, which is very valuable. But in letting her do that, Ellis has given her a pretty undefined role. She’s supposedly a No. 10, but she plays more like a withdrawn forward, but even then, she really isn’t focused so much on linking up with striker Alex Morgan.
Basically, Lloyd just kind of roams around and does whatever she wants. And the USWNT attack has been built around the idea that that’s how Lloyd is best. But can the USWNT continue to count on that and sacrifice having a true playmaker or a true second striker?
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What system makes the most sense?
Coach Jill Ellis has been tinkering with a 3-5-2 to close out 2016, and it’s easy to see why. The Americans were unable to penetrate Sweden’s 4-5-1 and it punished them with an early Olympics exit. The worst part is that Ellis and the USWNT knew exactly what Sweden’s Pia Sundhage had up her sleeve and they still couldn’t break it down.
Will they stick with the 3-5-2 as a way to get more players into the midfield, even if it limits the team in other ways? Then there are other questions, like whether Alex Morgan (assuming she remains the undisputed starting striker of the USWNT) plays better with or without a partner. How attack-oriented should the fullbacks be? Should the USWNT have a dedicated playmaker in the central midfield? Should the USWNT make a long-awaited return to having a dedicated defensive midfielder?
Will more players leave the NWSL for Europe?
With Alex Morgan set to join Olympique Lyon in France, the superstar striker marks the first USWNT player leaving the NWSL, which is where all the USWNT players ply their trade, except for college players. The move is something of a mixed bag — it may not be great for the NWSL, which counts on USWNT players to attract fans. But for Morgan, it’s a move that should improve and expand her game.
It’s doubtful Morgan will be the only one to leave. Crystal Dunn has expressed interest in going abroad and a move doesn’t look far off from happening. But USWNT coaches, including Ellis, have said that players being spread out abroad can be a challenge for the USWNT, particularly because U.S. Soccer tends to schedule games outside FIFA dates. If more USWNT players leave the NWSL, that could affect upcoming camps in a very direct way.