The U.S. women's national team is kicking off a pair of European friendlies on Thursday vs. Sweden, and then Sunday vs. Norway (1 p.m. ET, live on FOX), which should offer another good test in a quiet year. The USWNT is still in the search for its post-Olympics identity after the tournament ended in disaster and coach Jill Ellis is giving looks to a bunch of new players.
Amid all that transition, it seems that the position of striker is more in flux than in has been in a long time. So who is actually the USWNT's best choice at striker?
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She may be a striker built in the mold of the USWNT’s past — ultra fast, athletic and highly physical — but she offers a bruising bite that perhaps no other striker does. She can terrorize back lines and be a physical, disruptive nuisance.
But we haven’t seen her at her best in a while. She had ankle surgery in 2015 and before she came back from that, she got pregnant with her first child. After 656 days away from the game, she played her first minutes in April, scoring in her debut for FC Kansas City this season. She’s now on three goals this season and she’s looking much like her former self. The question is whether she can translate that — from an admittedly small sample size — to the international level?
Given that she hasn’t played for the USWNT since 2015, it’s hard to know where she falls on the team’s depth chart.
Lloyd is a difficult player to define. She’s at her best in front of goal, but she doesn’t fall into typical positional templates. As a striker, she doesn’t make the sort of runs and stretch back lines the way the USWNT might expect. She can play as a No. 10, but she doesn’t do some of the string-pulling and distributions playmakers are often responsible for.
She’s probably best defined as something between a No. 10 and a withdrawn striker, but she basically just prowls the box and looks for ways to score goals. Given her nose for goal, Ellis has tried her there as a dedicated striker and it hasn’t been the best fit.
Lloyd is best in a free role where she can focus on getting on the ball and striking, either from distance or inside the box. If she can be tasked with scoring goals from a bit deeper without having to defend, that’s when she can shine most.
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The 19-year-old is the next big thing for the USWNT and Ellis seems to still be figuring out the best way to use her.
She’s often played as a winger, but Ellis has recently tested her as a striker in the USWNT’s two-front formation. There’s no question that Pugh is effective and dangerous from any advanced position, but given how well she’s done from her usual winger role, it’s hard to argue she needs to move elsewhere on the field.
When Pugh plays from a wide area, she has space to run. She has great ball control and can give defenses fits due to her ability to cut inside and dance through the box. On the counter, she’s absolutely deadly — she can beat defenders and pick out a perfect cross at full speed to create a scoring opportunity. Sure, she can finish in front of goal, but having her to race up and down the flanks creates magic.
She’s never appeared to be more than a bubble player for the USWNT, and she didn’t make the roster for the USWNT’s friendlies this month, but she’s been tearing it up in the NWSL lately. Her two goals and two assists in NWSL this season aren’t a great reflection of just how active and dynamic she has been for the Houston Dash.
What makes her such a threat is that she is both good in front of goal, taking chances herself, or when floating out wide, where she can set up other players. She’s second in the NWSL in crosses and her passing accuracy is a solid 76 percent, as of last weekend. In other words, she’s good at sparking the attack, but the Dash have struggled with shot conversion, sitting last in the league — if they had better finishers around her, she’d likely be rewarded with more assists.
Her versatility around the box makes her an interesting striker option. One thing the USWNT has plenty of is wingers, but her ability to interchange and take on different roles makes it seem she should get her more attention from Ellis than she has.
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She’s a dynamic, speedy player that knows how to get into good spots. At only 24, she has huge potential and she’s been keen to push herself, heading overseas to play with Chelsea after landing in the NWSL final with the Washington Spirit.
The question surrounding Dunn is whether she should play as a striker up top or along the flank? Ellis has put her in both spots and she’s excelled, but she looks her best when she is able to come inside from wide areas. She has no problem racing up the flanks and cutting inside or dishing a pass off. It was actually as an outside back that Dunn first worked her way into the USWNT because of her ability to push up and overlap in the attack, so there's no doubt she's comfortable out wide.
She leads the USWNT in goals this year, scoring four across their first five matches. When she’s asked to score goals, she does, and that will make her a real option through the 2019 Women’s World Cup.
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The North Carolina Courage striker isn’t all that different from Alex Morgan. Her best assets are her speed and her physical strength. She offers good hold-up play and a good ability to play with her back to goal. But what may make her the most attractive option in the USWNT striker pool right now is her age: She’s 24 years old and probably hasn’t even hit her peak yet, despite leading a very good North Carolina Courage team to an NWSL title last year (when they were called the Western New York Flash).
The upside seems particularly high for Williams, who has been steadily improving for the USWNT since she first started getting call-ups after the Olympics last year. She looks like a player who is growing into her role with the USWNT, but Ellis seems keenly aware of that — Williams didn’t initially make the roster for this batch of friendlies, only coming in to replace Morgan after an injury.
It’s on Williams to continue to show composure on the international stage and stay consistent. She needs to be able to combine and feed balls to players the way Morgan can. If she can do that, she could become a go-to striker option.
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This is a complicated one. Though she has built her career on playing as a target striker, and she plays up top for the Chicago Red Stars, she’s often been asked to play in the midfield for the USWNT. As a wide player, Press often looks uncomfortable with how to use the space along the edge of the pitch and she is less effective without the goal in front of her.
But when she plays where she belongs — as a striker in front of goal — she is very good. She’s probably not going to beat defenders should-to-shoulder in a physical battle the way Alex Morgan will, but she can beat defenders face-up on the dribble. She has a good nose for goal and she’s comfortable taking a few touches in and around the box before striking. She’s comfortable looking for the pass in the box too and, of Americans, she leads the NWSL in chances created, as of last week.
Ellis seems intent on finding a way to get the USWNT to build out of the back and work the ball up the lines better — the Americans’ direct style can be foiled too easy. That makes Press an attractive option. Having spent years playing in Sweden, she has developed a more technical style than perhaps anyone in the striker pool.
She has been the USWNT’s go-to striker and for good reason. She’s fast, athletic and the ideal kind of target striker for the direct way the USWNT often plays. She is at her best when she can spring in behind back lines and she is able to to create danger for the USWNT simply from her ability to chase down long balls. She stretches back lines and she tends to create space for the players around her — so even when she isn’t scoring herself, she’s creating the threat of goals.
But Morgan has limitations to her game, as she herself has admitted — she went to play for Lyon, winning a UEFA Champions League trophy last week, a move she said was to help grow the technical side of her game. Morgan has work to do before she is as potent face-up taking on defenders with the ball at her feet as she is breaking in behind on a quick counter — but she is making progress and her desire to become a more well-rounded player can ensure she stays the USWNT’s No. 1 going forward. The USWNT, after all, still relies on athleticism above all, and Morgan has it.
If anything is holding Morgan back these days, it may simply come down to her frequent bouts of injuries. She had to pull out of the USWNT’s June friendlies because of a hamstring strain and her career is peppered with long breaks she’s had to take due to injury. It’s never forced her out of a major tournament, but that would be the ultimate fear. As long as she's healthy, however, the USWNT will keep counting on her.