On January 12 in Los Angeles, the National Women’s Soccer League held its fifth NWSL College Draft, kick-starting the professional career of 40 players, all with big dreams that most likely include playing with the U.S. Women’s National Team.
As the USA begins its long road towards qualification for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France, head coach Jill Ellis continues to emphasize the importance of watching players and deepening the player pool. While the platforms her and her staff are using to scout this array of new talent ranges from Youth National Teams, to college to players overseas, the importance of the NWSL has taken center-stage.
A Chance to Be Seen
For many reasons, having a domestic professional women’s league in the United States is a tremendous asset for both coaches and players. It allows the U.S. WNT coaches to observe a large pool of players in a competitive environment on a consistent basis. It gives the players focus, the ability to continuously train and the opportunity to play full 90-minute matches while facing some of the best players in the world.
U.S. WNT newcomer Lynn Williams and co-captain & two-time FIFA Women's Player of the Year, Carli Lloyd
“We’ve always communicated with NWSL coaches about players and we watch as many games as we can,” Ellis said. “As we don’t have a world event in the middle of this NWSL season, it will allow us to be even more connected to the league and at this time in the cycle, getting to watch these games and these players is extremely important.”
For the more established players in the WNT, the NWSL is a valuable place to sharpen their skills and show Ellis they’re putting in the effort and producing the performances to keep earning spots on one of the most competitive teams in international soccer. For the newcomers and those just breaking into the league, the NWSL is a chance to be seen, to spark the interest of Ellis and her staff and show that they’re deserving of an invite to a WNT camp.
As Ellis has made deepening the WNT player pool a high priority, several NWSL players have recently been given a chance to test their mettle within the National Team environment. Last October, Ellis called 11 uncapped players to camp which included eight from the NWSL in Danielle Colaprico (Chicago Red Stars), Lynn Williams (NC Courage), Kealia Ohai (Houston Dash), Shea Groom (FC Kansas City), Casey Short (Chicago Red Stars), Arin Gilliland (Chicago Red Stars), Merritt Mathias (Seattle Reign) and Abby Dahlkemper (NC Courage). In that group was also two 2016 NWSL draftees in Jane Campbell (Houston Dash) and Ashley Hatch (NC Courage).
Houston Dash's Morgan Brian and Kealia Ohai; Chicago Red Stars' Arin Gilliland & Casey Short
As the league has continued to grow, it’s become even more of a platform. The lesson? Someone is always watching so every game is an audition. Prime examples are Williams and Short who would both tell you that if it wasn’t for the league, they probably wouldn’t be wearing the U.S. Soccer crest today. Both have now earned four caps and are part of this year’s January Camp.
As Ellis resumes the process of evaluating players during January Camp, a handful of new NWSL names have now begun to earn multiple call-ups. Among them are goalkeeper Adrianna Franch of the Portland Thorns, NC Courage defender Jaelene Hinkle, Short, Williams, Ohai, Dahlkemper and NC courage attacker Jessica McDonald and Orlando Pride’s Kristen Edmonds. The latter two earned their first call-ups last November. All these players, except for the injured Dahlkemper, are currently in California at the WNT’s January Camp, hoping to show once again why they belong and should remain on Ellis’ radar. Additionally, Ellis also added first-time call ups Sarah Killion of Sky Blue FC and NC Courage’s Taylor Smith for evaluation during the January training camp.
First time WNT call-up and NC Courage forward, Taylor Smith
This infusion of newer players has brought a different perspective and fresh energy. The new players have had to learn how to adapt and fit into a highly competitive environment while the veteran players have had to elevate their games in the battle for roster spots. It has also brought enthusiasm and healthy competition as everyone understands that nothing is guaranteed. For Ellis, making a roster – for a training camp or a game – won’t come down to a number of caps or World Cup experience, but to performance; to the players who have earned the right to take the field through consistently productive performances.
For these new players that cut their professional teeth in the NWSL, it’s quite literally, game on.
Accompanied by her good friend and fellow teammate Casey Short, Williams squeezed in her live chat following the USA’s final fitness testing session in sunny California and before the WNT’s afternoon training session – it is January Camp with two-a-days after all!
Williams was joined by Casey Short (pictured), who just like her, made her debut for the WNT this past October.
After being called into senior camp for the first time back in October 2016, Williams and Short have both earned four caps for the WNT, playing in the final four matches of the year. In her debut on Oct. 19 against Switzerland, Williams scored 49 seconds after entering the match as a second-half substitute, becoming the 20th WNT player all-time to find the back of the net in her first cap.
For her part, Short also made her debut on Oct. 19, and has started all four matches the WNT has played since, recording all 90 minutes in three of those games.
The North Carolina Courage forward answered a variety of question ranging from her favorite TV shows (Quantico!), to how she is sure her teammate Tobin Heath will probably nutmeg her soon enough.
Williams also revealed that she has a fear of the water (Jaws scarred her for life), while Short is allergic to seafood.
Most importantly, as a pair of players trying to break into the competitive U.S. WNT, they talked about the nerves that you feel during your first camp and the excitement that follows when you realize you are playing with the best in the world.
“Everyone is so friendly and supportive. It’s a tough environment to come into but everyone has been so welcoming. [We were] definitely nervous to come into camp, but once you start touching the ball and making the first run, you realize – I know how to play soccer, I can do this.”
Watch the full live chat below and stay tuned to the U.S. Soccer Facebook page for more Live events during the WNT’s January Camp.
I got a call that every soccer player dreams of a few days after our last game of the NWSL season.
My coach at the Western New York Flash, Paul Riley, had come up to me a couple of days before that and told me that Jill Ellis might bring me into National Team camp. I was really excited and anxious then, but when I got the call from Tim Ryder, the WNT General Manager, I was sitting in my living room, doing some packing and doing some phone interviews, so it caught me a bit off-guard.
I was trying to act very cool, but on the inside I was so excited. In fact, it’s highly likely that I didn’t sound cool at all.
He told me that I was invited into the training camp for the two games against Switzerland in Utah and Minnesota, but that I had to keep it under wraps until U.S. Soccer officially announced the roster. Of course, I immediately called my parents, my sister, and my boyfriend but I told them that WE ALL needed to keep it a secret.
The roster was announced a week later after we’d won the semifinal against Portland and before the NWSL Championship. I’m not the most talkative person, but it was hard keeping that secret for a week!
Before coming to Utah, I’d only been in a few youth camps with the Under-23s, and all those girls had known each other for a long time. Everyone was nice, but I remember feeling that they were a bit standoffish until you proved yourself, so that’s what I was expecting from the senior group, except times ten. These players are professionals, Olympic champions, World Cup champions and they have tremendous confidence in the environment.
I was a bit nervous about how to fit in.
Williams helped lead the WNY Flash to the club's first NWSL title as the league MVP and Golden Boot winner.
Soccer-wise, coming off the NWSL season, I felt fresh and confident, but I knew it was going to be hard. Coming into a National Team camp any time is hard, and I knew doing it for the first time was going to be a big challenge.
I was definitely nervous about the soccer.
Naturally, the veterans gravitate towards the veterans and the newbies gravitate towards the newbies, but there were 11 uncapped players going in so I knew I wasn’t going to be by myself. Of course, I also knew my Western New York teammates Sam Mewis and Abby Dahlkemper, so that was a bit more comforting.
What I didn’t expect was that the veterans would be so welcoming, on and off the field. When you made a mistake, they said “try this instead” and when you did something well, they would commend you for it. That support really made training even more fun. I learned a lot and every practice was awesome.
That said, training was intense. Everyone was so excited to get into camp that the first couple of days it was like a bunch of mad women running around. As Arin Gilliland said to a reporter, “WNT training is like the NWSL, on three cups of coffee.” It’s probably like five cups.
And it was not just the physical speed; the speed of thought is also so heightened. Playing in New York, sometimes I feel like I can get away with receiving the ball and then decide what to do with it. With the National Team, you have to have like three different options in your mind even before you receive the ball. I knew I needed to improve on that.
We got tons of information from the coaches. Some of the stuff you already know, but the language and the verbiage is different so you have to learn that. You have to learn how they want you to play in a particular formation, you have to learn your assignments on set plays and you have to learn it quickly. Fortunately, everyone is open to questions.
I asked Becky (Sauerbrunn) and Christen (Press) a million questions and my roommate Alyssa (Naeher) probably two million. I am sure she was thinking, “Man, this girl sure asks a lot of questions.” But I figured better to ask than not to ask and look like I have no idea what I’m doing, which I’m sure was still the case some of the time.
For me, the first few days were challenging. You’re trying to get a feel for all the players, their tendencies and how they like to play. Mentally, I think I was putting more pressure on myself that I needed to.
On the third day, I found out I would be a sub for the game. I told myself, “Lynn, stop being such a psycho, stopping being so chaotic, you know how to play soccer,” and I settled in a bit.
I thought I had a good practice the day before the game in Utah and then the day came and I told myself I needed to play even better in the game. After the game, I told myself I needed to play even better in the next practice. Of course, you can’t do that every day, but you have to challenge yourself and that’s the kind of attitude you have to have.Read more
When the training camp roster was announced for the U.S. WNT’s October friendlies against Switzerland, 11 new names appeared on the list, all with the possibility of earning their first cap. After eight days of intense training sessions and two big wins that featured nine goals by seven different players, six new players made their international debuts with two also adding a goal and etching their names in the WNT record books.
On Oct. 19 against Switzerland in Sandy, Utah, Abby Dahlkemper, Ashley Hatch, Casey Short, Andi Sullivan and Lynn Williams all earned their first cap. Four days later, on Oct. 23, Kealia Ohai joined them, making her first international appearance to conclude one of the most unique weeks ever for the WNT.
First cap: Andi Sullivan, Casey Short, Abby Dahlkemper, Lynn Williams and Ashley Hatch
“I’d say the whole group did remarkably well,” U.S. Women’s National Team head coach JillEllis said following the USA’s 5-1 win against Switzerland on Sunday, which capped the team’s October camp. “[The new players] were very coachable and very willing to embrace whatever we asked of them.”
For Williams and Ohai, two players who finished the 2016 NWSL season tied atop the league with 11 goals each, the past week will certainly be memorable. On Oct. 19, Williams entered as a second half substitute (she played the final 45 minutes) and scored 49 seconds into her first cap – a record for fastest goal scored in a debut. The record lasted just four days. On Oct. 23, Ohai entered the USA’s second match vs. Switzerland in the 82nd minute and scored after 48 seconds, thus setting a new record for fastest goal scored in a debut.
Before Ohai’s dream debut on Sunday, it was the Carli Lloyd show in Minneapolis. After shutting out Switzerland in the first leg of the two-game series, 4-0 in Utah, the Swiss got off to a better start in Minnesota, scoring in the seventh minute of the game to take the early lead.
Then Lloyd did her thing, scoring a spectacular goal from distance that would have been right at home in any EPL Goals of the Week highlight video.
Andi Sullivan got the ball in the midfield, took a few touches forward and passed it to Lloyd. Lloyd returned it to Sullivan with one touch, who quickly passed it forward to Kelley O’Hara. The triangular formation between the three players resulted in O’Hara giving one last pass to Lloyd who then advanced the ball about two yards before launching a lightning bolt into the upper right corner for one of the best finishes of her career. The goal tied the match at 1-1, and the USA would go on to add four more goals in the second half with Lloyd also bagging the game-winner.
“I think what I was really impressed with today was our ball movement in the final third,” Ellis said after the 5-1 win. “A lot of combinations created a lot of chances. The personnel in there today just gave us a lot of different types of options. I thought Carli was superb in the pocket in terms of coming off [their backline] and playing final passes.”
And when it came to Lloyd’s strike, Ellis had nothing but the ultimate praise for the goal that FOX Sports commentator Glenn Davis described as “hit with no regard for humanity.”
“Unreal,” Ellis said. “That was a cracker. It was a spectacular finish. And it’s not just about her finish, her play was good, her decisions-making, her passing. Her overall play was very, very good.”
The goal was also an exclamation mark for Lloyd who kicked off the year by winning the 2015 FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award back in January. The game on Sunday was the last of 2016 for her as she is set to get married early next month and will miss the USA’s friendlies vs.
Romania in November.
Lloyd finished the year with 17 goals, her second-best year for goals scored in her career and a team-leading mark. With 96 international goals, she is just four shy of becoming the sixth player in WNT history to reach the century mark. She has scored 33 goals in 34 games played since the Round of 16 at the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Besides the excitement of new players and new records set on the field, the crowd at U.S. Bank Stadium surely had a great time on Sunday evening. It had been 10 years since the WNT last played in Minnesota and the atmosphere did not disappoint, as the boisterous crowd of 23,400 fans set a new record for the largest to watch a U.S. game in the state.
You were unbelievable, Minneapolis! 23,400...What an atmosphere. Thank YOU! 👏👏👏 pic.twitter.com/3KQY2YAQn0— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) October 23, 2016
“It was fantastic,” Ellis said of the record-setting crowd. “We’re ecstatic about the turn out. I hadn’t personally been to Minneapolis before so to see this many people supporting soccer is outstanding. And this venue is a piece of art, it’s beautiful. To have more than 23,000 people supporting us…wow, it’s just great.”