The amazing and historic 2015 for the U.S. Women’s National Team is in the past now, filed away as thousands of photographs, video clips and goose-bump inducing memories. The confetti has been swept away, the Victory Tour is over, and long-time stars have retired.
But it’s an ending and a beginning, and no one knows that more than U.S. head coach Jill Ellis.
When asked during a press conference on the Victory Tour how she planned to keep the team, and herself, motivated after reaching the “top of the mountain,” Ellis paused, considered the question for a moment and answered:
“Well, I’m no mountaineer,” she said. “But I do know that the thing about reaching the top of a mountain is that there’s always another one to climb.”
Thus, the climb begins with an intense 17-day training camp in Los Angeles featuring just 16 of the 23 Women’s World Cup players and quite a few fresh faces. The camp will conclude with the USA’s first match of the year on Jan. 23 against the Republic of Ireland in San Diego. Ellis and her staff are relishing the new challenge while not forgetting to emphasize the qualities that have made the U.S. program a world power for years.
“We are all about acknowledging what we’ve accomplished and taking away the positives and the lessons we’ve learned,’ said Ellis. “But now it’s about hitting the reset button and building again because it’s a new challenge and a new team with a slightly different identity. It’s about always pushing the needle. It’s getting the new players up to speed on our processes and expectations, which is part the coach’s responsibility and part players’ responsibility.”
The players’ responsibilities will also include doing their best to make increasingly smaller rosters (18 for friendlies, 20 for Olympic qualifying and 18 for the Olympics itself should all go well during qualifying in February). The coaching staff’s increasingly difficult job will be to choose those rosters.
Only two players that started the Women’s World Cup Final are currently not available to Ellis (Lauren Holiday who retired, and Megan Rapinoe who is coming back from ACL surgery), so it’s not as if there are massive changes to be made. That said, even one new player can impact how a team plays and fits together so the proverbial coaching axiom of putting the correct players in the best positions in the best combinations is a constantly changing process, and once again, a positive one.
“For me, changes have always been a good thing and this new cycle kind of gives us an opportunity to reset and reload,” said Ellis. “And if you take it from the other side, staying stagnant can be a negative. So we constantly like new challenges and new ways of looking and thinking and that’s part of our overall education process. All of our players and coaches have that desire to keep improving and adapting.”
The average age of the Women’s World Cup Team was 29.2 years old and the average of the starting lineup in the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final was 28. The average age of the January training camp roster is 26.1 and among the 26 players called in 14 have 30 or less caps.
The roster includes three 23-year-olds, five 22-year-olds, a 21-year-old in Lindsey Horan, 20-year-old Rose Lavelle and the youngest player to be called up to the U.S. WNT in years, 17-year-old Mallory Pugh. These are players long on talent, but short on experience and have much boiling to do in the competitive caldron that is the U.S. WNT, one that has forged many a world class player, but also melted its share.
Another sign of the changing of generations for the U.S. Women, seventeen of the 26 players on the training camp roster have appeared for the USA in a U-19 or U-20 FIFA Women’s World Cup tournament.
“You always honor the past, but you create the future and it’s fun having the new players in camp,” said Ellis. “It brings a different energy, it changes the competitive dynamic -- because maybe you get deeper in a certain position -- and players get pushed for starting spots. They’re challenged on the field, they’re around different people and they’re sharing different ideas so I think it’s just really important in terms of progress. These players can put their stamp on this team.”
Those opportunities are coming fast on a team where you can be one of the best players in the world at your position and still struggle for playing time, but that’s the kind of competitive dynamic that will add fuel to the team moving forward on a quest to a) qualify for the Olympics and b) become the first country to ever win the World Cup and Olympics back-to-back.
As always for the U.S. WNT players, the goals are high and the challenges difficult. And that’s just the way they like them.