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.
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The U.S. Women’s National Team wrapped up its 2016 schedule with a pair of big results against Romania, winning 8-1 on Nov. 10 and 5-0 on Nov. 13 to finish the year with a 22-0-3 record. Since the penalty kick loss to Sweden at the Olympics officially counts as a tie, 2016 marks only the third time that the WNT has finished a year unbeaten in regulation when it has played 10 or more matches.
A 23-player roster trained for five days in San Jose, California at Stevens Stadium – the home field of Santa Clara University where Julie Johnston starred for four seasons – before it’s Nov. 10 matchup against Romania at Avaya Stadium.
“It’s always special to come back here,” Johnston, who played the entire second half just a stone’s throw from her old campus, said. “My school is one hop away from the stadium so having our second-to-last game of 2016 here is definitely exciting.”
Three uncapped players were on the November camp roster in defender Emily Menges, midfielder Kristin Edmonds and forward Jessica McDonald, upping the total of uncapped players that head coach Jill Ellis named to rosters for the final four games of 2016 to 14.
Against Romania in San Jose, the U.S. women dominated the match scoring eight goals in front of more than 16,000 fans. The effort was led by Stanford grad Christen Press, who scored her fourth career hat trick, finding the net three times in the first 38 minutes of the game.
For Press, as well as the entire player pool, the end of 2016 is just a transition towards a continued evolution and growth that will be needed in less than three years when the USA attempts to qualify for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup in France.
“Right now I have a lot on my mind in terms of where I want to be as a player and how I want to push myself as a player and nudge myself to the next level,” Press said after her three-goal performance. “The goals were the last thing on my mind and I was just focused on trying to be more aggressive and put more pressure on the other team and work on the things that I feel I need to work on to have a more prominent role on this team. Scoring is something I take so much pride in and have so much passion for.”
Alex Morgan added two goals, upping her total to 73 international tallies. The California native is now two away from tying Cindy Parlow for seventh on the all-time scoring list. Morgan finished the year with 17 goals, tying Carli Lloyd for most on the team in 2016.
Additionally, the USA benefitted from a Romania own goal, as well as goals by Tobin Heath – who scored a fantastic angled shot – and Morgan Brian, who found the back of the net for the first time this year, on a diving header no less.
McDonald earned her first cap in San Jose, making her the eighth player to debut under Ellis in 2016. The other seven were: Abby Dahlkemper, Ashley Hatch, Kealia Ohai, Mallory Pugh, Casey Short, Andi Sullivan and Lynn Williams.Read more
Photos from the U.S. Women's National Team 5-0 win against Romania on Nov. 13 at StubHub Center in Carson, Calif. A Romania own goal opened up the score, and Crystal Dunn, Christen Press, Morgan Brian, and Samantha Mewis rounded out the 5-0 victory in the WNT's last match of 2016.Read more