If the central midfield is the engine of your soccer team, you’ll want one that is powerful. At the same time, you want it to be versatile, able to accelerate and decelerate on a dime when necessary, and work at a high level of RPMs over a 90-minute game. You always need it to be reliable, able to take a beating and of course, the more cylinders the better to power that machine.
The USA’s central midfield players at the 2015 Women’s World Cup and 2016 Olympics put in excellent shifts on the biggest of stages.
In Canada, with Carli Lloyd playing as more of a withdrawn forward, and Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian (who entered the USA lineup beginning in the quarterfinal when Holiday was suspended due to yellow cards) playing the lion’s share of minutes behind the soon-to-be FIFA Player of the Year, the USA memorably knocked off some extremely talented teams to win its third Women’s World Cup title.
Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup
The following year at the Olympics in Brazil, Allie Long was added to the central midfield mix, while Lindsey Horan also saw some minutes in central midfield, along with Brian and Lloyd.
Over those two tournaments there was definite quality in those positions and some world class performances. What wasn’t there was depth, especially at the Olympics where the roster size allows for just 16 field players.
Fast forward to the end of 2017. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis has used this year to experiment and give numerous players chances to prove themselves all with a goal of expanding the player pool, and the World Cup winning coach is certainly pleased about how that depth has evolved, especially in the center of the park.
“Back in 2015, we played out of a 4-4-2, mainly because we didn’t have a lot of depth in there,” said Ellis. “Bringing younger players in and giving them these kinds of opportunities has given us a very diverse group of central players, and like any team, we lean on that very heavily in terms what they can bring to the table. It’s a very exciting problem to have.”
While Holiday retired after the World Cup, Lloyd and Brian and Long are veterans with invaluable experience playing centrally at the highest levels. Additionally, Horan – in her fifth season as a pro despite being only 23-years-old – blossomed in a midfield role after an excellent season for the Portland Thorns. She played all 24 regular season games and scored four goals with two assists while helping her club to a NWSL title. She scored the game-winner in the championship game, a 1-0 victory against the North Carolina Courage.
Lindsey Horan has had a terrific season both for club and country in 2017.
In the latter stages of 2017, the emergence of Julie Ertz as a defensive midfielder has added a tremendous boost to the U.S. team. With thunderous ball-winning talents and a goal-scoring knack that has seen her up her career total to 14, Ertz has looked extremely comfortable playing in midfield after seeing almost all her minutes in central defense for the first four years of her WNT career. She played almost exclusively at the defensive midfield spot during the NWSL season for the Chicago Red Stars and her success there provided a clearer picture for her transition to the midfield at the international level, albeit in a position that has many similar characteristics to a center back.
Then you add to the mix the six-foot Samantha Mewis, who has had a breakout year for club and country while starting every match and playing the most minutes on the U.S. team besides Becky Sauerbrunn. In the “up-and-coming” category is 21-year-old Andi Sullivan, who has recovered from an ACL injury after a bright debut for the National Team at the end of 2016, and 22-year-old Rose Lavelle, who in between some injuries has shown flashes of brilliance and some qualities that could make her a legitimate number 10.
Over the span of 13 months, Ellis has analyzed what she values as an “exciting problem;” eight players currently in the mix and battling for playing time in what is usually a three-player central midfield.
Samantha Mewis has blossomed into a strong figure in the center of the field.
In the middle, Ellis now has connecters and distributors, ball-winners, goal-scorers, dribblers, and players who can shoot and score from distance, or on set plays. It’s an exciting mix of talents and skillsets to draw from. Over the next handful of months, one goal will be to find the best combination(s) of players and qualities.
“We’ve had some injuries, so we haven’t fixated yet on a set three,” said Ellis. “But over time, over the next months, we’ll be looking at their qualities and how the players play off each other. It’s about finding the right combination of those three and ball-winners and distributors and goal scorers. That’s going to be imperative in terms of starting to look at connections on the field. We’ve got a skeleton and now we’re working on the nervous system. That’s going to be the chemistry and interplay between these players and we’ll see how they complement each other and bring out the best in each other.”