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Ranking all 23 USWNT players by how important they are to winning the World Cup

Everyone’s good, but a handful of stars will be counted on to perform at their best.

The United States women’s national team kicks off its 2019 women’s World Cup campaign against Thailand on Tuesday, and the Americans are big favorites. They have the deepest roster in the tournament, with some legitimate stars coming off the bench.

This roster contains a handful of surprises. Allie Long, Ali Krieger, Morgan Brian and Jessica McDonald have all found call-ups tough to come by over the past year, but found their way into Jill Ellis’ final squad.

But those players are the ones who are least likely to play a big part in the USWNT’s campaign in France. Ellis has settled on a core of starters and key bench players ahead of them, and we can predict who’s going to be counted on to deliver results at the World Cup.

Here’s every player on the roster, ranked in order of importance to the team.

First up, the stars

These are the players who are locked in as starters when healthy, and who Ellis knows she can count on to perform.

1. Tobin Heath, RW

If you are revisiting the USWNT for the first time in a while, you may remember Heath as a player with a lot of tricks and little end product. That’s changed dramatically over the past three seasons, and Heath is now the attacker the USWNT counts on most. She’s coming off a 7-goal, 7-assist campaign for Portland Thorns and has scored 12 USWNT goals since the start of 2018.

Why she’s key: Tekkers

OK, but the tricks are awesome though. Heath is often left out on an island with little support, which means she has to do something crazy to create scoring opportunities for her team. Her ability to make something out of nothing is why she’s the most important player on the team.

2. Lindsey Horan, CM

Horan is still just 24, so her NWSL MVP campaign felt like the start of a rise to superstardom, rather than her peak. The only question is whether Ellis can get the best out of her. She gets into shooting positions a lot more often for Portland Thorns than she does for the USWNT.

Why she’s key: Everything

In addition to being an immovable tank of a midfielder who won the ball 321 times last season — 118 times more than any other player!!! — Horan is a slick passer and regularly bangs in goals from 25 yards out.

3. Julie Ertz, DM

If you like watching high work rate players who show up everywhere on the field, you’ll really like Ertz. She was a center back — and a great one — at the last World Cup, but she was moved into midfield a couple of years ago. But no matter what position she plays, she’s always a huge threat to score on set pieces.

Why she’s key: Messing people up

While Horan wins the ball back a lot, she accomplishes it mostly by being stronger than her opponents and casually shouldering people off the ball. Ertz is stylistically the opposite: she flies into challenges and wins the ball in the most dramatic way possible. And she does it A LOT.

4. Alex Morgan, ST

Morgan just tallied her 100th career national team goal, in case anyone had any doubts about where she stands in the hierarchy of all-time great international strikers. But her role in this USWNT isn’t all about scoring goals.

Why she’s key: Off the ball work

Generally, goal-scorers of Morgan’s caliber don’t take kindly to being asked to take up a role that features a lot more dirty work than trying to get on the end of service into the box. But Morgan runs her ass off all game to make life easier for her teammates, and regularly gets the pass before the assist. The non-scoring aspects of her game are wildly under-appreciated.

5. Megan Rapinoe, LW

After an ACL tear limited her at the 2016 Olympics, very few people thought Megan Rapinoe would still be this good at 33. But she’s playing the best soccer of her life, and she’s a locked-in starter despite younger, faster challengers for her spot.

Why she’s key: Big goals and assists

Morgan and Horan do all the stuff that isn’t very fun or flashy so that Rapinoe can shine. Her teammates sacrifice and create space for her because she always delivers.

6. Becky Sauerbrunn, CB

The former best defender in the world has not quite been that for the past three years, but she’s still excellent. The USWNT don’t need her to be the 2015 version of herself to win the World Cup, but they’ll still need her to step up her game a bit from where it’s been recently.

Why she’s key: Leadership

As by far the most experienced player in the defensive unit, it’ll be on Sauerbrunn to call the shots and organize her team. This is especially crucial given that Ertz doesn’t play like a traditional holding midfielder and is asked to play very aggressively, which often leaves the USWNT defense to make some tough plays in space.

7. Kelley O’Hara, RB/LB

Once an elite winger, O’Hara’s late-career transition to fullback has gone extremely well. She’s as good going forward as any fullback in the world, and she didn’t take long to become a great one-on-one defender out wide either.

Why she’s key: Lack of depth

For various reasons (bad youth player pool management, Jill Ellis’ stubbornness, Jaelene Hinkle’s homophobia), the USWNT is very thin at fullback. Whenever O’Hara’s been hurt, Ellis has gone through a cavalcade of completely unsuitable replacements. If she can’t go 90 minutes in every game that has stakes, the USWNT is in trouble.

Starters with question marks

We’re being a bit harsh — the USWNT has been the best team in the world for a couple of years now — but four of the starters give Ellis some reason for concern.

8. Crystal Dunn, LB/UT

It makes me mad that the best attacker in NWSL is the USWNT’s left back, but this ship sailed a while ago and it’s too late to make a change. For better or worse, world class attacking midfielder Crystal Dunn is going to be playing left back at the World Cup.

Why she’s key: Versatility

If the USWNT is in a situation where their back line isn’t being threatened and they really need a goal, they have the option of shifting Dunn into any attacking position. She’s like a game-changing sub, except she’s already on the field.

Big question: Can she defend elite wingers?

That Dunn can play left back at a competent level at all is incredible, and she doesn’t deserve any criticism for getting beat by world class attackers. But the USWNT is depending on her to contain world class attackers, so uhh... she’s gonna have to figure out how to do that.

9. Alyssa Naeher, GK

The post-Hope Solo era has been shaky at best, but Naeher is still a very capable goalkeeper. Her superb performances at club level suggest that her USWNT issues are more down to the defensive structure in front of her than any deficiencies she has, but no one is going to care about that if she lets in some bad goals.

Why she’s key: Even the best team needs a goalie sometimes

The USWNT will out-shoot almost all of its opponents by a huge margin, but they’re not going to hold anyone to zero shots on target.

Big question: Can she make the right decisions coming off her line?

Naeher’s shot-stopping and aerial claims have been excellent, but she’s been shaky when faced with a decision about whether or not to close down aggressively. Her recognition just hasn’t been quick enough for the national team.

10. Abby Dahlkemper, CB

On a dominant club team with a box midfield in front of her, Dahlkemper looks like a world class defender. At the national team level, on a team that leaves a lot more space in front of her, she looks more average. Hopefully that changes?

Why she’s key: Sauerbrunn needs cover

Becky Sauerbrunn is not slow, but she’s not as fast as she was four years ago. And even then, Julie Ertz was the one doing most of the running. Dahlkemper will need to cut out the passes that go behind the defense into space.

Big question: Is she the starter?

All signs point to Dahlkemper getting the nod over youngster Tierna Davidson at the moment, but don’t be too shocked if Ellis makes a change.

11. Rose Lavelle, CM

There’s no one in the USWNT who’s more exciting to watch with the ball at her feet than Rose Lavelle. Unfortunately, she’s on the physio table more often than she’s on the field.

Why she’s key: Creativity

Lavelle’s ability to dribble at full speed, pick an early through ball, or play a creative backheel are second-to-none, and that’s why Ellis persists with putting her in the lineup despite her fitness problems.

Big question: Can she stay fit?

Sorry, I know, the horse is dead, I will stop beating it now.

Key bench players

These players aren’t in Ellis’ starting lineup right now, but they’re certain to make a big impact at the World Cup.

12. Christen Press, ST/UT

The biggest deficiency in Press’ game is that she’s not quite as good as Alex Morgan. Unlucky.

What she brings off the bench: Speed

I can’t imagine getting beat to hell by the work rate and physicality of Morgan, Horan and Ertz, then seeing a track star like Press enter the game in the 60th minute. My legs hurt thinking about trying to play against this team.

Why she’s not starting: Consistency

There isn’t a higher-ceiling player in this team than Press. Her best games are as good as anything Marta or Abby Wambach ever produced. Unfortunately, she’s never done it against a top team two games in a row.

13. Sam Mewis, CM

Other players rack up the goals and assists, but the key to North Carolina Courage’s NWSL success is Mewis. It’s a testament to the USWNT’s depth that a coach can even consider not starting her.

What she brings off the bench: Complete CM play

Ertz and Lavelle both have one elite skill, and Horan has the potential to be the best midfielder in the world, but the most well-rounded midfielder in the pool is Mewis. If you were to give her a grade at every aspect of midfield play, you wouldn’t give her worse than an A- at anything.

Why she’s not starting: Lmao you tell me man

The thing I disagree with Ellis most about is not finding a place for Mewis in her starting XI. I’d sacrifice just about anything to have my most balanced midfielder in the team.

14. Tierna Davidson, CB

Davidson left Stanford early to turn pro and prepare for this World Cup, and she already has 19 caps at just 20 years old. And in those 19 caps, she’s proven that she’s one of the best defenders in the country and deserves her spot.

What she brings off the bench: More physical tools than the starters

There are a lot of great athletes in college soccer. It was Davidson’s brain and technical skills that allowed her to make the step up. But she’s also faster and more agile than the players she’s competing for time against, which could prove very useful.

Why she’s not starting: She’s played 2 pro soccer games

Davidson is a very mature 20-year-old, but yeah, she’s 20.

15. Carli Lloyd, ST/AM

If you last engaged with The Carli Lloyd Experience by watching her score a hat trick in the World Cup final, I regret to inform you that some things have changed.

What she brings off the bench: A direct goal threat

The USWNT has shifted towards developing and selecting a lot of crafty, technical, tricky players. That’s a good thing. But sometimes you need to switch things up, and Lloyd has a one-track mind. She goes for goal.

Why she’s not starting: A lot of reasons tbh

Besides being 36, Lloyd hasn’t played well at club level since the World Cup. She’s also just always been more of a mega-clutch athlete than someone who’s really good at playing soccer.

16. Mallory Pugh, LW/RW

Pugh may eternally be a teenager in your brain, but she’s 21 now and has 50 (!!!) national team caps. She hasn’t delivered on her early promise yet, mostly because she was playing for a very bad club manager, but she’s still a great impact sub.

What she brings off the bench: Dribble dribble dribble dribble

Along the same lines as what Press does, Pugh often comes in for Rapinoe to make the opposing fullback have to deal with a different type of winger. Instead of looking for early through balls and diagonals, Pugh runs right at people.

Why she’s not starting: Rapinoe and Heath are too good

Her time will come soon enough.

Fringe players

You probably won’t see a lot of these players on the field, but you will see people on the internet arguing that someone else should have made the roster ahead of them.

17. Allie Long, DM

Long has been on the outside looking in for the past year, but was named to the roster in place of other players that Ellis has selected ahead of her recently. Not sure how that happened!

What she brings off the bench: She’s the only real holding player

For most of her national career, Long has been a box-to-box midfielder miscast as a holding player. But she finally got really good at playing as a holding midfielder (shouts to Vlatko Andonovski). The USWNT doesn’t really have a proper one of those, so she gives Ellis a different look.

Why she’s not starting: The other midfielders are just better

No shade, Long is a good player, but four other midfielders are better.

Who she beat out and why: McCall Zerboni

The “why” is presumably that Zerboni is similar stylistically to Ertz, and Ellis wanted a different kind of player. But Zerboni has been one of the best players in NWSL for the past three years straight, is the emotional leader behind the success of the Courage, and wants you to know that we are fucking winners. She should be on the team.

18. Jessica McDonald, ST

Forwards are egomaniacs by nature. And if you’re a forward good enough to make the USWNT, you probably don’t like coming off the bench. But McDonald has been the best substitute striker in NWSL for the league’s entire existence, so she’s a great choice to reprise that role for the national team.

What she brings off the bench: Energy

No one’s better at getting up to full speed right off the bench than McDonald, and giving a team 90 minutes of effort in 30 minutes of game time. She might be even more dangerous than Press in this respect.

Why she’s not starting: Playing for NC Courage appears to earn you a demerit

Mewis isn’t starting, Dunn has to play left back, Zerboni and Lynn Williams didn’t make the team, and Merritt Matthias didn’t seem to be seriously considered despite the lack of options at fullback. Ellis doesn’t seem to think Courage players can perform at the same level when they leave the Paul Riley Cult Commune.

Who she beat out and why: Savannah McCaskill

McCaskill had an unbelievable NWSL offseason campaign in Australia, but she also got hurt during it, and she didn’t get a chance to show her best at Sky Blue FC last season. You’ll get to see more of her soon.

19. Emily Sonnett, CB/RB

While Emily Sonnett is the undisputed MVP of posting, she’s the unheralded fourth defender on this squad.

What she brings off the bench: No-nonsense defending

Every team needs a defender who just Does Their Job, and that’s Sonnett. It’s also very helpful that she can play center back or right back.

Why she’s not a starter: Good question!

Sonnett has been excellent for the Thorns. There’s not really a clear argument for or against her starting over Dahlkemper or Davidson. They’re all about as good as each other, but Sonnett is a clear fourth on Ellis’ depth chart.

Who she beat out and why: She didn’t really have any competition

While Ellis has rotated in a lot of fringe players to try out for every other spot on the roster, center back has been set in stone for a year.

20. Morgan Brian, CM

Hello there, hero of the 2015 World Cup. We didn’t expect to see you here. Brian’s been really good for the Chicago Red Stars since she returned to NWSL, but up until this point, she appeared to be out of Ellis’ plans. Her call-up is a pleasant surprise.

What she brings off the bench: Smooth touch

Like Long, Brian is here because she’s stylistically different from the starters. She’s the smoothest on the ball of the American midfielders, and is a great player to bring in if you want to kill off a game.

Why she’s not a starter: Chronic injuries

When Brian almost singlehandedly turned around the USWNT at the last World Cup just a few months out of college, she was expected to become a superstar. Unfortunately, she’s had at least one bad injury per year since then.

Who she beat out and why: Andi Sullivan

While a bad coach and club season did not cost Lavelle and Pugh their spots on this team, it was the primary factor behind Sullivan not having a chance to prove herself. She already looks much better for the Spirit, though, and she’ll be back on the USWNT in no time.

21. Ali Krieger, RB

Hello there, REALLY did not expect to see you here! Krieger has been inexplicably exiled from the USWNT over the past two seasons in favor of whatever random player Ellis could dig up to play right back instead. It was very bizarre. Finally, Ellis has swallowed her pride and admitted she needs Krieger.

What she brings off the bench: She’s an actual right back

Dunn and O’Hara are converted wingers, and Sonnett primarily plays center back, but Krieger is an honest to god right back. Sometimes it’s good to have one of those.

Why she’s not a starter: She’s an actual right back

At fullback, Ellis wants converted wingers who bomb forward and contribute in attack more than she wants defenders. Krieger isn’t bad going forward, but she’s no O’Hara or Dunn.

Who she beat out and why: Casey Short

Short has been very good for Chicago and can play right and left back, but she contributes even less going forward than Krieger does, which is probably what cost her a spot.

22. Ashlyn Harris, GK

I haven’t checked, but I assume Ashlyn Harris is the reigning NWSL Save of the Week winner. Much to the annoyance of her fans, she is still Naeher’s backup.

What she brings off the bench: Elite shot stopping

Harris certainly has her detractors (me), but none of them can say anything against her shot-stopping abilities. Her highlight plays are more spectacular than anyone else’s. She makes saves that no one else can.

Why she’s not a starter: Big errors

She also fumbles the ball into her own net about twice as often as anyone who we could reasonably call an elite goalkeeper.

Who she beat out and why: Jane Campbell

Campbell has been on a USWNT contract for the last couple years, and she was very good for Houston Dash last season. But Harris has never lost her spot on the depth chart despite shaky club form, and Campbell wasn’t as good as...

23. Adrianna Franch, GK

Winning NWSL goalkeeper of the year two seasons in a row will apparently get you on the plane to France, but not much else.

What she brings off the bench: Big plays off her line

As far as we can tell, Franch is the third keeper, so she won’t be getting off the bench at all. But if she does play: She’s way better at coming off her line quickly and making clearances than Naeher or Harris.

Why she’s not a starter: Inertia

Naeher became the starter before Franch started playing like the best keeper in the pool, and she hasn’t been bad enough to lose her place. The USWNT is like Ivy League schools: It’s hard to get in, but once you’re in, you stay in.