USWNT: Thoughts on the Optimal Player Pool Size and Structure

This week in obscure USWNT topics: A discussion of the optimal size of the United States Women’s National Team player pool.

The main prompt for this discussion was the inclusion of Christen Press in the last camp roster, which highlighted a problem in the management of the team’s main player pool: The number of experienced true forwards was dwindling due to the use of Lauren Cheney and Amy Rodriguez as midfielders, while the need for true forwards was increasing due to the switch back to the 4-4-2 formation, from the 4-2-3-1 formation.

This is also relevant since the USWNT players’ collective bargaining agreement expires at the end of the year (USSoccer.com article announcing the current agreement back in 2006).

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CURRENT USWNT PLAYER POOL

On USSoccer.com, there is a “2012 Player Pool” page for the USWNT. That list includes 29 players in total: 4 goalkeepers, 9 defenders, 11 midfielders, and just 5 forwards. The list does not include forwards Christen Press (April 2012 camp) and Melissa Henderson (December 2011, January 2012 camps) or midfielder Ingrid Wells (December 2011 camp), all of whom do not have any senior international experience.

There are two known salary tiers for the team: A top tier of 14 players receive a guaranteed minimum salary, while a second tier of up to six players receives a lower minimum salary. The rest of the players are paid essentially on a freelance basis. There is also a bonus system for winning individual matches and winning major events, which applies to all players. (See this SoccerTimes.com article from 2006 which details what is known about the current USWNT collective bargaining agreement).

Beyond the senior USWNT pool, there are age-group pools, which are primarily structured around the competitive youth tournaments, the Under-17 Women’s World Cup and the Under-20 Women’s World Cup. These pools are essentially separate from the main USWNT pool. The closest that the USWNT has to a developmental pool is the U-23 team, which mostly consists of collegiate players too old for the U-20 WNT and a few rookie professional players.

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WORKING TOWARD AN OPTIMAL POOL SIZE

The maximum roster size for friendlies and tournaments usually ranges from 18 to 21 players. Typically, there is a specific number of goalkeepers required, which is 3 for Women’s World Cups and usually 2 for other tournaments, if specified.

  • Women’s World Cups: 21, including 3 goalkeepers
  • Olympics: 18 on the normal roster, plus 4 medical/injury alternates
  • CONCACAF Tournaments: 18 (normal), 20 (one location)
  • International Friendlies: 18 (match roster, travel roster could be larger)

A roster of 18 players provides a good foundation as a building block for the player pool. With 18 players, that allows for 11 starters, plus a back-up for most of the minor position types in the formation(s) used by a team.  Assuming that some of the starters and/or substitutes are proficient at two or more positions, then having 7 back-ups should allow a team to field a non-rag-tag formation in most circumstances (e.g., up to 3 or 4 players being unavailable).

Note: A team’s normal formation/system will have an impact on the need for players who are able to play in a specific position, while the ability of some players to play proficiently in two or more positions will allow for flexibility in the number of players per specific position.

A complement of 18 players for a team that plays a 4-4-2 formation, whether with a normal or diamond midfield, would look more-or-less as such:

  • 2 Goalkeepers
  • 3 Centerbacks
  • 3 Fullbacks
  • 2 Holding Midfielders
  • 2-3 Outside Midfielders
  • 1-2 Attacking Midfielders
  • 1-2 Target Forwards
  • 2-3 Secondary Forwards

This boils down to: 2 goalkeepers; 6 defenders; 6 midfielders; and 4 forwards.

At a bare minimum, there should be one additional back-up in case of injury, illness, et cetera, which would increase the pool to about 26 players:

  • 3 Goalkeepers
  • 4 Centerbacks
  • 4 Fullbacks
  • 3 Holding Midfielders
  • 3-4 Outside Midfielders
  • 2-3 Attacking Midfielders
  • 2-3 Target Forwards
  • 3-4 Secondary Forwards

Which can be summed up as 3 goalkeepers, 8 defenders, 9 midfielders, and 6 forwards.

But, only having one back-up does not allow for a double-whammy situation where two players in the same position are injured or otherwise unavailable, so an additional back-up is needed. Adding one more pool slot per position, brings the player pool up to at least 34 players:

  • 4 Goalkeepers
  • 5 Centerbacks
  • 5 Fullbacks
  • 4 Holding Midfielders
  • 4-5 Outside Midfielders
  • 3-4 Attacking Midfielders
  • 3-4 Target Forwards
  • 4-5 Secondary Forwards

Broadly, that can be summed up as: 4 goalkeepers; 10 defenders; 12 midfielders; and 8 forwards.

Being extra cautious, I would prefer a second layer of back-ups (+2 for each position):

  • 6 Goalkeepers
  • 7 Centerbacks
  • 7 Fullbacks
  • 6 Holding Midfielders
  • 6-7 Outside Midfielders
  • 5-6 Attacking Midfielders
  • 5-6 Target Forwards
  • 6-7 Secondary Forwards

Which brings the pool up to about 50 players: 6 goalkeepers; 14 defenders; 18 midfielders; and 12 forwards.

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STRUCTURING THE POOL

The 50 or so active players would be divided into four sub-pools, with a fifth sub-pool for semi-retired players:

“A” Pool (14): Essentially, the main group of starters for the team, regardless of the formation used. (No age limit.)

“B” Pool (12): The core substitutes plus the main back-ups. Every player in this group should be ready to contribute consistently as a starter at an “A” senior international level at any time. Most of these players should already have significant international experience (10+ caps), with the rest being newer players, promoted from the lower pools. Players in this group should be liberally rotated into and out of the rosters for friendlies, in order to ensure that every player who may need to step up at any moment is properly ready to do so. (No age limit.)

“C” Pool (8): The secondary back-ups. These players would, in most situations, only be used as substitutes, if needed. The players in this group should be able to play consistently at an “A” international level within a short-term timeframe (e.g., three months or less of being included in the core roster). Although eight players would be an absolute minimum quota, a larger number (say, 12-15), may be better. (No age limit, probably.)

“D” Pool (15): That is “D” as in developmental. This pool should include the top youth WNT players plus younger professional players. Practically speaking, all of the players in this pool should be able to elevate their playing level and play consistently at the “A” international level within a medium-term timeframe (e.g., a year or less of senior national team training). (Age limit of U-25 or so, which perhaps fluctuates depending on the WWC cycle.)

“E” Pool: Here, “E” stands for emeritus. These players are experienced international players, but are more-or-less retired from the international game.

None of the players in the “A” Pool would be guaranteed a roster spot, let alone a starting spot. That pool is basically equivalent to the current top salary tier of the USWNT (in 2006, 14 players were guaranteed $70,000 – www.soccertimes.com). The “B” Pool is roughly equivalent to the second tier of salaried players (in 2006, up to 6 more players were guaranteed $50,000), while the “C” pool would include most of the current “fringe” players — i.e., those who are paid on only a per event basis. If a player pool system similar to the above example was implemented, then the second salary tier should be expanded to eight or nine players, with the rest of the players in the “B” Pool having a guaranteed salary of, say, eighty or seventy-five percent of whatever the second tier would now be.

If the “B” and “C” Pools are combined, then the top three pools in this proposal is comparable to the current set-up of Japan’s senior women national team. There is a main group of 14 players in the “Nadeshiko Japan candidates” pool and 18 players in the “Nadeshiko Challenge” pool. (See these JFA articles, both in English: February mega-camp rosters, February mega-camp announcement.)

The rosters for most training camps would normally include all of the players in the “A” Pool, along with most, if not all of the players in the “B” Pool. Ideally, the players in Pool “C” should be included in as many general USWNT camps as possible.

The auxiliary group of players in the “C” and “D” Pools could come together for a camp or two each year, with at least one of those camps being concurrent with the main USWNT camp and held at the same facility, which would allow those players to scrimmage against and/or with each other.

Regarding the “E” Pool, perhaps in a crunch, the “Emeritus” players can be included on a roster, but their primary role would be as assistant coaches and/or mentors to the younger players. Essentially, this is a way to gradually and tactfully transition out the older players while giving them an incentive to not “overstay their welcome,” which could crowd out younger players from getting enough international experience. Also, this allows a more steady flow of knowledge from one generation of players to the next.

ADDITIONAL DISCUSSION

Quotas: In order to guarantee that the USWNT will never be shorthanded in most situations, each of the main pools, “A” through “D,” should have an overall minimum quota (i.e., 14 for “A,” 12 for “B,” etc.)  with flexible quotas for specific positions (e.g. for the “B” pool, 1-2 target forwards, 1-2 secondary forwards, and so on).

Regarding the Structure: Dividing the pool into sub-pools, as in the above list, would give players specific goals to reach as they try to make the full national team. For younger players, their first major objective would be to make the developmental pool (“D”). After that, if they continue to improve and impress, then they would move up to the secondary back-up pool (“C”). From there, the next step is to break into the USWNT by getting into the “B” pool.

Having a more formal structure would ensure better communication between those in charge of the USWNT and the players in the pool as well as players outside the pool. Primarily, it would help let players know more specifically where they stand in the pecking order for the team. For players just outside the main team, i.e., those in the “C” and “D” pools, knowing that they are actually only one or two steps away from making the team would help provide an incentive for them to stay active as a player and continue to improve. Otherwise, the player would be more likely to turn their focus to a non-soccer career, settling down, etc.

Also, the structure would help ensure better relationships between professional teams and the USWNT. If a club knows that a player is in the “C” or “D” pools, then they will be put on notice that the player could be called up to the USWNT, so such a call up will not be a major surprise. The same would apply to NCAA teams.

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OTHER MATTERS

Fine-print issues, such as the  following, are generally beyond the scope of this current discussion:

  • Compensation Issues: E.g., guaranteed salaries, per-event compensation, the bonus structure
  • Pool Management: E.g., who oversees the whole pool, whether different parts of the pool are managed and trained by different people.

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BOTTOM LINE

The USWNT should have a player pool that (1) is larger and more formally structured than the apparent current system; (2) is deep enough at all specific positions so that the chance of a shortage of ready-to-go players at any position is extremely unlikely; (3) and provides a specific development path for national team candidate players.