The deadline for Olympic rosters is two months away and Pia Sundhage has some challenging decisions to make regarding which players are included in the final roster for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT) and which players are left out.
In this first post of a potential series, the situation regarding forwards is examined.
As specified in the regulations for the 2012 Olympic soccer tournaments (PDF file), the final roster is limited to eighteen official players. However, four alternates can also be chosen. An alternate would only be available to replace an official player if that player “sustain[s] an injury or in the case of force majeure once the final competitions have started” (regulation 10.4.b.).
Although the deadline for the final player lists (eighteen players plus four alternates) is “midnight on 9 July 2012 (London local time)” (regulation 7.6), US Soccer has indicated that the final roster will be announced at the end of June (citation needed).
* * *
At the start of this year, the team had just four healthy players with any significant recent experience playing as a forward at the international level: Abby Wambach, Lauren Cheney, Amy Rodriguez, and Alex Morgan. So far this year, one additional player, Sydney Leroux, has gotten international experience, although only as a substitute.
Also, at the beginning of the year, USWNT head coach Pia Sundhage apparently preferred the 4-2-3-1 formation, which meant practically that only three to four forwards are needed in an eighteen player roster. (E.g., at a minimum, one starter plus two substitutes, in case of a formation switch.) So, with five forwards in the primary player pool, there are one or two spare players in case of injuries. — So far, so good, yes?
However, during Olympic qualifying, Sundhage’s formation preference changed back to the 4-4-2 formation, with Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan being the preferred partnership up top. A 4-4-2 formation essentially requires four forwards (two starters plus two substitutes) in an eighteen player roster, so now there was only one spare forward. — Not as good as before, but still manageable, right?
But, wait a second…
What if at least one of those forwards is not that effective scoring-wise and seems to work better as a midfielder, while another forward has been used mostly in the midfield of late? How many forwards does the USWNT actually have?
* * *
THE CORE POOL OF FORWARDS
Among the usual suspects called up this year, there have been five players who have recently been used as forwards (in order of experience) : Abby Wambach, Amy Rodriguez, Lauren Cheney, Alex Morgan, and Sydney Leroux.
Abby Wambach: The team’s go-to target forward, who was named a (junior) co-captain earlier this year. Her goal-scoring form so far this year has been satisfactory, with 5 goals scored against quality opponents in ten matches and 9 goals total (the other four were scored in the blowouts against Guatemala and the Dominican Republic). She also has 6 assists. Wambach has scored in 84 of her 155 career starts.
Pros: She is a leader and a never-say-die player who can make the big plays late in the game.
Cons: Her lack of speed makes the team’s attacking more predictable.
Amy Rodriguez: The second-most capped forward, Rodriguez has the speed and experience, but also has a frustrating lack of goal-scoring ability. Prior to 2012, she had 17 goals in just under 4000 minutes of playing time, or a goal scoring rate of one goal every 232.5 minutes. Last year, at the Women’s World Cup, she did not score a goal or register an assist her five matches. Rodriguez has 7 goals this year, with 6 of those goals scored in the blowout matches versus Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. In her 51 career starts, she has scored in just 12 matches.
Rodriguez seems more comfortable and more effective as a wide midfield player, but with the switch back to the 4-4-2, has been used as a second-half substitute for Alex Morgan.
Pros: Speed and experience.
Cons: A lack of goal-scoring prowess.
Lauren Cheney: A player who can be used effectively in a variety of positions, whether as a target forward, a secondary forward, or as an attacking midfielder. In the 4-4-2 formation, she has mostly been used as the starting left wide midfielder, but has a tendency (probably by design) to drift into the center of the field. Cheney only has two goals this year, both versus Guatemala and the Dominican Republic. Cheney also has 10 assists, with 5 coming in those two matches. Cheney has scored in 8 of her 32 career starts.
Last year, at the Women’s World Cup, Cheney scored 2 goals while assisting with 3 more, which gave her the second-best point total for the USWNT, with 7 points, behind Wambach (9 points; 4 goals, 1 assists).
Pros: Can be used in a variety of positions. Seems most effective as a play-making passer in the midfield.
Cons: Goal-scoring rate is substantially lower compared to Wambach and Morgan.
Alex Morgan: The one they call “Baby Horse” is in the middle of a banner year, where, so far, she has scored 12 goals and tallied 7 assists, to lead the USA in points. With the switch back to a 4-4-2, Morgan has claimed the starting secondary forward spot. Only one of Morgan’s team-leading goals were scored against a non-quality opponent. Last year, in the Women’s World Cup, Morgan scored 2 goals, including a goal against Japan and had one assist, also against Japan. Morgan has scored in 6 of her 10 career starts.
Pros: Has speed and is currently in superb excellent goal scoring form. Has a knack for scoring big goals in major tournaments.
Cons: Her fitness as a starter in a major tournament may be an issue.
Sydney Leroux: The youngest of the five, and probably the fastest, Leroux just started to get significant international time this year, although all as a substitute. She has 7 goals in 173 minutes, with 5 of those goals coming against the Dominican Republic in 45 minutes of action. The other 2 goals came versus Denmark and Norway (the latter being a game-winner in a 2:1 match due to a late Norway goal).
Pros: Has speed and a general knack for scoring goals. Could also be used as a wide-midfielder.
Cons: Lacks senior international experience. Has yet to really prove herself at “the next level,” whether internationally or professionally.
Statistics-wise, here is how these five players currently stack-up:
==================== CURRENT CAREER STATS ===================== PLAYER APP S MIN G A PTs | MIN/G MIN/A MIN/PT Morgan 38 10 1681 22 10 54 | 76.4 168.1 31.1 Wambach 178 155 13581 134 58 326 | 101.4 234.2 41.7 Cheney 63 32 3227 18 21 57 | 179.3 153.7 56.6 Rodriguez 85 51 4447 24 16 64 | 185.3 277.9 69.5 Leroux 9 0 178 7 0 14 | 25.4 n/a 12.7
KEY: “APP” is appearances, “S” is games started, “MIN” is minutes played, “G” is goals scored, “A” is assists, “PTs” is points (2 for a goal, 1 for an assist), “MIN/G” is minutes per goal, or the average time between goals scored, “MIN/A” is minutes per assist, and “MIN/PT” is minutes per points earned.
Also, here are their career stats through last year:
================== CAREER STATS THROUGH 2011 ================== PLAYER APP S MIN G A PTs | MIN/G MIN/A MIN/PT Morgan 27 2 886 10 3 23 | 88.6 295.3 38.5 Wambach 166 143 12746 125 52 302 | 102.0 245.1 42.2 Cheney 51 23 2439 16 11 43 | 152.4 221.7 56.7 Rodriguez 73 47 3952 17 12 46 | 232.5 329.3 85.9 Leroux 1 0 5 0 0 0 | n/a n/a n/a
And, for a comparison of the active forwards to past forwards:
=========== CAREER STATS FOR SELECT INACTIVE PLAYERS ========== PLAYER APP S MIN G A PTs | MIN/G MIN/A MIN/PT Tarpley* 125 77 6828 32 15 79 | 213.4 455.2 86.4 Kai 67 30 3093 24 13 61 | 128.9 237.9 50.7 ----------------------------------------------------------------- Akers 153 137 10450 105 36 246 | 99.5 290.3 42.5 Hamm 275 247 20694 158 144 460 | 131.0 143.7 45.0 Parlow 158 101 8533 75 35 185 | 113.8 243.8 46.1 Milbrett 204 156 13324 100 61 261 | 133.2 218.4 51.0 MacMillan 176 114 10395 60 50 170 | 173.3 207.9 61.1 Lilly* 352 330 28700 130 105 365 | 220.8 273.3 78.6 *Tarpley and Lilly started as forwards, but moved to the midfield later in their careers.
The career stats for Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Cindy Parlow, Tiffeny Milbrett and Shannon MacMillan are included as examples of the “gold standards” for scoring and assist rates. But, those players are of an earlier era than the current crop of forwards, so the two most recent non-active forwards with significant playing time, Lindsay Tarpley and Natsha Kai, were included as well.
* * *
THE BROADER POOL OF FORWARDS: U-23s
Nine forwards were called into the special U-23 WNT camp held in October 2011:
- Crystal Dunn (UNC)
- Sarah Hagen (Wisconsin-Milwaukee)
- Melissa Henderson (Notre Dame)
- Sydney Leroux (UCLA)
- Nikki Marshall (Boston Breakers)
- Christen Press (magicJack)
- Katie Stengel (Wake Forest)
- Lindsay Taylor (Stanford)
- Nikki Washington (Boston Breakers)
The two U-20 USWNT players, Crystal Dunn (who is primarily a fullback for that team), and Katie Stengel, were there at the camp more for experience, rather than having an actual chance at a senior USWNT spot for the Oympics, so those two players are not true members of the pool. The rest of the players had either already graduated from college and playing professionally or would graduate before the Olympics.
At the time of the camp, the bolded players, Sarah Hagen, Melissa Henderson, Sydney Leroux, and Christen Press, likely had the best shot at getting a proper USWNT camp call-up. And, as of this post, three of those players had been called up: Sydney Leroux (obviously), Melissa Henderson (December 2011 camp), and Christen Press (April 2012) camp.
Leroux was discussed in the previous section. Regarding the other three players, here are brief thumbnail sketches with highlight videos:
Sarah Hagen is a target forward, much in the mold of Abby Wambach — they’re both 5’11” and known for their heading ability more than anything — although, Hagen does have the ability to score directly from free kicks.
A speedy and crafty dribbler, Melissa Henderson, who is listed at 5’8″ by UND Athletics’ website (but only listed at 5’5″ by USSoccer.com, which seems too short), could probably be used as both a target forward and a secondary speedster-type forward.
Christen Press is speedy, but not as tight a dribbler as Henderson. Press compares closest to Alex Morgan (height, build, speed, basic skill-set). Press played with Wambach in 2011 on the WPS magicJack squad, so that partnership would not have to be built from scratch. So far, in three Damallsvenskan matches, Press has scored 5 goals (2, 1, 2), including 2 game-winners.
(Note: I was unable to find any compilations of highlights for Press.)
* * *
Three forwards are safe bets to make the final Olympic roster: Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, and Lauren Cheney. Although, Cheney is more likely to be used mostly in the midfield, rather than up top. Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are close to being on the bubble, but will probably be in the final eighteen. Meanwhile, Christen Press or Melissa Henderson are in the running for a spot as an alternate.
Performance-wise, Wambach, Morgan, and Cheney have been more than satisfactory, especially in the matches that matter most. Last year at the Women’s World Cup, the three combined for eight goals (4, 2, 2, respectively). Wambach’s recent form has been solid, in spite of any age-related issues, while Morgan has been on a goal-scoring tear. Cheney’s performance this year has been more mixed, but she is hardly in any sort of slump.
Rodriguez seems to be a mainstay of Sundhage’s team, regardless of whether she scores or not, so it would be a major surprise if Rodriguez is not included in the final eighteen. And, given the team’s dearth of experienced forwards, she will more than likely make the Olympic roster. Although, based on her performance in the last Women’s World Cup (zero goals scored, zero official assists), a different player cannot really do any worse.
Leroux is the least experienced of the active capped forwards, but she does have two Under-20 Women’s World Cups under her belt. As Cheney will likely be used more as a midfielder — and could even be listed as such — rather than a forward, Leroux has a good shot of making the final roster.
Whoever the fifth forward is, their inclusion may depend on whether Sundhage chooses to include an extra midfielder in the final eighteen, with Lori Lindsey or Tobin Heath being the two main bubble midfielders. If Sundhage includes both, then that will likely mean only four forwards are chosen for the final eighteen.
Christen Press, who attended the last camp and was invited to the USWNT’s next camp, has an outside shot of making the final eighteen. If she gets a chance to prove herself on-field and does so before the 22-player roster is split between the 18 Olympians and the 4 alternates, then we could see Press being included to the exclusion of Rodriguez and/or Leroux.
At the least, Press is a likely candidate to be an alternate, especially if Sundhage takes the five experienced forwards above: Wambach, Morgan, Cheney, Rodriguez, and Leroux. Press’ professional experience gives her an edge over the next most probable alternate candidate, Melissa Henderson, wo may or not even be invited to the May camp. Other players, such as Sarah Hagen, could also be called up as an alternate, but that would require some of the forwards higher up in Sundhage’s preference to be injured or otherwise not available.
* * *
SUMMARY: THE LIKELY SHORTLIST OF FORWARDS
The 18-player Olympic roster will probably include these five players:
- Abby Wambach: Starting target forward. On the 18-player roster.
- Alex Morgan: Starting secondary forward. On the 18-player roster.
- Lauren Cheney: Used mostly as an attacking midfielder or outside midfielder this year. On the 18-player roster.
- Amy Rodriguez: Had been used as an outside midfielder in the team’s 4-2-3-1 formation. Probably on the 18-player roster.
- Sydney Leroux: Has primarily seen action as a substitute for Morgan in the 4-4-2 formation. Also used as a wide midfielder. Probably on the 18-player roster.
If all of the above players are on that roster, then at the moment, Christen Press is the most likely alternate, followed by Melissa Henderson and Sarah Hagen:
- Christen Press: One senior USWNT camp. Has one-and-a-half years pro experience. Probably in the running as at least an alternate for the Olympics. Could make the final 18 if one of the above forwards is injured.
- Melissa Henderson: One senior USWNT camp. No professional experience. Possibly in the running as an alternate for the Olympics.
- Sarah Hagen: No senior USWNT camps. Has a half-season of pro experience. A long-shot, even as an alternate. Wambach and Cheney would both have to be unavailable for Hagen to have a chance.
* * *
Leaving Rodriguez out of the final eighteen is the most likely “surprise” we might see when the final roster is announced. And, one that would probably be welcomed by many fans, especially if it means Christen Press would make the team. Statistically and subjectively, Rodriguez has not been the most effective forward, so the inclusion of another player instead of Rodriguez would not be that risky of a decision.
Also, regarding semantics, Cheney could likely be listed officially as a midfielder. Also, Rodriguez possibly could be listed as one.
And, finally, the most lingering question regarding all this is what can be done in the future to avoid a shortage of fully qualified players at any position (e.g., better player pool management).