This post is the second part of an article originally posted on October 14, 2010. If you missed Part 1, you can view it here.
There were several bubble players during this period who received call-ups to the national team but weren’t of good enough quality to truly cement themselves a spot. The most puzzling of which was Heather Mitts. Heather Mitts was a solid defender for the Philadelphia Charge, who were one of the most talented teams in WUSA in its first two seasons. The performance of Philly’s best defenders, Jenny Benson and Heather Mitts, earned them call-ups in national team camp. Jenny Benson, however, was a central defender and had no hope of cracking the central pairing of Kate Markgraf and Joy Fawcett. Mitts, as we all know, was mediocre at the international level , yet kept mysteriously getting called back into camp. She, understandably, did not make the cut for the 2003 Women’s World Cup, getting displaced by Danielle Slaton. Which brings me to my next bubble player. Danielle Slaton was an outside defender, sometimes midfielder, who was the number 1 pick in the 2002 WUSA draft. She lead the Carolina Courage from a last place finish in 2001 to a championship in 2002, although I suspect Birgit Prinz had more to do with this than she did. Danielle was successful on the WNT and likely to earn herself a place in the next generation, but developed knee problems late in 2003 and fizzled out of the WNT player pool somewhere in 2004. The most interesting of all the bubble players who never stuck under April’s tenure was Amy LePeilbet. The WPS two-time defender of the year earned a few caps but never found herself a consistent spot on the team.
It can be seen from this point here that the US was riding a train of defender development established by Tony DiCicco, who brought in and established 3 of the 4 starting defenders in the starting line-up in the 2003 World Cup. The fourth of which played alongside coach Heinrichs and had remained on the national team since then. Even after the injury of Brandi Chastain, Heinrichs only had one viable replacement in Cat Whitehill, who was the single defensive player developed in the first three years of her tenure.
The year in which everything began to unravel was 2004. After a disappointing 3rd place finish in the WWC the year before, the overall play of the WNT actually got seemingly worse. The team had been coasting on the backbone of players that were selected and developed under Heinrich’s predecessors. Of the players on the 2004 Olympic roster that Heinrichs brought in herself, Cat Whitehill and Heather Mitts were the only defenders. Shannon Boxx, a defensive midfielder, played in the WUSA for three full seasons before Heinrichs literally handed her a roster spot despite Boxx having absolutely no international experience. Other players included Abby Wambach, whom I’ll discuss on another day, Angela Hucles, and Kristin Luckenbill. (Yes. Luckenbill over Solo. Think about that for a minute.) Some time just before the 2004 Olympics, Brandi snuck off with a journalist and gave an extremely candid interview in which she, on behalf of the team, blasted Heinrichs. The interview detailed a lot of discerning details behind the scenes, such as how Heinrichs was uncommunicative, stubborn, and unreasonable. Brandi’s interview was of course picked up by the mainstream media. So, when Brandi was “suddenly” benched in favor of Heather Mitts and the US team struggled in group play, the media went after April. (Gosh, Brandi, you are a smart cookie.) Despite winning the gold medal, the retirement of Hamm, Foudy and Fawcett in combination with a firestorm of criticism and bad press, Heinrichs was pressured to resign in early 2005.
Greg Ryan was named the interim successor of the team and apparently because he can win the Algarve Cup (like it’s that hard when you win it every year) the USSF deemed him fit to build a team to win the World Cup in 2007. (I’ll give you all a chance to stop and giggle here.) Among the first things on his to do list? Ostracize and force out the remaining 1999ers on which the team’s success of the last 5 years was based upon. Nowhere during that time were defenders, midfielders, or forwards sufficiently developed to replace the players he cast off. I am of course talking about the magical disappearance of Brandi Chastain, whom he blatantly told he would not invite to another training camp as soon as his butt hit his sparkly new office chair. (Which, if you want my two cents, Brandi’s caliber as a player had sufficiently begun to wane. This wasn’t a traumatic loss to the team.) This also included the forcing out of Shannon MacMillan (at the expense of blatant favoritism and overall trickery) and Tiffeny Milbrett, who had combined for almost 100 international goals in the previous five years. This is where things get dicey.
With the retirement of Fawcett and the baby-making of Rampone and Markgraf, Ryan had no choice but to move Whitehill to center back where she would remain. Since Rampone and Markgraf alternated their maternity leaves, either one or the other filled in at the central defender spot. Suddenly, Ryan was left with no experienced outside defenders. Instead of pulling from the youth programs and throwing them out there to develop, he relied upon the efforts of Heather Mitts. For the fourth spot, we saw the conversion of Lori Chalupny and Tina Ellertson to outside back. Ellertson, much like Chastain, was a successful forward in college. However, Chastain is probably the most tactically gifted player in the history of the WNT, using her intelligence and skill set to make the transition. Ellertson was fast, which was the cause of her being converted to defender. Similar to Brandi Chastain, Lori Chalupny was the best left footed player around not named Kristine Lilly, which is what landed her at outside back.
The inherent problem with Ryan’s defender choices lies in his style of play. By this point in time the three strikers with the most goals in the past five years had either retired (Hamm, MacMillan) or been plain out ignored (Milbrett). To compensate for this problem, Ryan had discovered that Abby is tall, big, and heads really well. He had also discovered that Cat Whitehill has a special gift in bouncing the ball off of Abby’s head into the goal. Thus forming the entire offensive strategy of the US WNT: bounce the ball off of Abby’s head. There was no need for skilled, tactical experts on the defensive line to build an efficient attack. Ellertson could run really fast and take the ball away. Mitts was sufficient and therefore not replaced.
All of Ryan’s decision making exploded in his face, as we’re all aware, in the 2007 World Cup. Looking at Ryan’s roster for the 2007, specifically his defenders, this shouldn’t have come as such a surprise to anyone. Defenders included Cat Whitehill, Christie Rampone, Kate Markgraf, Tina Ellertson, Marian Dalmy who was and still is internationally inexperienced, and Stephanie Cox who is solid in WPS but is not the best, either now or then. Dalmy earned her first cap in 2007. Cox rose through the ranks of the US youth program and earned her first cap under Ryan in 2005. Seemingly, she is the one defender that he brought in and developed during his tenure. Ryan’s laziness in developing or even looking at better options for central defenders to fill the gap left in 2005 caught up with him. For example, Amy LePeilbet would have been a much better choice for central defender than Cat Whitehill, who should have remained outside. But the reign of Ryan is littered with poor decisions and a severe lack of forward thinking. This stunted the growth and development of the defense of the United States.
Fast forward through the past two years in which Pia won a gold medal with a squad that was missing the two key elements of Ryan’s offense: Whitehill’s leg and Abby’s head. The team was forced to play intelligent attacking soccer and came up with the win, although they had their struggles. The team continued to develop this way and players that formerly coasted, such as Angela Hucles and even Abby Wambach stepped up their game and have become more complete players under Pia. It seems that Pia also recognizes this crack in the WNT line-up. What else would explain her decision to call in 11 defenders to training camp this past May?** She’s actively searching for someone to fill that outside back spot.
For the reasons explicitly outlined above, Pia doesn’t really have much to choose from. Let’s look at the American outside backs from this past WPS season, shall we? Cox, Mitts, Markgraf, Rampone, Dalmy, Schnur, Spilger, Wilson, Whitehill. I’m also including Bock because of her success at outside back in LA last year even though she can really be utilized anywhere. WPS aside, we also have Ali Krieger. Cox is inconsistent, Mitts is not good, Markgraf is now retired, Rampone is a central back now, Dalmy isn’t good enough, Schnur isn’t good enough, Wilson is untested, and Whitehill has been disappointing since her ACL tear. To clafiy: when I say not good enough I mean sufficient for your WPS team but not sufficient to break down the crafty German offense. Who might be good enough? Krieger, definitely, for her time spent playing in Germany; and Spilger, whose courage and gritty defending would be a breath of fresh air in the back line for the US. I’m also not opposed to looking at and developing players at the college level. Getting players like this on rosters for the next year is an important step in looking ahead to 2014.
**Written before the recent friendlies versus China and the release of the WWCQ roster, it’s still apparent that Pia is looking for defenders. Sauerbrunn’s inclusion, while expected here at AWK, came as a bit of a stunner to a few people. Pia’s tendency to go against her instinct and play it safe with her line-ups explains the forced incorporation of Rampone in the previous friendlies prior to qualifying, as well as the inclusion of Heather Mitts. I would expect to see Rampone in the starting line-up in group play, trying to get her as many minutes as possible before the US meets a true challenge.