Sports

She Shoots, She Scores. So Does She. And She …

The front line of the U.S. women’s national team is a seven-headed goal-scoring monster.

Pugh and Rapinoe celebrating on the field.
Mallory Pugh celebrates with teammate Megan Rapinoe after scoring her team’s 11th goal against Thailand on Tuesday in Reims, France.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Robert Cianflone/Getty Images.

In case it wasn’t obvious after her team scored 13 goals in its World Cup opener, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis is spoiled for choice in attack.

The U.S. squad has seven forwards, not counting the converted forwards listed elsewhere on the roster. Whatever style Ellis wants her offense to play, she has the resources to make it happen. Technique or speed? The final pass or the finishing touch? Stretch the field or dominate the center? It’s as if she’s reached the final dungeon of a video game and has more cool weapons in her inventory than there are slots to keep them in.

Ellis’ preferred starting lineup tilts toward technique and flair. Tobin Heath is a folk hero for the way she embarrasses defenders on the dribble. Megan Rapinoe has been the most technical, audaciously creative American at three consecutive World Cups. Placing them on opposite sides of the field pulls defenses apart and leaves empty space for Alex Morgan to beat her defender and to finish, which is how she’s scored 26 goals in her last 30 games for her country. If Heath and Rapinoe can’t get the ball to Morgan, they can find each other cutting in off the far side.

Each of that trio has a backup that can break that standard pattern and alter how the U.S. attacks. They give Ellis a plan B, C, and D to choose from depending on what the defense is showing and how she wants to approach the game.

The way Christen Press is typically cast—as a pair of fresh and speedy legs ready to run through exhausted defenses—understates her talent. A star forward who remade herself as a playmaking winger for the national team, Press is the most versatile player on the American front line. She can hold the ball up centrally and lay it off for teammates or find cutters from the wing. She has seven assists for the U.S. women in 2019 alone. Press has embraced her role as super-sub, ready to make an impact in limited time as the first player off the bench.

Carli Lloyd, less so. The hero of the 2015 World Cup has been open about her desire to be a starter in 2019, but she’s 36 and her club form hasn’t been good. Even in 2015, Lloyd was something of an awkward fit in the team, playing as a center midfielder who barely defended. It wasn’t until Ellis pushed her further forward and added another midfielder that she broke out in that tournament. But in 2019, all the “further forward” positions are spoken for. Lloyd’s role now is essentially to grit out goals as a center forward with craft and veteran savvy, but she exists somewhat apart from her teammates. She’s the kind of player you play to and not through. Lloyd got the last of the team’s 13 goals Tuesday, and her frustration at being seemingly the only American having her shots saved on the day was palpable through the screen before that.

Mallory Pugh has 54 appearances and 17 goals for the U.S. even though she just turned 21 in April. Her speed really is breathtaking, whether it’s over 10 yards or 100, but so is her understanding of where she needs to go with that speed to find attacking lanes for herself or open them up for her teammates.

If these three are Ellis’ options for switching up the standard pattern, then Jessica McDonald is the backup plan to the backup plan. McDonald has only seven caps for the U.S., so if she sees the field it will likely be to come on for a midfielder or defender when the team is losing, overloading the front line in search of a goal. Like the rest of the U.S. substitutes, she is quite overqualified for this role, but that doesn’t mean she’s not well-suited to it. She led the National Women’s Soccer League in assists last season as a forward, and will likely be relied on in these last-ditch scenarios to knock down high balls in the box, placing them onto the feet of her fellow attackers or a charging midfielder. If she plays, she stands as good a chance as anyone of being the hero who will save the Americans’ tournament.

What’s curious is that Ellis brought all three of Press, Lloyd, and Pugh into the Thailand game, which the U.S. was already winning handily. Two of them didn’t even replace forwards, but rather a midfielder and a defender, further tilting the balance toward offense. There are substitute defenders and midfielders who might have benefited from game time as well. Are these three, and Sam Mewis, who stepped into the starting lineup when Becky Sauerbrunn picked up a light injury, the extent of Ellis’ rotation? Or did the coach just see the most long-term benefit in making sure all her attackers were firing on all cylinders, even against an opponent providing minimal resistance?

Ellis will likely want her full-strength squad available for the final group stage match against rival Sweden, which means Sunday against Chile might be her last chance all tournament to give some starters a break. How will she weigh that desire against the need to keep the machine running at maximum capacity? Against Morgan’s desire to seal up the Golden Boot two games in? Against Lloyd’s frustration at having to sit out? The U.S. coach has some choices to make. Luckily, she’s got plenty of options.