Analysis

Time to convert? 5 not-so-crazy fullback options for Ellis' USWNT evolution

ISI Photos-Daniel Bartel

As Jill Ellis starts to get creative with her fullback options, here are 5 out-of-the-box candidates for the U.S. women’s depth chart.

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Last week’s call-up of Tierna Davidson made it clear: Jill Ellis’ search for new fullbacks is far from over. In fact, the U.S. women’s national team coach seems willing to get very creative in finding somebody, anybody, who can fit what she wants across the length of the field.

So let’s get creative, too. No doubt, names like Ali Krieger, Jaelene Hinkle or Meghan Klingenberg could go on this list, but we stuck to five true wild cards: Players who have never been considered as fullbacks before.

The worst part about this list? Though we’re not sure any of these five could work, we truly believe that ... shrug, they’re all worth a shot.

Shea Groom, forward, FC Kansas City

Groom was called into U.S. camp last fall – one of the myriad call-ups that hinted Ellis was sincerely, no lie this time, starting to explore more NWSL options. While the FCKC attacker didn’t stick, it might be time to consider a different role. After all, there are few players in the NWSL as willing, rugged, or industrious as Groom.

Going forward, Groom has what Ellis wants, but does she have the type of motor that will keep her going on those 30-, 40-yard runs that establish the United States’ width? There’s a whole different type of fitness that goes into playing a fullback’s role. As important, does Groom have the instincts needed to become a competent one-on-one defender, or somebody who can reliably protect the back post against incoming crosses? Willingness surely won’t be a problem.

If Ellis is searching far and wide for more fullback options, Groom wouldn’t be the worst to bring into the fold. She at least checks some of the boxes.

Kealia Ohai, forward, Houston Dash

ISI Photos-Wilf Thorne

ISI Photos-Wilf Thorne

Ohai is not going to get called in any time soon. Her torn ACL will have her out into the new year. Still, when she comes back, a move to right back might be the best way to get the Houston Dash captain onto the field.

The former University of North Carolina star already played wide for the U.S. last fall, when she got her first time with the senior squad. Flanking a three-woman central defense, as Ohai did then, is much different than a conventional right back’s role, but the way Ohai was able to combine with Crystal Dunn down the U.S. flank showed promise. Perhaps as importantly, Ohai showed a willingness to embrace a new role.

As with any potential conversion, defense is the issue, but Ohai’s ability to dominate players one-on-one could offset her shortcomings. And while she tends to be very right-foot dominant, Ohai wouldn’t be the first fullback in the world to avoid a weaker foot.

Makenzy Doniak, midfielder/forward, North Carolina Courage

For the Courage, Doniak already spends much of her time doing what the U.S. wants: combining with teammates to break down opposing fullbacks and get the ball into the team’s goal-scorers. Among the NWSL’s midfielders and forwards, only Seattle’s Megan Rapinoe (67) has been able to play more crosses than Doniak (56).

That she often does so from the right side of a midfield diamond is where this choice gets creative, but good for nearly two goals every three games at Virginia, the former Cavalier can do more than loft a ball. And, since turning pro, having become more of a midfielder than forward, she is certainly adaptable.

Whether she can adapt her game to a fullback’s role, who knows, but she’s already had to take on a new identity to win time with a loaded North Carolina team. With experience at the U-20 and U-23 levels, Doniak is no stranger to U.S. Soccer.

Emily Sonnett, center back, Portland Thorns

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

Chris Nicoll-USA TODAY Sports

An alternate in Rio last summer, Sonnett has fallen out of favor with Ellis. In the NWSL, though, her game continues to mature. While that process still includes an occasional glaring error (seemingly always at Seattle), the frequency of her missteps continues to go down.

As important, here, are the other virtues Sonnett has flashed, particularly since Portland began playing three central defenders. In the middle of that trio, often with license to play a more aggressive, sweeper-esque role, Sonnett’s speed and willingness to cover ground has become a highlight of any Portland game, with her intelligence and ability to read play on display as she takes advantage of the cover behind her.

Add in a good right foot, one that sees her take a number of the Thorns’ deeper restarts, and you have somebody you could envision at right back. Unlike Groom, Doniak or Ohai, though, Sonnett’s questions come in the final third. Still, as a player who was seen as a potential midfield option coming out of UVa., Sonnett is at least reliable on the ball.

Heather O’Reilly, midfielder, Arsenal

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Greg Bartram-USA TODAY Sports

Twist! Why is a retired (international) player on this list? Because the reason she stepped away from the national team, assumedly, was because there wasn’t space for her in the player pool. But did that only mean at O’Reilly’s natural position, right midfield? Because particularly at fullback, the U.S. surely could use a run-for-days, take-on-anybody, take-you-off-the-ball player like O’Reilly in the fold.

When you consider her skillset, there’s little doubt O’Reilly would be a virtue in defense, whether as a starter or as a late-game, break-down-the-opposition option. Whether we’ll even see that, though, is far less likely.

Having retired from international duty last year, O’Reilly would have to be coaxed back into the red, white and blue. She’s also left the domestic league, is playing with Arsenal in London, and is already transitioning into a front-of-camera role, as she did with Eurosport during this summer’s European Championship.

Sometimes, good things just aren’t meant to be – though wouldn’t it be nice to get a few more U.S. caps out of HAO?

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