FourFourTwo's USWNT Top 50: 20-11
20. Alyssa Naeher
For two seasons, Alyssa Naeher sat behind two very different entities. As the Boston Breakers goalkeeper, she sat behind the weakest team in NWSL, honing her shot-stopping abilities as opposing teams pelted her from all possible areas and angles. All the while, Naeher was also sitting behind Hope Solo on the national team.
Both of those situations changed in 2016. First she was traded to the Chicago Red Stars, where she inherited one of the best defenses in the league. Charged with proving herself as an organizer to go along with her ability to make the spectacular save, Naeher came through with flying colors. After a spotty opener, she ripped off four consecutive shutouts on her way to six on the season to share the league lead. In 13 regular season starts, Naeher conceded 13 goals in 13 games (10 in 12 excluding opening night.)
If Jill Ellis needed to win one game today, odds are Naeher would be her choice at keeper.
Near the end of the season came word that Solo had been suspended for six months by the national team and had her contract terminated. In the six friendlies since Naeher has played in three, splitting time evenly with Harris.
Time will tell if Naeher, who will turn 29 in April, will take hold of the No. 1 position on the national team, but 2016 showed that she is capable of playing the position at an elite level. Much can happen between now and the next major tournament — the 2019 World Cup — but if Jill Ellis needed to win one game today, odds are Naeher would be her choice at keeper.
-- Dan Lauletta
19. Kelley O’Hara
Kelley O’Hara had a somewhat quiet 2016 for Sky Blue FC, but for the first time since 2012, she earned significant minutes for the U.S. national team, starting every match of the Olympic tournament in Brazil and notching her second international goal during CONCACAF qualifying. Her value to Jill Ellis is hard to argue – O’Hara can play almost anywhere, her work rate is excellent and she crushes any flank attack that she encounters.
O’Hara spent a fair amount of time on the front line this year for Sky Blue, a return to the forward position she dominated during her college career at Stanford before playing outside midfield in WPS and fullback for the United States. That versatility, along with her team-leading fitness level, is a gold mine for any lineup. At 28, she already has appearances at two Women’s World Cups and two Olympics to her credit.
It can be difficult to see O’Hara’s subtle impact on the game just by looking at the final stats (she notched just one goal and two assists in 12 games for Sky Blue), but her influence on her team is undeniable, whether she’s playing up front or in the back. Whether it’s her tenacious defending or crafty footwork (see her CONCACAF-nominated goal against Puerto Rico or that explosive karate-chop kick in the 2015 World Cup semifinal versus Germany), O’Hara should rightfully remain a key player for the U.S. in the next cycle.
-- Jen Cooper
18. Christie Rampone
In May, Christie Rampone pulled herself out of national team camp, effectively calling an end to her career wearing the U.S. jersey. A knee injury kept the final active player from the 1999 World Cup team from being a regular starter on the 2015 side. Surgery followed the 2015 season and when Jill Ellis called Rampone back to camp, it felt like a courtesy.
Rampone’s story was not over, though. As quietly as Rampone said goodbye to the U.S. team, she spent the NWSL season leading the Sky Blue back line. Gliding around the pitch and keeping up with players barely half her age, Rampone had a season for the ages, becoming one of five field players to stay on the field every minute and earning Second XI honors. Soccer is rarely defined by statistics, but one particularly striking one is that Rampone — a central defender — committed fewer fouls (seven) than she suffered (10)..
She did it all while celebrating her 41st birthday in June. And there was no coasting. Rampone was obviously the most experienced player on Sky Blue’s back line, but for large chunks of the season, she was the the team’s only starting defender more than a full year removed from college.
Unless Rampone agrees to a send-off match next year, she is likely done for good after 311 caps, five World Cups (two titles) and four Olympic Games (three gold medals). At the club level, there has been no word on whether she plans to suit up for Sky Blue again in 2017. If she does, it will be one more chance to watch one of the best and most durable players the women’s game has seen.
-- Dan Lauletta