FourFourTwo's USWNT Top 50: 30-21
30. Andi Sullivan
Andi Sullivan’s name is not new to the world of U.S. Soccer. The 21-year-old midfielder served as captain of the United States at both a U-17 and a U-20 World Cup, and she has long been viewed within inner circles as the midfielder of tomorrow for the program. That case is stronger than ever now.
Sullivan is still a junior at Stanford, but in her first four U.S. caps this fall, she displayed an uncanny composure on the ball and a promise that she is capable of being the type of two-way midfielder that Jill Ellis is looking for in this rebuild toward the 2019 World Cup. No player helped her case more from the time she was called up in September to the time she departed from the team in November than Sullivan.
She did the dirty work defensively without a hint of any tactical or physical inferiority. She showed off her long- and short-range passing game, and was responsible for several U.S. goals in a quartet of games against Switzerland and Romania. Sure, neither of those opponents are Germany or France, but is anyone doubting what they saw from Sullivan?
At Stanford this year, Sullivan led the team in goals (11) and points (29), though her season ended with a torn ACL in her team’s upset loss to Santa Clara in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Her 2017 will begin with rehab for that left knee. She is also a finalist for the MAC Hermann Trophy, handed out annually to college soccer’s best male and female player.
-- Jeff Kassouf
29. Heather O’Reilly
Heather O’Reilly’s time on the national team came to an end in September, but the midfielder affectionately known as HAO still has plenty to offer. Case in point: When FC Kansas City acquired her ahead of the 2015 NWSL season, O’Reilly queried the coaching staff and asked if they were all in on repeating as league champions.
Eleven months later, O’Reilly put a personal stamp on the NWSL Championship after Seattle was forced to make a substitution at right back. Recognizing that Elli Reed was fresh off the bench, O’Reilly attacked down the left side for the only time all evening, beat Reed and crossed to Amy Rodriguez for the assist on the game’s only goal. The final was O’Reilly’s 11th since her freshman year at North Carolina, and it was the 10th time she got her hands on a major trophy.
O’Reilly’s 2016 campaign was up and down. She was left off the United States’ roster for Olympic qualifying, returned to the team to prepare for Rio but was ultimately left out of the 18, instead going to Brazil as an alternate. In Kansas City, she hit the post with the would-be equalizing penalty on opening night, and the Blues eventually missed out on the playoffs for the first time.
By all accounts, though, O’Reilly was a model alternate, and there were nights through the NWSL season where her tireless patrol of the flanks was all that kept FC Kansas City afloat. Since the season ended, she has trained with Arsenal, and a peak at her Twitter timeline suggests she is finding other creative ways to keep herself in shape for another season in KC.
-- Dan Lauletta
28. Lauren Barnes
It’s a strange paradox: Nobody picking Lauren Barnes to win Defensive Player of the Year, yet come the end of the 2016 campaign, nobody being that surprised the Seattle Reign FC stalwart had earned the honor.
Was she better than in years past? Or given a new level of exposure? Not really. Last season, though, she got the recognition so many around Memorial Stadium felt she long-deserved. At year’s end, Barnes, besting four other players on this list, became the first player not named Becky Sauerbrunn to win the NWSL’s top defensive honor.
That she did it being the same “Lu” Barnes which Reign fans have come to love makes the honor slightly perverse. Over the last three years (and through much of the Reign’s disastrous 2013, too), Barnes has been one of smartest defenders in the league. Her reactions, short-distance quickness – her ability to read and immediately snuff-out a threat – are also at elite NWSL levels. Add in her ability to fill in at left back this season when Seattle had trouble replacing the retired Stephanie Cox, and you have a defender who, over the course of the league, has perhaps been as valuable as any other.
So why the lack of attention from years one through three? Perhaps it’s the lack of a dominant trait. Barnes is above average in almost all areas, but she doesn’t have one thing that makes onlookers say “she does [that] better than anyone.” She’s less likely to jump into midfield or make a dramatic tackle than she is to organize and lead the back line.
Without a trait that makes people take notice, one of the NWSL’s most consistent defenders had to wait until an Olympic year to truly be honored. That doesn’t mean she isn’t one of the league’s better players. You just have to dig that little deeper to see it.
-- Richard Farley