FourFourTwo's USWNT Top 50: 30-21
27. Megan Rapinoe
What’s one of the best players in the world doing ranked No. 27 on this list? That’s a good question, and one we wrestled with, too. This list is, at its base, the best American players right now. Rapinoe barely played in 2016 as she recovered from a third torn ACL. She was back in time to make Jill Ellis’ 18-player roster for the 2016 Olympics, but she wasn’t fully fit, and it showed.
The short answer to why she is ranked here is that she is easily one of the best American players when healthy. She was among a handful who had a case for being the best player in 2015 after a strong showing at the World Cup. Rapinoe is the type of player the U.S. hopes to produce more of: A mercurial midfielder whose first instinct is to dribble at players, take risks and not over think anything. That’s a unique description which among Americans primarily only fits Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, two distinct players in their own right.
So, why No. 27, you ask again? Simply, Rapinoe barely played in 2016. She played in only four U.S. games and five NWSL games this season. Nobody is pretending she was 100 percent for the Olympics, but back in the NWSL, Rapinoe showed flashes of being back to her usual self, like when she scored for Seattle late in the season on a wonderful, knuckling shot that she sent back in the direction it came from.
An injury sidelined Rapinoe and kept her game largely out of view (she was very much in the spotlight off the field, which she says she has no problem with). That doesn’t mean one of the best U.S. players in recent history suddenly isn’t any good. It means that we didn’t see enough of her play this year to justify placing her ahead of a lot of players who did great things.
But we know Megan Rapinoe – the pinpoint crosses, the upper-90 strikes, the triple step-over – and you can bet on her surging up this list once healthy.
-- Jeff Kassouf
26. Christine Nairn
Few players have racked up as many NWSL career minutes as midfielder Christine Nairn, who started every game for the Seattle Reign in 2013 before being traded cross-country and leading her “hometown” Washington Spirit to three consecutive playoff appearances. Determined and driven, Nairn is the type of player you’d rather play with than against, but her grit is balanced by her technical and playmaking abilities.
She was the heart and soul of the Spirit midfield for three seasons, combining with Joanna Lohman and Tori Huster to create one of the most the dominating trios in the league. Nairn has also easily stepped into the role of team leader whenever the club’s U.S. stars have been away. Whether it’s scoring a game-winner from distance or shaking off an injury to step up and convert a penalty kick, Nairn delivers for her club consistently and dynamically. It’s no surprise that the Reign traded to get her back for the 2017 season after the departure of Kim Little.
The question is, when will Nairn get a real shot at delivering the goods for the senior national team? She has featured for nearly every youth team, including the 2008 squad that won that year’s U-20 Women’s World Cup. Two caps earned in 2009 as a teenager saw her on the field for barely 15 minutes total, although she netted a game-winner against Canada. She earned a call-up during last year’s victory tour but saw no playing time. But given the changing look of the U.S. national team and Nairn’s skill and perseverance, the step up to the international stage should be within reach.
-- Jen Cooper
25. Nicole Barnhart
Nicole Barnhart plays goalkeeper in much the same manner as she conducts herself off the field: quiet and understated. It works, though. Barnhart’s U.S. career was mostly limited to backup duty, particularly when it came time for major tournaments. The shadow of Hope Solo proved too much to overcome, and she was phased out of the team in recent years, eventually losing her subsidization for NWSL.
It has been at the club level where Barnhart has proven her worth, however, combining that understated efficiency with uncommon consistency. Barnhart might not often show up in Save of the Week voting, but her ability to organize a defense and put herself in the proper position has made her one of the best keepers in U.S. club soccer since 2009.
In her four seasons as FC Kansas City goalkeeper, Barnhart has played 79 of 86 regular season matches. She has yet to miss a match through injury, despite nagging issues that had her talking her way into the lineup through much of 2014. Barnhart has owned or shared the league lead in shutouts all four seasons and was superb in winning back-to-back championships against Seattle Reign FC. (She also won a WPS title with FC Gold Pride in 2010 and lost in penalties the next season with the Philadelphia Independence.)
Barnhart is usually adept at figuring out how to get ahead of the play instead of making high numbers of saves. But on July 23 of this year in Western New York, Barnhart made a league-record 14 saves to guide FC Kansas City to a 1-0 victory on a night they were outshot 24-8.
-- Dan Lauletta