FourFourTwo's USWNT Top 50: 30-21
24. Ali Krieger
Ali Krieger is not as good as she used to be. Unless you’re Carli Lloyd, that’s what age does to you. It would be a mistake, however, to equate the 32-year-old’s slight decline with a huge loss of value. With the long-time national team regular no longer a guaranteed starter for Jill Ellis, too many seem to be making that assumption.
Consider Krieger’s NWSL performance a counterpoint. Still capable of dominating a flank on her own, Krieger remains one of the best fullbacks in the league. That level was on display in the league’s October final when, despite not playing her best game, she was still a valuable piece at wing back, tasked with getting forward and contributing to an attack that leaned heavily toward Crystal Dunn.
Especially on a player’s average day, few in the NWSL have the ability to play a true wing back, being valuable endline-to-endline in a way that’s more than “can she cover the ground?” No matter the role, and she’s played midfield and central defense in recent seasons, Krieger continues to be one of the better all-around players in the NWSL, part of the reason it was such a coup for Orlando to pick her up for a song this offseason.
Why isn’t she still the starting right back for the U.S.? If we’re honest, we don’t have a good reason, but smart people can reasonably disagree. Ellis has one view. This panel has another. She may be 32, now, but we still see Ali Krieger as a standout player, no matter what team she’s on.
-- Richard Farley
23. Abby Dahlkemper
Listed at 5-foot-6, Abby Dahlkemper might not appear tall on paper, but she is a commanding presence on the field. She is an ideal mold at center back, and she showed precisely why last season with the Western New York Flash.
Dahlkemper played every minute for the Western New York Flash in 2016, mostly at center back, as the team made an unlikely turnaround from a wretched two-season rut to win the NWSL championship. She is uniquely capable on set pieces as the kick-taker or as the player rising up to meet a corner kick. Having played her rookie season more in the midfield, Dahlkemper displayed the type of ability on each side of the ball that Ellis and other coaches across the globe are demanding more of from their center backs.
She earned her first senior-level caps off the bench in a pair of games against Switzerland in October as Ellis continued to test out the three-back. But Dahlkemper’s future with the U.S. isn’t necessarily at center back, especially with Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston deeply rooted in those starting spots, and Emily Sonnett seemingly next in line.
Dahlkemper is an option at holding mid for both club and country. She played there at times throughout her amateur and (to date, short) professional career. At 23 years old, there’s still time to figure out exactly where she fits in with the national team.
-- Jeff Kassouf
22. Kealia Ohai
The Houston Dash’s inaugural draft pick had two solid seasons to start her pro career, but it was not until the latter half of the 2016 NWSL campaign that Kealia Ohai finally made the necessary impact to get that senior U.S. women’s national team call-up.
So what changed? Ohai has always been tireless in her box-to-box coverage and deadly on a breakaway. But 2016 saw her for the first time in the unexpected position of team leader, after the departure of several Dash veterans and the injury to co-captain Carli Lloyd. Ohai seemed to struggle with that burden at first, but eventually rose to the challenge, helping the Dash move past a frustrating club scoreless streak and scoring in the double-digits for the first time in her pro career.
Following a 10-game drought, Ohai scored 11 goals to end the season and nearly snatched the 2016 Golden Boot from Lynn Williams. Gone was the young captain who had snubbed her coach when he took her out of the game early, and in her place was a more mature version of the dynamic striker who scored the game-winner in the 2012 U-20 Women’s World Cup final.
In her long-awaited debut with the senior team, Ohai wasted no time scoring her first international goal, setting a team record by finding net just 48 seconds after entering the game (one second faster than Williams’ goal days earlier). She could prove to be a valuable cog in Jill Ellis’ future plans, as she can be deployed on the flank in midfield or up top, and combines effortlessly with former U-20 teammates Crystal Dunn and Morgan Brian.
-- Jen Cooper
21. Casey Short
The future was supposed to be three years ago. But a major injury hit. Then another. At some point, NWSL fans didn’t remember that future was supposed to come. No matter how promising she looked in those first professional days, during that preseason after she was drafted by Boston in 2013, Casey Short was on the verge of being forgotten.
Now, Casey Short is not only back. Once again, she looks like the prototype for what U.S. fullbacks will be going forward.
No pun intended on “going forward,” but Short, a converted attacker, is everything that modern fullbacks are supposed to be. Ambitious in the opposing half, dangerous cutting in from the flank, Short has preserved many of the attacking instincts that took her to Florida State, putting them to use at her new position. At the back, there’s still work to be done, but in a world where coaches are willing to sacrifice some defensive awareness for athleticism that better fits in transition, Short is ahead of the game. There’s a reason why she was one of five finalists for the NWSL’s 2016 Defender of the Year honor. Already she is one of the best one-on-one defenders in the player pool.
It’s the same reason why, despite just earning her first senior-team caps, Short might now be at the top of the U.S.’ left back depth chart. While the last four years have come at Short pretty fast, some of those changes are starting to work for her. For Short, the future has finally come.
-- Richard Farley