Search for solutions: The U.S. fullback pool is at odds with modern soccer

Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The requirements of the position have evolved, but ongoing uncertainty suggests the American pool has not.

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The extent to which you know the name Tierna Davidson suddenly became relevant last Thursday.

If you follow college soccer or the U.S. women’s youth national teams, the name will be familiar. Fans who know youth soccer in northern California had surely heard of her. But when, last week, the Stanford sophomore was surprisingly named to the U.S. women’s national team roster for the coming friendlies against New Zealand, the 18-year-old reached new level of renown. This week, she will be playing with some of the most famous players in world soccer.

To call Davidson’s inclusion in head coach Jill Ellis’ squad a shock would be a bit disingenuous, though. Her name had begun to be mentioned around the team after the Tournament of Nations. Even then, Davidson’s call-up continues a tradition Ellis has nourished since the U.S. claimed the World Cup two years ago — a tradition that flies in the face of the stoic national team squads that had become the norm pre-Canada 2015. Instead of monotonously leaning on the same names, over and over, Ellis has reveled in testing new talent.

That partially explains why Davidson, out of nowhere, is in this team, just as it explains why 13 players age 22 or younger have been called up over the last year. It also explains why older, more established talents — like Megan Oyster, Emily Menges, Merritt Mathias, Sarah Killion and Kristen Edmonds — have also gotten their looks.

The significance of Davidson, though, appears to go beyond Ellis’ curiosities and speaks to a more significant issue, one that’s persisted since the U.S. claimed its world title two years ago. Then, Ali Krieger (at right back) and Meghan Klingenberg (left) formed the strongest fullback tandem at the World Cup. Since, Ellis has been on a mission to evolve her fullbacks into a more modern version of the position. Whereas, at one time, the U.S. could get by at a World Cup by plugging a natural center back into the role (Amy LePeilbet at Germany 2011, for example), the new U.S. is intent on fullbacks who matter over the length of field.

That’s why Davidson, a midfielder at Stanford, is getting a look. She is ranked by Top Drawer Soccer as the 15th-best player in college soccer (despite being only a sophomore), a status achieved one her quality in the middle. When TDS’ Travis Clark, writing for us at FourFourTwo, mentioned her (twice) among the NCAA’s most pro-ready players, he did so while comparing her to her Cardinal teammate, fellow U.S. national-teamer Andi Sullivan. The "plethora of similarities between” the two, according to Clark, help explain why Davidson may become just as sought as her Palo Alto partner.

Reading Jill Ellis’ thoughts

For the national team, the true significance of Davidson, right now, might be what she tells us about Ellis’ search. Coming out of the Tournament of Nations, Ellis insisted the time for experimenting is over, but choosing Davidson hints the fullback depth chart may be subject to different rules. If an 18-year-old, out-of-position, never-been-capped choice doesn’t scream experimenting, what does?

Ellis’ choice could be seen as an indictment of her current fullback options, but that might read too much into the experiments she’s trying to abandon. Take Kelley O’Hara, a player who checks all the boxes Ellis wants from fullbacks. O'Hara hasn’t been a regular starter since Rio, but that’s likely, if paradoxically, due to just good she is. As Ellis alluded during the ToN, there is nothing new she’s going to learn about O’Hara.

Orlando Jorge Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Orlando Jorge Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

In that way, O’Hara may be the only fullback above the depth chart’s fold, so to speak — somebody Ellis is so secure with that only now, as the U.S. looks to build chemistry going into the important parts of the cycle, does O’Hara look set to step back into a regular role. It’s possible Casey Short, one of the U.S.’ most consistent starters over the last 12 months, has also passed Ellis’ tests, but her constant place in Ellis’ XIs may have been more about getting her reps than settling on a left back for 2019.

That O’Hara seems Ellis' top choice tells us what the U.S. is looking for in its fullbacks. Though she’s evolved into a rugged, highly-willing player at the back, O’Hara’s distinguishing skills all lie going forward. A record-setting scorer at Stanford, O’Hara can’t be ignored when she comes out of defense. She can still beat most defenders one-on-one, and the attacking instincts she shows when she plays wing for club or country hints the U.S. can enjoy huge tactical edges by getting her in man-up situations. Plus, as Sam Kerr benefitted from all season with Sky Blue FC, O’Hara’s service can be exceptional.

How the fullbacks affect the midfield

That complete profile, for a U.S. team that looks destined to lean on a two-woman midfield going forward, may be more than a virtue. The U.S. may need to have well-rounded wide threats at the back if it’s going to overcome what will often be numerical disadvantages in the middle. Against teams that will play 4-2-3-1 — and not with a Carli Lloyd, we need her to stay high, you sitters are on your own kind of 4-2-3-1 — the U.S. may need fullbacks to be reliable outlets in the middle third as well as partners for Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe down the flanks, closer to goal.

Among the players in Ellis’ current rotation, no fullback besides O’Hara can consistently do that. Even the oft-played Short is still struggling to add that element of danger to an impressive defensive profile. Perhaps Taylor Smith, called in for a second straight camp, can prove an all-field threat, but in the interim, it’s clear why Ellis wants to keep expanding her pool.

This explains why, when Red Stars forward/midfielder Sofia Huerta received a surprise recall for the Tournament of Nations, we learned she was training as a fullback. Few saw that coming. Perhaps Ellis will continue looking at the NWSL with an active imagination, envisioning how certain players could adapt to her fullbacks’ roles.

What may be less explicable is why certain players have fallen out of contention. Jaelene Hinkle is a player who, with 2016’s defensive woes behind her, checks the same boxes as O’Hara; though her status may go back to her declining a call-up in June, citing "personal reasons." Klingenberg, arguably the best fullback at Canada 2015, has now missed two straight national team camps, with her relative struggles defensively in the NWSL a potential reason.

Then there is one of the program’s best fullbacks of all time: Ali Krieger, who, in fairness, is no longer playing fullback in Orlando. But it wasn’t so long ago that she was, and while she is not the same player she was two years ago, she also hasn’t regressed enough to explain her fall from the squad. Stuck on 98 international appearances, Krieger’s continued exclusion has become a sore point for her fans, but if players like Davidson fail to step up when called upon, Ellis may need to reconsider the legend’s role.

More broadly, it’s interesting to note the timing of the U.S. women’s search, one that comes as the U.S. men are having their own fullback problems. Perhaps that speaks to the limited view our country has about the position, particularly at lower levels. As they approach their respective World Cups, both Bruce Arena and Ellis are in search of solutions.

Fullback can no longer be the place where you stick your 10th- and 11th-best players. On the contrary, as the national teams’ sagas show, the U.S. may not be ill-equipped to adapt to the modern game. Arena has 10 months to come up with a solution. Ellis, thankfully, can take a slightly longer view.

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