Earning the call: An in-depth look at the USWNT's scouting and player-selection process
Find one more like our best: That’s the motto which guides scouting for the United States women’s national team.
In theory, that should be pretty simple. This is, after all, the world’s most storied women’s program – three-time World Cup champion and four-time Olympic champion. This is a country which has long embraced women’s soccer and thus turned over world-class players across several generations. It is home to one of the world’s best professional leagues and it boasts an incredible depth of talent in the professional and collegiate ranks.
The national team is the top of that pyramid – the one percent of the one percent. Every two months or so, a group of 20-some players are called into training camp. Logically, these are the best American players at any given time. But how are those players actually picked? How does the national team program – from the Under-15 level to the senior team – actually select its players?
Each selection restarts the tired tradition of debating who got snubbed and who should have stayed home. These days, Twitter becomes the global soapbox. Cynics say the process is something of a dartboard – a coach tasked with forming a team, juggling politics and biases and simply selecting players which her eyes alone deem worthy. Those cynics would be wrong.
The method is a detailed job involving an entire coaching staff and a network which leans on dozens of coaches around the country for constant updates and feedback. It is one which balances the subjective eye test with screeds of advanced data to make informed decisions. Does that always result in the selection of the right players every single time? No, but the actual process is a lot more detailed than the naked eye might believe.
“It’s an iceberg, and you guys see the tip of it,” U.S. coach Jill Ellis tells FourFourTwo. “You don’t see everything underneath that.”
Consider this a deep dive.
Knowing who you are and what you want
The U.S. remains the world’s top-ranked women’s team, the defending world champion and among only a handful of favorites to win the 2019 World Cup. Talent is abundant.
Still, there have been recent setbacks, like finishing last on home soil in the 2017 SheBelieves Cup. That ended the three-back system with which Ellis had toyed since the Olympics. Combined with the need to address recent shortcomings at the youth international level, the scouting system has undergone an overhaul.
Ellis now has clear ideas about her current core of players, and thus begins the nuance. Do you look for the players to fit the desired system, or do you shape a system around the desired players?
“The system right now has been built on our core personnel,” Ellis explains. “I’m not a coach who says, ‘I’ve got to play this system, because that’s what I believe in.’ What I’ve done is, I’ve looked at [Mallory] Pugh and I’ve looked at Alex [Morgan] and Pinoe [Megan Rapinoe], and they are best wide, and I think Alex can be a much more active forward when she is up as the [No. 9] by herself. So, the three-front fits those three core players. Right now, we’re in a 4-3-3, so the next evolution in terms of our team, I am looking at players that can play in the way that we play now.”
Setting the standards for selection
Ellis isn’t searching for those answers alone. B.J. Snow is the head of U.S. women’s national team talent identification, a position which was only created in early 2017. He also assists Ellis with the senior team and serves as head coach of the U-23 team, which under current leadership has morphed into a feeder for those on the cusp of the senior national team. Snow’s job is wide-ranging, but his most important task is standardizing the process, from the top of the pyramid all the way down to the youth ranks. That means making sure everyone is actually looking for the same thing.
If you were to say to me, ‘Jill, what is the profile of your outside back?’ I could rattle it off to you what I think we need in our team. Then I look at the player and go, ‘OK, do they have the attributes to fit that profile?’
Snow is attempting to harmonize a fractured youth network across a huge country. The characteristics of a great player according to a top youth coach in New Jersey may look completely different to a college coach in California – and neither of those views might actually match what the U.S. national team program wants.
“The hardest part is identifying talent in this country,” Snow tells FourFourTwo. “So many people have a voice and an opinion, and if you do it according to individual coaches, you are going to get individual trends to what that particular coach wants.
“It’s no fault of anybody’s that they might not know what we’re looking for, because everyone is in their bubble – because that’s where they live. They are experts in that area, and we’re experts in the international game, which is hard to sometimes communicate to the rest of the platforms, because it can look so different. So, how we identify players who fit what we need to be successful in that area is our goal.”
Or, as Ellis says, to find one more like your best, “people have to know what your best looks like.” And the standard for that “best” is actually comparing each player to the best in the world, American or not. That means looking at the U.S. depth chart and determining whether a player can really go toe-to-toe with the likes of Dzsenifer Marozsan, Lieke Martens or Sam Kerr.
This is as incredibly detailed as it is unequivocally subjective. Snow is a walking digital encyclopedia of American players, with hundreds of charts, scouting videos and plotted data to analyze at any given time.
On his talent identification chart, a tree breaks out into two branches: soccer-specific and personal qualities. Game intelligence, which falls under soccer-specific traits, is the first thing the U.S. staff is looking for. It’s largely behavioral – how a player reads and analyzes situations under pressure, if she understands positional relationships and transition moments. This is, essentially, figuring out how a player sees the game. In a presentation in January in Philadelphia, Snow spoke about an expensive test which manages to measure this seemingly immeasurable behavior. He said that of the thousands of men and women tested, U.S. midfielder Sam Mewis scored in the top 1 percent.
The ‘personal’ branch of the tree is a little more intangible. It touches on the players’ work ethics, focus and willingness to take responsibility. Does a player create opportunities instead of react? A highlight-play might show great athleticism, but what you might not see is that the player was forced to slide-tackle having been out of position in the first place. These faults can come to light in scouting video compiled on every player in the pool and anywhere near the national-team radar. Does the player take on opponents with bravery? Can she deal with adversity? Lack of coachability and attitude to training and self-improvement are among the major red flags which can only be evaluated in person. The players who thrive have listened to the coaching staff’s critiques and worked on them.
“One of the biggest deciding factors in whether or not a player will have success with our women’s national team is whether they can take control of their development,” Snow says. “They need to seek feedback out. They need to figure out what the plan is and then they need to go and implement it and get it to work. Those that implement those plans and execute those plans are the ones that have the highest probability for success.”
Analytics are the other piece which you’ll hear Snow discuss as much as anything. Advanced data has revolutionized soccer as it has all of sports, and it has slowly trickled into the women’s game. The data isn’t all public (FourFourTwo was not given clearance to publish specific charts for this story – believe us, we tried), but the U.S. women’s national team staff is constantly observing and evaluating data on players in the National Women’s Soccer League, adding deep quantitative analysis to the qualitative analysis provided by their own eyes. Ellis can cite players who she maybe didn’t rate, but whose maximum speed or pass completion made her put in a call to a club coach to see if there is something more she should know. It is, at the very least, another check to the system to limit players slipping through the cracks.
All that provides a foundation for what Ellis & Co. are seeking. And, perhaps even more importantly, it is a reference for what they are not looking for. The latter is something that must frequently be relayed to youth, college and professional coaches.
Trusting your eyes – and everyone else’s
Each week, Ellis, Snow, U.S. assistant Tony Gustavsson and goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel hold a weekly call to discuss player performances – not just those of players already on the team, but anyone new who may have stood out. Abel sets up the scouting schedule, and he, Ellis and Snow rotate watching games in person in different venues each weekend. Gustavsson watches via livestream from his home base in Europe.
Ellis makes a point of visiting each of the nine NWSL venues at least once each season. For one, the game looks different from the stand – you often see more – and it also gives Ellis a chance to speak with players in person. She watches the rest of the weekend’s matches via the league’s free streaming service.
The NWSL has been a springboard for some. Fullback Taylor Smith was rewarded in 2017 for her strong club play before her form dropped off in 2018. And Portland Thorns winger Margaret “Midge” Purce earned another look with the U.S. after an impressive start to the 2018 campaign. A combination of in-person and remote scouting – along with constant communication – informed Ellis that Purce is a player who has the traits to potentially fill a wide forward or fullback role for the U.S.
“That’s why the league has been so important, because it gives these players a platform,” Ellis says.
Chief among the needed traits in this scouting setup is trust. Trust amongst the U.S. coaching staff. Trust between Ellis and NWSL coaches that they understand the standard required to play at the international level. Trust between Ellis, Snow and college coaches: Ellis wants Snow to increase engagement to better utilize the massive system. Hence Snow’s role coaching the U-23s, basically the B team.
“The 23s, I said to him: I want it to be the next-best team,” Ellis said. “I don’t care if it’s a 15- or 16-year-old or a 22-year-old. I want it to be like an all-star youth national team, where we can really come in and look at players.”
That’s slightly different this year, since the U-20s and U-17s have World Cups to worry about, but the connection represents that desired bridge to the senior side.
“My philosophy is that the game doesn’t know age, and if they are good enough in there, then let’s have a look at them,” Ellis said. “The 23s, with BJ managing that team, creates just a fantastic link and a place where we can have a look at players and decide to bring them in or continue to keep an eye on them.”
It’s a necessary link, given that Snow is, officially, a department of one at the moment. A full-time analyst is expected to be hired in the near future.
“That was a big push when I got hired, was to push for a director of scouting,” Ellis said. “Having someone full-time, building your own network to find players. Because I think that, again, in the youth ranks, we do a good job of scouting the youth tournaments, but it’s been different. I think that’s allowed us to have more players in, because we’ve been more active in our scouting of college.”
College coaches have standing invites to attend national team training camps and get a feel for the level, Ellis says. NWSL coaches are also welcome to attend training, and Ellis maintains regular contact with them about their top-performing players.
For a player to come in, they have to be [one of] two things. They have to either be vying for starting positions, or they have to fill a role that we are going to need for the World Cup.
Where the ideas become more formal and standardized are in the rating system the U.S. uses for players. It’s a scaled grading system which both comes off as exceedingly harsh on some of the country’s best talent while also showing just how high the bar is. On this 0-to-5 scale, even being one of the top players in a specific position in the NWSL just puts a player on the radar. From there – the halfway point of the scale – the difference between core national-team players and those on the periphery is whether or not they can translate those skills from the NWSL to the international level.
A comparable chart exists for the youth national teams, and U.S. Soccer is slowly trying to make this information more accessible. It’s an eye-opener, no doubt: If you’re a college coach and you think you have a kid who should get a look on the national team, you might suddenly realize she’s two full grade-points from even getting a call-up.
Looking beyond the obvious and turning over rocks
It’s easy to scout players when you can see what they are doing every week. It’s a lot more difficult to imagine what players could look like in a completely different environment and, potentially, at a completely foreign position. But this is the type of turning over of rocks which is also part of the job.
Take Haley Hanson, for example. Now 22, the midfielder was playing at the University of Nebraska – hardly a traditional, elite powerhouse like a Stanford or North Carolina – and only managed to make second team all-conference in the Big Ten in 2017, her senior year. In a vacuum, that sounds like a very good soccer player whose career likely came to an end after her senior year.
A few months later, she shot up the draft board to become the No. 7 overall pick to the Houston Dash in the 2018 draft, and in April she made her debut for the senior U.S. team. U.S. scouts had identified the intelligent midfielder as filling a need – one that wasn’t being utilized at an objectively lower level in the NCAA. In eight months, Hanson has gone from a relative nobody to a midfielder competing for a spot on U.S. rosters, one year from a World Cup.
At times, scouting requires the U.S. staff to change the way that they are looking at a certain player. Sofia Huerta had never played fullback at the professional or international level before 2017. She played with the U.S. through her youth national team career but initially chose to represent Mexico at the senior level. As Huerta told FourFourTwo in 2017, however, her heart was always with the U.S. – and in mid-2017, the U.S. became interested, too.
Huerta plays higher on the wings for the Chicago Red Stars. But the U.S. staff used its scouting matrix to evaluate her as a fullback, and once FIFA approved her one-time switch the U.S., Huerta was put through 10 days – her first 10 days ever – of training at the fullback position in camp with the U.S. She recorded an assist in her first match.
Those fullback slots are a particular Achilles heel for the U.S. (men and women), and Ellis’ pursuit of options has been obvious as she tests different players there. Once she calls them up, it’s a matter of seeing who performs well “in the pressure-cooker,” one of Ellis’ oft-used phrases. The results from those tests haven’t necessarily been ideal at the position, so she has looked toward forwards and midfielders who might have the characteristics of a player who could fill the role.
Snow says that a majority of call-ups at the youth level are for positions that players are not playing with their club teams.
"A big part is we look at their attributes. You’ve got to look at their profile,” Ellis says. “So, if you were to say to me, ‘Jill, what is the profile of your outside back?’ I could rattle it off to you what I think we need in our team. Then I look at the player and go, ‘OK, do they have the attributes to fit that profile?’
“So, for example, is a slow, pure back-to-pressure player going to ever play for me in the [No.] 9 against a pressing team? Probably not; the pace to threaten in behind is important in how we play. What I look at in Sofia Huerta is a good athlete who has got a tremendous cross, is good with her feet to combine, and loves to get forward. We want our fullbacks in the final third. So, we look at her attributes and ask: Could she potentially play the 2 or 3 position?”
The fullback position, in particular, is indicative of the global game’s evolution. There are American fullbacks who perform just fine for their NWSL teams, but Ellis wants hers to excel on both sides of the ball. One player may be strong offensively and lack strong one-v-one defending, or vice versa. Call it picky, but it has to be.
Analytics play a role here, too. The coaching staff measures around 12 different individual data points on charts which track dozens of players – well over the total of 60 who have been in camp since the 2016 Olympics. A midfielder might have the best success rate in the NWSL for aerial duels, but below the league average in successful forward passes, a metric Ellis likes to track to know who is actually changing a game rather than simply serving as a solid conduit. “I don’t want players [who are] just linking players, just a crosser of the ball. You want players at the international level that can change the game.”
Class is permanent, form is… important
OK, so that’s how to evaluate the class of a player. But what about form? For how long does a new player need a good run before she finally gets a call-up to the national team? And what about a regular national team player who is struggling – how much leeway is she given to get her act together?
Ellis insists that players have been told that their league form matters – and it matters more than ever. The women’s international game is slowly shifting to look more like the men’s. Whereas the U.S. women used to gather for large stretches of time – even having residency camps in years without professional leagues – they now mostly only gather around official FIFA windows. January training camp is the glaring exception and it’s the only real time when the coaching staff can take an extended look at players in a day-to-day training environment.
Ostensibly, that puts even more emphasis on league form. Players have been made aware of this, and there’s a transparency in the aforementioned data and charts – graphic representations of what they are or are not doing well, and how it compares to others competing for their position – as well as regular feedback on what the team specifically needs.
There are some things that can’t be quantified, decisions made through personal knowledge which only Ellis and her staff are privy to. While there will always exist observers who question Ellis’ and Snow’s authority – detractors often cite struggles of their youth national teams in previous roles – the two are among the only who possess this intimate knowledge of current players’ day-to-day performances in training camp. Do they call in a well-known player who they have already monitored in camp for years, or bring in a deserving newcomer to be tested in the pressure-cooker?
That is the element that we don’t and may never know – what goes on in training sessions. The U.S. women’s national team environment is notoriously difficult. It can break down players physically and mentally, rattle the most composed and, at times, be an intimidating place. There aren’t just roster spots on the line. U.S. Soccer pays the national team and NWSL salaries of its contracted international players. That can make for, at times, a paradoxical environment where change is good… unless it’s change involving me.
There are those who adapt and actually improve as the week of training goes on. You can guess who those players are by looking at who has stuck around. The most recent example is Tierna Davidson, who has started all six matches thus far for the U.S. in 2018 as a teenager.
What it means going forward
The World Cup is now one year away, and Ellis has said repeatedly that she is happy with her core, but she has also been challenged to look beyond that as injuries pile up. Tobin Heath is finally getting back to full fitness, while Rose Lavelle – who may well be starting if she were healthy – just played her first minutes since September after a nagging hamstring injury turned into a bigger issue than expected. Injuries continue to prevent Ellis from getting a look at different personnel together.
For all the criticism of not trying out enough players (have people forgotten how inflexible the lineup was under Pia Sundhage?), Ellis has given 18 players their first caps since the Olympics – second only to the 2007 cycle and still with a year to go until the World Cup. Of the 60 players Ellis has selected in that time, 29 received their first official call-ups to the senior team.
Changes to the Collective Bargaining Agreement have helped provide the platform for some of that flexibility, as previous setups further restricted experimentation and better protected the contracts of incumbent players.
A big part of Snow's job, in particular, is planning ahead and developing the current crop of promising teenagers to make an impact on the team in the coming years.
Right now, Ellis is looking for those final pieces: The right midfield trio to handle a demanding system; fullbacks who can fulfill duties on both sides of the ball; even a set goalkeeper depth chart.
“For a player to come in, they have to be [one of] two things,” Ellis says. “They have to either be vying for starting positions, or they have to fill a role that we are going to need for the World Cup. I look at a player and go, ‘Is she a tool for when we are ahead, or a tool for when we are behind?’ In a dream scenario, you want to be a tool regardless.”
This is where all of that data and nuanced knowledge comes into play in match scenarios. It’s where Ellis and her staff have to filter through everything at their fingertips to put out an optimal lineup. Not every decision is going to be the correct one. Ellis, like every coach, is ultimately judged on the net outcome of those decisions. She knows that, too. She doesn't check Twitter or read match reports. “Oh hell no,” she says, laughing. “The game is the best indicator for me.”
The process of getting to that end result is an intricate one. It isn’t just a dartboard. It’s a blend of art and science, an iceberg which runs deep.