Lauren Holiday’s retirement could break up world’s best defensive line

Lauren Holiday vs. Switzerland. (Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

As anyone who’s closely watched the US. women’s team knows, Lauren Holiday‘s retirement will leave a huge hole in the middle of the American lineup.

Holiday is rarely the flashiest player on the pitch, but she’s always one of the most reliable, and most vital. Her game doesn’t draw the fans’ immediate attention, the way Megan Rapinoe‘s or Carli Lloyd‘s or Christen Press‘s or Abby Wambach‘s does. Instead, Holiday quietly goes about doing her job: Time after time, she makes the smart pass, puts the corner kick exactly where it needs to be, cuts off the counter-attack before it can cause problems. She’s often the glue that holds the U.S. attack together, the conduit for moving the ball efficiently from the back line to the attackers.

John D. Halloran, writing for American Soccer Now, notes that during the World Cup, the U.S. attack soared once Jill Ellis paired Holiday and Morgan Brian in holding mid positions, freeing Carli Lloyd to go forward. Lloyd unleashed an offensive barrage that continues still.

Now, Halloran writes, Ellis’ best option to fill Holiday’s big boots at holding mid may be Julie Johnston or Becky Sauerbrunn. Either seems capable. But moving either would break up a defensive line that was  impenetrable in the World Cup.

Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Julie Johnston celebrate after defeating Australia, 3-1, June 8, 2015. ( Michael Chow/Usa Today Sports)

Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Julie Johnston celebrate after defeating Australia, 3-1, June 8, 2015. ( Michael Chow/USA Today Sports)

There are solid reasons not to tamper with something that works, and the center-back tandem of Johnston and Sauerbrunn, with Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger on the wings, worked damned well this summer in Canada.

back line

There are coaches and players who say without hesitation that Sauerbrunn is the best center back in the world. Johnston, who’s emerging as a true young superstar, said she’s learned immensely by playing next to Sauerbrunn.

But with Holiday leaving, and the Olympic roster shrunk to 18 players (compared with 23 for the World Cup), Ellis might not have a better choice.

The current players who could slip into the holding mid slot next to Brian, Halloran writes, are Lloyd, Johnston, Sauerbrunn, and Tobin Heath.

Halloran didn’t mention Crystal Dunn, who can play anywhere on the field, or Kelley O’Hara, who has already moved from striker to defender and would seem like a decent fit at holding mid.

But sticking, for the moment, with the four listed by Halloran,  it does appear — as much as I hate to admit it — that moving Johnston or Sauerbrunn could make sense.

Pulling Lloyd away from the goal would be insane,  given how methodically she’s been shredding opposing defenses.

Heath has neither the physical strength nor the consistency of Holiday. She’s a magician on the ball (see video below), but she sometimes makes glaring mistakes, leaving opponents unmarked or attempting low-percentage passes.  As Halloran writes:

“Heath certainly has the technical ability to play the position, but she is also a gifted attacker who loves to dance on the ball and take on defenders. That trait, while highly valued in her normal position on the wing, could prove to be a fatal liability in the center of the field, only one line ahead of the U.S. back four. Perhaps she could learn the position with time, but it seems like a longshot.”

 

If Sauerbrunn or Johnston were moved off the back line, Halloran writes, Christie Rampone or Whitney Engen could move in.

But Rampone’s fountain of youth may have run dry at long last. She’ll turn 41 before the 2016 Olympics. She hasn’t had much of a chance, at least in games, to show whether time has finally caught up with her; but it’s possible.

An while Engen is, in Halloran’s words, “more than capable,” she’s no Becky Sauerbrunn.

Or Julie Johnston.

 

 

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