U.S. women still loaded with talent but lacking previous consistency
U.S. No. 1 goalkeeper Hope Solo has returned to full form after long-term injury
Veteran Christie Rampone is still the preferred choice to anchor the U.S. back line
Exciting young forward Alex Morgan looks likely to come off the bench initially
With the U.S. women scheduled to face a testing opening match against Korea DPR on June 28, here's a look at how the U.S. squad stacks up from back to front:
Goalkeepers: Hope Solo (magicJack), Nicole Barnhart (Philadelphia Independence), Jill Loyden (magicJack).
In Solo, the U.S. has one of the best goalkeepers in the world (Germany's Nadine Angerer is held in similarly high regard). She missed the qualifying campaign thanks to a major operation on her right shoulder and has played only a handful of games since returning to fitness, but that actually presents two positives: first Nicole Barnhart, who's been around the national side for a long time, stepped in and proved a fairly seamless, positionally aware replacement.
Second, Solo's performances in those few warmup games showed no signs that her commanding presence has dimmed with the layoff. She coped with the (admittedly limited) threat presented by Japan and Mexico and was as quick off her line as ever. According to her Twitter account, the U.S. lost a closed-doors match 3-1 to Norway this week, but there's no word on how those goals came about. Loyden -- picked over Ashlyn Harris despite breaking her hand at the start of the year -- is only likely to play in the event of injuries to Solo and Barnhart.
Defenders: Heather Mitts (Atlanta Beat), Christie Rampone, Becky Sauerbrunn (both magicJack), Amy LePeilbet, Stephanie Cox, Rachel Buehler (all Boston Breakers), Ali Krieger (out of contract).
Based on the teams Pia Sundhage has tended to select, the most likely starting back line would see Krieger and LePeilbet outside of Rampone and Buehler. Mitts, recently back from a hamstring injury, and Cox are options at full back and when fit, both got game time before the squad left for its training camp in Austria. Sauerbrunn can also shift out wide if necessary, but her reliable performances during Rampone's absence through injury suggest she's primarily there as cover in the middle.
Last to qualify for the World Cup and lacking its characteristic consistency, the U.S. has invited questions about its defense, specifically: whether Sundhage's preference for Rampone's experience in the middle is wise when she has the Breaker's central partnership, LePeilbet and Buehler, available. The U.S. has sometimes found itself under pressure in the early stages of games this year, and Rampone's leadership is a nice weapon in those circumstances, but LePeilbet is a natural center back whose performances in that position for Boston Breakers have been consistently excellent.
The coach doesn't seem likely to change her mind, though. LePeilbet has sometimes looked overwhelmed at full back, but she is starting to look more comfortable with the attacking impetus expected of her on the left--- and her attentive defensive game is by no means wasted out there. On the other side, Krieger lacks the big game experience of Mitts (on the team that won Olympic gold in 2004 and 2008) but isn't afraid to have the ball at her feet.
Midfielders: Kelley O'Hara (Boston Breakers), Shannon Boxx (magicJack), Heather O'Reilly, Tobin Heath (both Sky Blue), Carli Lloyd (Atlanta Beat), Megan Rapinoe, Lori Lindsey (both Philadelphia Independence).
The midfield is one of the most settled areas for the US -- and, conversely, one of the most contentious. Some of the toughest criticism Sundhage has faced has focused on her attachment to a flat midfield four with Boxx and Lloyd in the center. Despite the fact that they have more than 250 caps between them, Boxx and Lloyd can make for a somewhat underwhelming central partnership in which the distribution of responsibilities doesn't seem to stick; in April, England's midfield, with Fara Williams and Jill Scott stationed behind Kelly Smith, moved unimpeded through the center of the pitch.
With Lindsay Tarpley injured, however, the U.S. doesn't have comparably experienced options in the center and nothing in the buildup to the World Cup suggests Lindsey is more than a second-half option. Boxx and Lloyd both offer a goal threat, as demonstrated against Finland, in March, when they combined on a set-piece goal and Lloyd linked up with Heath to double the lead.
Yet to produce consistently, Heath and O'Hara are set to play second fiddle to Rapinoe and O'Reilly after a string of good performances on the wings. Between them they've been providing the outlet missing in the center -- Rapinoe linked nicely with LePeilbet against Mexico last month -- and creating opportunities for themselves and others. O'Reilly made one and scored the other against Japan; Rapinoe's goal against England suggests she is a player who can make something out of nothing -- a valuable commodity.
Forwards: Amy Rodriguez (Philadelphia Independence), Lauren Cheney (Boston Breakers), Alex Morgan (Western New York Flash), Abby Wambach (magicJack).
There's no question that Wambach, who has 118 goals in 156 USWNT appearances, starts. She's a defender's nightmare: combative, clinical and, even if fans would rather not see long balls punted up to her too often, her ability to bring the ball down and lay it off is an asset. Sundhage would surprise many if she didn't opt for Rodriguez up front, at least at the start of the tournament; the duo looks pretty set, though the Philly forward can be wasteful of chances.
Cheney is probably ahead of Morgan in the running for a starting place; she was part of the 2008 Olympic-winning team and has the strength to get in among a defense and cause trouble. The irrepressible Morgan is the player U.S. fans most want to see getting more game time. She showed she can be relied upon in the big games with her winner against Italy in the qualifying playoff, when she was subbed on with five minutes remaining. However, Sundhage's discussions of her striking options suggest Morgan will continue to have to impact games from the bench for now.
Georgina Turner is a freelance sports writer and co-editor of http://www.retrombm.com/.