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Jill Ellis, Christen Press and Tobin Heath debate USWNT starting lineup

Trinity Rodman runs drills with her USWNT teammates during their World Cup training. (Carmen Mandato/USSF/Getty Images)

Former U.S. women’s national team coach Jill Ellis joined Christen Press and Tobin Heath to discuss who she thinks her successor should start on the attack in Friday’s World Cup opener.

The USWNT kicks off its 2023 World Cup campaign at 9 p.m. ET Friday against Vietnam. While a number of players seemingly have solidified their spots in the starting lineup, the forward line includes at least one question mark.

Press and Heath, who played on the 2015 and 2019 World Cup-winning squads, are producing and hosting “The RE-CAP Show” throughout this year’s tournament. Veteran forwards themselves, both players are dealing with injuries that kept them off this year’s roster. Ellis, who coaches the USWNT to its two most two World Cup titles, joined her former players for the first episode of their show.

The USWNT’s forward pool includes Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Trinity Rodman, Sophia Smith, Alyssa Thompson and Lynn Williams. Rapinoe has acknowledged her role as a bench player in the lead-up to the tournament, while Morgan and Smith look like clear-cut starters. That leaves one forward slot remaining in the lineup.

“We know that it’s going to be Alex and Soph, and then we have a big decision on the other side,” Heath said.

So who would Ellis put in her starting XI against Vietnam?

“I would probably play — obviously Alex central, I’d play Soph, and I’d play Trinity,” Ellis said. “I think Trinity is a player that’s evolving. I think she’s got an incredible passing game that we don’t see that much. She can pick out and thread balls… That’s the three I would go with.”

Still, Ellis, Press and Heath all were quick to point out the importance of both starting and bench roles, especially since rotating lineups are the rule at the World Cup to rest players’ legs and adjust team strategies.

“Every single player, whether a game changer or starter, got all the same information,” Ellis said of the 2019 tournament. “It was flawless. When Pinoe was out, you came in, it was just flawless, because everybody who I think was afforded the same information and trust.”

Press and Heath debated earlier in the episode whether it is easier to start a match or to come on as a substitute. Heath, who started six of seven matches at the 2019 World Cup, finds it easier to start a game.

“I think it’s a million times easier to start a game,” Heath said. “You’re more prepared, you know exactly your routine. Even if you talk about how you prepare, you know you’re going to be starting, you know how you want to fuel your body for the game you can psychologically prepare.”

As a substitute, players need to be prepared to take on “whatever role is needed,” according to Heath, which is what makes it so difficult.

“Knowing that you are that player that’s first off the bench, especially as an attacker, you don’t know if the team’s gonna need a goal. You don’t know if you’re going to be defending for your life. You don’t know if there’s going to have been a red card,” Heath added. “You are emotionally playing out the game [while] physically and literally warming up all the time.”

On the other hand, Press believes being a starter is the harder job; she started in one group-stage match and the semifinal in 2019, but she entered as a substitute in other matches.

Coming off the bench “is easier because when you come on as a game changer you have a very, very clear role and expectation on what you need to do,” she said. “If you’re defending a lead, if you are down and trying to score, if you are going to have a certain role in set pieces. When you start a game you have all of your expectations of how you want that game to go.”

Press did have one big moment as a starter back in 2019, when she was named to the starting lineup against England for the semifinal match. She scored just nine minutes into the match to give the USWNT an early lead, and the team held on for a 2-1 win.

Still, while that goal stands out as her big moment, she thrived a substitute for most of the tournament.

“The reality is you almost never get what you want. It almost always goes awry. When I came in in big games and I did my job, I felt valued. I felt seen. And I felt like I knew exactly how to execute on a very specific task,” Press said. “The whole world of football gets condensed down into 10 minutes of a performance and you do your freaking job. You could do anything for 10 minutes. You could do anything in the world for the limited position that you have and in order to do it well you have to let go of all your expectations. It’s not me me me, and as a starting player you’re managing your ego the whole game.”

While Heath tried to argue that bench players often are called upon to take penalty kicks after starters are subbed out of the match, a negative in her book, Press had a simple retort.

“It’s such a breeze taking penalties,” she said.