When U.S. national team coach Jill Ellis pencils in her lineup for a given game, it's become safe to say Becky Sauerbrunn is typically the first name on that sheet.
The statistics back up that notion: Sauerbrunn started all 16 matches the U.S. played in 2017, captaining the squad on six occasions. But you don't need numbers to understand Sauerbrunn's influence in central defense as an organizational presence, builder out of the back and master of the last-ditch tackle. Simply put, she's indispensable.
Sauerbrunn is so ever-present, in fact, that it has proven difficult for younger center backs to break through. While Abby Dahlkemper burst onto the scene to establish herself as Sauerbrunn's first-choice partner in the second half of 2017, the options past those two have looked perilously thin.
So when Sauerbrunn was omitted from Ellis' squad for the SheBelieves Cup with a foot injury, the opportunity to test some new blood against top opposition emerged as a silver lining. As the top-ranked U.S. side opened the round-robin tournament against No. 2 Germany on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, Ellis handed 19-year-old Tierna Davidson the assignment of starting alongside Dahlkemper in central defense.
If the Stanford defender carried any shred of intimidation, she did well to hide it in a 1-0 U.S. win. Davidson played with poise beyond her years, holding her own in the back while moving the ball efficiently and making timely interventions when called upon. She may only have two caps, but Davidson appears to have already passed Emily Sonnett as the third center back on Ellis' depth chart.
Dahlkemper, meanwhile, was impressive in her own right. The 24-year-old misplayed one defensive header in the early stages, setting up a Germany opportunity, but eventually settled into the match. She saved a sure goal with a well-read interception at the near post in the 25th minute, and generally showed she can be trusted to manage the back line without Sauerbrunn as world-class safety blanket.
Sauerbrunn's eventual return to the lineup will of course be embraced. But U.S. fans can take solace in seeing the inexperienced duo of Dahlkemper and Davidson shut down one of the world's most lethal attacks.
Here are two more thoughts from the Americans' SheBelieves Cup opener:
Rapinoe and Pugh shine out wide
The U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year in 2016, Tobin Heath earned just four caps in 2016 because of a back injury. Now the crafty playmaker is sidelined another 8 to 12 weeks after undergoing ankle surgery.
While a fit and in-form Heath is one of the most dangerous players the game has to offer, the U.S. has gotten used to life without her services. Since last summer, that has typically meant seeing Megan Rapinoe on the left flank and Mallory Pugh on the right.
After Pugh scored twice in a 5-1 win over Denmark in January to kick off 2018, it was Rapinoe who netted the lone goal Thursday. Connecting with a flick-on header from Alex Morgan, the 32-year-old slipped behind the Germany back line and buried the finish.
The wingers caused problems for Germany throughout the night, as Pugh kept defenders guessing with her pace and control while Rapinoe offered her usual creative flair. Both players pressed with vigor as well, forcing the Germans into dangerous giveaways or careless long balls.
So where does Heath fit in once she returns? It's tough to see Ellis sitting Rapinoe or Pugh at this point, so perhaps Heath slots into central midfield or plays left back, like she did at times in the 2016 Olympics. Whatever happens, Ellis now finds herself with an enviable lineup quandary.
Quiet night for Lloyd
Now 35 years old and coming off a down year for club and country, Carli Lloyd is at a crossroads. She remains passionate about representing her country at the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics, but it seems increasingly likely she'll do so in a secondary role.
Making her first start since Aug. 3, Lloyd went 65 minutes in attacking midfield Thursday before giving way to Morgan Brian. She showed flashes of brilliance, including a 54th-minute through ball to Alex Morgan that drew a foul on the edge of the box. But she couldn't convert a couple chances that fell her way in what amounted to a quiet evening.
With Julie Ertz locked in at the base of Ellis' midfield trio, competition for the two advanced midfield spots is stiff. Samantha Mewis, an automatic starter in 2017, and Rose Lavelle missed on the SheBelieves Cup because of lingering injuries, and that still leaves Lindsey Horan, Savannah McCaskill, Allie Long and Brian to scrap with Lloyd for minutes.
Don't count out Lloyd for a starting spot. That said, she certainly has her work cut out.