In any given match — or, for that matter, any given half — you will find Emily Fox at left back or right back for the U.S. women’s national soccer team. She could start or enter at halftime. She might play on one corner for 45 minutes before switching to the other for the other 45.
How Emily Fox’s versatility helps USWNT
“I think ‘versatile’ is a word you can use for her,” captain Becky Sauerbrunn said, smiling.
Consider the past six matches: Fox started on the left side three times, started on the right side twice and was a second-half sub on the left in the other. She switched from the right to the left in the middle of two matches and went the other direction in one.
It’s enough to twist the mind and body of even the most adaptable player, not to mention a 24-year-old who did not start playing regularly for the most decorated women’s team in history until last year.
Her reaction to the revolving roles is a figurative shrug.
“I feel comfortable on both sides,” the Ashburn, Va., native said. “We’re just trying to figure out what works best. I just want to be on the field. I see it as a different challenge, so it’s exciting. I don’t care what side I am on.”
Come summer, when the top-ranked Americans arrive at the World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, Fox could very well end up starting the opener against Vietnam. Until then, Coach Vlatko Andonovski is using friendlies and the current SheBelieves Cup to rotate players.
Fox has logged much of her time at left back, but with incumbent Crystal Dunn regaining fitness and stamina after returning from childbirth, Fox is likely to settle into No. 2 on the depth chart.
USWNT loves Crystal Dunn at left back. The feeling isn’t exactly mutual.
The right side is complicated. Kelley O’Hara, the starter on the 2019 World Cup squad, has not played for the national team since last summer because of a hip ailment. Her primary replacement, Sofia Huerta, hasn’t locked down the job. Veteran Emily Sonnett is also an option.
But Andonovski believed Fox could win the spot, and after starting there last month in one of the two friendlies in New Zealand, she reprised the role in the SheBelieves Cup opener Thursday against Canada in Orlando. Three days later, against Japan in Nashville, Fox started on the left before moving to the right at halftime.
The tournament will conclude Wednesday in Frisco, Tex., with Canada (1-1-0) playing Japan (0-2-0) and the United States (2-0-0) facing Brazil (1-1-0). Andonovski has not revealed his lineup, but he could go back to the formula that worked against Canada: Dunn on the left and Fox on the right.
Fox said alternating sides is “a little adjustment,” such as partnering with different wingers in front of her. She is right-footed but has become more adept with her left. On either side, she is unafraid of pushing forward with the ball and adding another dimension to the attack.
“Her ability to play one-on-one, to be able to cut into the middle, it just opens up the field and allows everyone else to do what they do,” Sauerbrunn said. “Foxy is really the instigator because she knows she can beat players.”
At the World Cup, Fox’s versatility would allow Andonovski to make adjustments in the heat of the match. If he doesn’t like a matchup or partnership on one side of the field, he can flip-flop the outside backs. Coaches often take such action with their attacking wingers but not their fullbacks.
Defensively, Fox has matured.
“Emily has an ability to solve problems under pressure,” Andonovski said. “It’s almost at a point where pressure doesn’t faze her at all.”
Fox was not always a defender. A freshman forward at Stone Bridge High, she helped the Bulldogs advance to the Virginia Class 5A final — she scored in the 2-1 defeat to Briar Woods — and was named to The Washington Post’s All-Met second team. Fox did not play again for Stone Bridge, opting to concentrate on club soccer for FC Virginia.
The transition into a deeper role began with the U.S. under-20 national team and at the University of North Carolina, where she began her career as a right-side midfielder. Fox was on three squads that advanced to the College Cup, soccer’s Final Four. Twice, though, she watched from the sideline with an ACL injury. She damaged her right knee two months into her freshman season and her left knee two years later in the NCAA tournament quarterfinals.
In both cases, Fox returned within eight months.
“I feel lucky,” she said, “because I know a lot of teammates and friends who have had 10-, 12-, 14-month recoveries.”
By the time of her 2019 injury, Fox had already played for the senior national team. A year earlier, during her sophomore season, she started in friendlies against Portugal and Scotland.
Two months later, Fox was in over her head during a 3-1 defeat at France. She was pulled by then-coach Jill Ellis early in the second half.
“I had three bad mistakes,” Fox said. “I was frustrated with myself. I didn’t do my job.”
“She struggled,” Sauerbrunn said, “but we all struggled.”
Lessons were learned, Fox said, in the enormous gap between college soccer and the international level: “The importance of mental toughness and realizing in hindsight it’s one game and that doesn’t really define who I am. I didn’t see it as an end point.”
Two years later, Fox was selected No. 1 in the NWSL draft by Racing Louisville. She was a finalist for rookie of the year honors, appeared in all but one match and remained a regular last season.
This winter, seeking a “new space and new environment,” Fox asked to be traded. She landed back in North Carolina with the Courage. The NWSL season starts March 25. Eight days later, she is all but certain to rejoin the U.S. squad for the final two friendlies before Andonovski selects the World Cup team.
“She’s a game changer,” Sauerbrunn said. “She is growing into her own power a little bit and realizing the tools she has are really quite special in the women’s game right now.”