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Is rostering a still-recovering Megan Rapinoe a mistake or a strategy?

Rapinoe probably won’t be able to play for a good chunk of group but does it even matter with the alternate rules?

USOC Portraits for Rio2016 Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Megan Rapinoe tore her ACL in December of 2015 while practicing for a friendly in Hawaii. That friendly was infamously canceled as players protested the playing surface as well as the sub-par training facility, where Rapinoe received her injury.

Ever since then it’s been a question of whether Rapinoe would mange to rehab in time for the August 3 group stage kick off of the Olympic games. ACL rehab can go from six months to a year depending on the player, and seven months and change for Rapinoe to get into shape for a major tournament seemed to be pushing it.

As we’ve discovered, that timeline was definitely pushing it. It became clear when Rapinoe was benched against South Africa on July 9 with a quad pull, then again against Costa Rica on July 22. Now, according to Goal, Rapinoe herself says she’s unlikely to play the first game in group and in fact the end of group/beginning of knockout is “more of a realistic time.”

Why it might be a mistake to have Rapinoe on the roster

With such a small roster of 18 players on such a short time table of 18 days, with theoretically six games to play assuming the U.S. makes it all the way to the final, that leaves very little margin for error. Squad rotation is key, and the U.S. has a lot of versatility and depth to help stay strong to the end. But with even one midfielder unavailable, that certainly impacts the rotation available to the other players, especially when you’ve only brought along one other really wide midfielder and the remaining four play centrally.

In a best-case scenario, Rapinoe is only unavailable for the first U.S. group game against New Zealand on August 3. That would be fine; New Zealand shouldn’t pose a real threat to the U.S. (knock on wood) and everyone will still be fresh. But recovery is not like flipping a switch. Ellis can’t just put Rapinoe in for a full 90 and expect pre-injury levels of performance. If Rapinoe is out for New Zealand, then realistically she’s also out for at least half of the next game too, the group stage game against France on August 6. Your first game back from ACL recovery should probably not be 90 minutes against France. You won’t be playing a full 90 immediately after that either.

So a realistic best case scenario is Rapinoe being available for half of France and half or 60-ish minutes of Colombia, the latter of which is another game that could and probably will use an impact sub but shouldn’t present the same problems as France. Missing one midfielder for half of group seems like a mild problem with the depth of the U.S. bench, especially as Ellis has been asking her forwards to contribute in that area. The team has managed without Rapinoe for all of 2016 and Ellis can probably count on them making it through a game or two in group without her too.

In a worst case scenario, Rapinoe is out for all of group and can only start contributing in knockout stages. If the U.S. wins Group G, their quarterfinal opponent will be the 3rd place team from E or F, which could be anyone from Canada to Australia to Sweden to China. None of those teams are exactly easy, though the U.S. would be expected to beat any of them. But what if that’s Rapinoe’s first game back? A knockout round game in a major tournament? To be sure she should be fresh but she still hasn’t touched a ball in a competitive game since October 25, 2015. What happens if the U.S. comes second in group and has to play the winner of Group F in quarterfinals, likely to be Germany? Ellis has said she wants to “build” Rapinoe’s minutes in the tournament, but in a worst-case, that’s a hell of a place to start building.

If Rapinoe shouldn’t go, who should?

It begs the question then, if Rapinoe isn’t suited to be on this roster, who Ellis could have possibly taken in her place? Heather O’Reilly is, of course, sitting right there on the alternate list and is healthy right now and can provide many of the things Ellis cited as factors in bringing Rapinoe, among them crossing and leadership. Ellis also wants Rapine for her set piece delivery, and it’s true that her corner and free kicks could yield a couple of goals. Rapinoe is also a more creative attacker than O’Reilly, but once again, O’Reilly is ready now. She could impact all three of the group stage games and put the U.S. in good position to advance at the very least to semis. On the other hand, it’s not like O’Reilly has been impacting many games of late; the team has functioned fine without her for most of 2016, even though some games could have used her particular brand of high-energy right-sided width. Having O’Reilly on the roster might effectively be the same thing as Rapinoe, in terms of how much playing time they’re likely to get - although Ellis certainly wouldn’t have to be as careful with managing O’Reilly’s minutes.

Maybe it’s not a mistake after all

There is another thing to consider, which is the rules on replacing a rostered player with an alternate. Injured players can be replaced all the way up to and during the tournament itself. According to the regulations, “If a player who features on the final list of 18 players...sustains a serious injury or is so ill that he/she can no longer be expected to play, that player may be replaced...” At that point the FIFA Medical Committee verifies the injury on basis of a medical certificate from the team doctor, FIFA confirms the player is incapacitated, and then the form is submitted to the Rio Olympic committee by the country’s Chef de Mission.

Ellis herself has referenced this situation as having alternates “in your back pocket.” So Ellis may just be playing her cards close to her chest in bringing O’Reilly along as an insurance policy, as ego-bruising as that might be for O’Reilly herself. She can always replace Rapinoe, but she can’t operate vice-versa by naming a healthy O’Reilly to the main roster and Rapinoe as an alternate.

That may not exactly be fair to O’Reilly, but it’s not necessarily the worst strategy, as cynical as that sounds. Ellis is gambling here that essentially having 15 outfield players for part of group is worth whatever contributions an understrength Rapinoe might be able to make later, and if the WNT wins gold, then no one will be talking about this roster decision any more except to say “Boy, Jill Ellis sure did know her players.” And if the gamble falls through, she’s got O’Reilly ready and waiting. Sure, it sounds kind of sneaky when you lay it all out like that - the replacement rules are supposed to be there in case of a catastrophe, not in case you need to fix a mistake because a player isn’t quite working out the way you hoped they would.

Perhaps, in the end, we should all just hope that Rapinoe is ready and confirms Ellis’ faith in her by having a good tournament so that the alternate situation is never tested. And in that case, we’ll be happy to say that Jill Ellis sure did know her players.