Today, the International Olympic Committee officially announced that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics are postponed to 2021. There is no word on exact dates - unsurprising, given the uncertainty of the timeline on containing the current COVID-19 outbreak - but the IOC said the Olympics will be held “not later than summer 2021.” The phrasing of this implies that the games may not necessarily be during the summer of 2021 and that perhaps the IOC would try to get things rolling as soon as they’re safely able to do so, weather also permitting. Regardless, this shift will have implications for every sport; here we’re taking a look at what this might do for the US women’s national team, working on the assumption that the games will actually go forward in the summer.
Older players may not get their last major tournament
There are a couple of players who were probably expecting this Olympics to be their last major tournament. Among them: Carli Lloyd (37), Becky Sauerbrunn (34), and Megan Rapinoe (34). Realistically, would a one-year delay push any of them out of contention? Maybe not Lloyd and Sauerbrunn, who both seem healthy, although at a level where game can be won or lost by inches, perhaps a year is enough to lose a half-step. Rapinoe has certainly looked tired of late, compensating for the lack of her usual springy speed with her great vision and distribution. And who knows, maybe essentially being forced to rest for the better part of a year will get everyone’s legs back underneath them.
The other side of this equation is younger players who now have more time to establish a footprint in Vlatko Andonovski’s playbook. True, both college and pro league sports are on hold, which limits their ability to showcase their abilities in a meaningful way. Andonovski was almost certainly going to use now-canceled friendlies to look at his options, particularly Mal Pugh, although other young players like Sophia Smith and Emily Fox might also be under consideration. But if the WNT can get a couple of games going next year, and/or NWSL can start play again, there might be some real elbowing for space on a very limited 18-player roster.
Alex Morgan will definitely be back in the mix
The big name available to re-enter the fray is obviously Alex Morgan. By the end of this year/next spring Morgan will hopefully have given birth to a healthy baby and will be well on track towards full match fitness. That leaves even less room for youngsters to try to push their way into the mix, and also makes it much more likely that a bench player won’t be able to keep hold of that last empty spot. That means players like Casey Short, Jess McDonald, and perhaps even Emily Sonnett or Andi Sullivan could find their positions much more precarious. Once upon a time, that potential cut list might have automatically included Carli Lloyd, but as we saw from SheBelieves, Andonovski seems to value her as a heavy-hitting nine, either starting or off the bench. A starting forward line of Christen Press, Alex Morgan, and either Tobin Heath or Lynn Williams, with Lloyd as a sub, might be just the thing.
Players will probably have half an NWSL season
Let’s go with a best-case-scenario and assume 2021 sports will be back on, even if in a limited or closed-door capacity. That would give the players their usual preseason and a couple months of league play to get themselves used to the 90-minute grind again. That speaks to the idea that young players might get more time to impress Andonovski - players like Jordan DiBiasi, Bethany Balcer, Imani Dorsey, Sam Staab, and more.
USSF will be scrambling to schedule significant friendlies
Along with NWSL, US Soccer will undoubtedly be trying to reschedule canceled friendlies, like the games they were due to play against Australia and Brazil in April. League play is a decent way to help players attain the right fitness, but there is no substitute for international play, particularly against an opponent you’re likely to face at the Olympics. Perhaps USSF will even manage to put together another SheBelieves in that time frame, although the cost-benefit will definitely be affected by their ability to sell tickets to an in-stadium audience.
There are a lot of variables, all of them moving. This global pandemic has everything up in the air, and the assumptions here are all made under a best-case scenario. In a worst case, they hold the Olympics, but with no ability to lead in to the tournament, and the team gets maybe a couple of weeks of camp before they’re thrown into the thick of it. In that case, we should all probably be prepared to be lenient about the quality of play, especially since not just the players but also match officials are being affected. If you gripe about referees now, then referees judging a major tournament after months of inactivity might be a saint-worthy test of our collective patience.