USWNT head coach Jill Ellis took a predictable roster to the 2015 World Cup. Her Olympic roster might have more question marks due to the cut from 23 to 18 players allowed, but a spate of retirements is helping to narrow the field.
Shannon Boxx, Lori Chalupny, and Lauren Holiday have all retired from international soccer and perhaps Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach are close behind. U.S. Soccer has announced that Boxx, Chalupny, and Holiday will receive farewell games of a sort during the USWNT's World Cup Victory Tour. Boxx's last game will be on October 21 in Seattle and Chalupny and Holiday's last games will be October 25 in Orlando. Both games will be against Brazil.
Who does that leave from the World Cup roster? By position:
Goalkeepers (3): Hope Solo, Ashlyn Harris, Alyssa Naeher
Defenders (7): Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Ali Krieger, Kelley O'Hara, Meghan Klingenberg, Christie Rampone, Whitney Engen
Midfielders (5): Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Megan Rapinoe, Heather O'Reilly, Morgan Brian
Forwards (5): Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Amy Rodriguez, Sydney Leroux, Abby Wambach
With three retirements, only two cuts are required to trim down the roster to Olympic size.
One goalkeeper will be cut for certain - most likely Alyssa Naeher, who is currently third in the national team goalkeeper pecking order. Naeher doesn't necessarily deserve to get cut over Harris, though, based on club performance. Other factors may be apparent during national team camp, but based on what audiences were able to see during the season and the limited number of caps between the two of them, it's not obvious that Naeher should be cut over Harris by any metric except seniority.
Among the defenders, Whitney Engen could get moved to the alternate roster. Though she's played a good chunk of the Victory Tour, Engen never saw a minute of time at the World Cup. With seven defenders on the list, it's a sure bet that at least one will go regardless.
The wrench in the works, assuming Rampone and Wambach don't retire, is Crystal Dunn. Dunn's performance for the Washington Spirit this season was good enough to earn her league MVP honors, with 15 goals in 20 games. It also forced Ellis' hand in calling her up for evaluation in the national team's friendlies against Haiti, where Dunn managed two goals and three assists in two games. Ellis has apparently been given free reign to call in whoever she likes during the Victory Tour as the team will afterwards dive into Olympic qualification, but it's telling that Dunn was called up just two games into a 10-game tour, especially given the scheduling of the friendly on September 17 required her to play a full 90 for the Washington Spirit on the 13th, then turn around and immediately enter camp.
If Dunn goes onto the roster, presumably as a midfielder based on her latest place in the national team's formation, does Ellis boot another midfielder? Does she instead drop Rampone or Wambach? Rampone wasn't especially crucial during the tournament. Wambach had just one goal and limited minutes off the bench, but the goal was the game winner against Nigeria in group and helped lock in the United States at the top of Group D. Between the two, Wambach definitely has more to offer the team as a supersub.
Looking at the other midfielders, you could justifiably sense that Heather O'Reilly might be in danger based on how Ellis used her (or rather, didn't use her) during the World Cup. But Ellis was also on record at the NWSL championship between FC Kansas City and the Seattle Reign saying that she was there especially to evaluate O'Reilly, who promptly had a fantastic 90 minutes and notched the assist on FCKC's game-winning goal.
On the flip side of this scenario, if Rampone and Wambach do end up retiring and Dunn gets added to the roster, that leaves one empty roster spot, which will probably get filled in by another forward, or perhaps by someone who can step in as a defensive mid. Ellis mentioned at espnW's Women + Sports Summit that she is aware the team is "not as deep" at center mid and center back, especially with the retirement of Holiday, and in fact has called in a raft of new names to her latest camp in preparation for the team's friendlies against Brazil.
Ellis must have known at the espnW summit that she would be naming her roster soon, and indeed she has called in Nairn (Colaprico, the other player named in her interview, is unavailable due to injury) and raised the bet with WNY Flash's Samantha Mewis. Neither one is an obvious fill-in at defensive mid, which could indicate that Ellis intends to convert another player to that position or call up more names in the future. Nairn and Mewis are both capable of acting as strong midfield engines and Colaprico, just voted NWSL Rookie of the Year, has the ability to connect with her teammates from deep - exactly as Ellis described in her list of desired midfielder traits.
For forwards, with vets like Morgan and Rodriguez around and Press and Leroux well-capped for the WNT, younger names should be going into the hat. Stephanie McCaffrey, Kealia Ohai, and Sofia Huerta are all first or second-year NWSL players who could benefit from big tournament experience and still be in their primes when 2019 rolls around.
Then there's elusive wunderkind Lindsey Horan, who turned down a scholarship at UNC to go pro right out of high school. The 21-year-old Horan has spent the last three seasons at Paris Saint-Germain, where she has 40 goals in 49 appearances. She has also resisted the siren call of NWSL despite U.S. Soccer's urging that players who want their best chance at national team evaluation should return home. She has been capped twice by the national team, both under former head coach Tom Sermanni in 2013.
Ellis has called in both McCaffrey and Horan, but both are fighting against a very thick competitive field. Horan has the ability to be in the right place at the right time and is great at receiving the ball and turning to find net. McCaffrey has more of a propensity to take the ball deep and search for a shot or a cross, although analysis of her rookie NWSL season has to come with a caveat that she was hamstrung by a mostly ineffective Boston offense. They're both good with their feet and unafraid to go one-v-one, but so are Christen Press, Alex Morgan, and Amy Rodriguez. Horan is also still revving back up to top form after recovering from an injury so we'll see if she gets any playing time.
Defensively, one option would be to shift perpetual utility player Kelley O'Hara forward again and call in another defender, or to push Julie Johnston up to defensive mid and find a new partner for Becky Sauerbrunn in the back line. It could be interesting to see Ellis call up someone like Chicago's Arin Gilliland, who had a solid rookie season, or even Cari Roccaro (who you can watch scoring a sweet long-range drifter for the U23s at 2:07 below).
Ellis' new defensive callups this time are Jaelene Hinkle (WNY Flash), Gina Lewandowski (FC Bayern Munich), and Emily Sonnett (UVA). All three of them present interesting questions. Hinkle certainly did well for the Flash, starting and playing every minute of every game, but didn't necessarily outshine Gilliland in their rookie season.
Lewandowski has quietly (at least to Americans) been making a name for herself in Germany and was even called up before in 2012, but her then-club Frankfurt wouldn't release her. Lewandowski is now 30 years old , and if these roster evaluations are part of Ellis' stated goal of building a team for the future, then it's very hard to see how she could find a place in the American defense. And if Ellis really is okay with a 30-year-old being built into the next cycle, why not call up Leigh Ann Brown née Robinson or Kendall Fletcher? (Fletcher's presence might be complicated by her current post at Canberra United in Australia's W-League, but guess what - the United States will be playing in Hawaii in a couple months. Think about it, coach.)
Emily Sonnett may be Ellis deferring more to assistant coach Steve Swanson's suggestion, picking one of his UVA players to get high-level experience. Assuming Swanson pushed for Sonnett rather than Ellis scouting her, he obviously feels strongly enough about her abilities to let her miss at least two conference games for UVA, one of them against reigning NCAA champions Florida State.
So on the surface these defensive call-ups certainly sound like Ellis wants to begin cycling in new players, but with a little digging it's not immediately apparent that they'll see meaningful time on the pitch.
Ellis and U.S. Soccer no doubt want to put their best foot forward at the Olympics. Despite being a U-23 tournament for the men, for the women its prominence as their only other big international tournament ranks it just slightly behind the World Cup. The Olympics are a second chance to grab headlines, audiences, and sponsors that must then last through two years with only smaller competitions to which major sports outlets don't pay much attention.
The sport may not yet be at the point where the Olympics can be used to test up-and-coming talent, and the pressure on the U.S. to continue the narrative of world's best has only increased after blowing the roof off of BC Place during the World Cup final. Then again, with that third World Cup finally tucked under their belts, for the first time in a long time the national team isn't going into an Olympics with a redemption narrative around their necks.
Plus, taking Ellis' comment at the ESPNW summit that "the Olympics can be a great opportunity to get more players world-class competition prior to the next World Cup" at face value, she seems to be of a mind to transition the roster beginning with the Olympics. We'll see how much she means it based on her lineups and how she uses her subs over the rest of this Victory Tour - although Ellis will probably still have time to experiment a little at Olympic qualifiers themselves, in games where the United States plays CONCACAF countries that aren't Canada or Mexico.
But once again, much hinges on who actually retires by the end of 2015, unless Ellis gets up the nerve to tell long-time talisman Wambach that her services are no longer needed. Wambach has so far been cagey about retirement, not giving many hints one way or the other, comments that she wouldn't mind trying to make it through 2016 notwithstanding.
Abby Wambach says at espnW summit that she'll likely make decision on future in next few weeks, jokes that she'll tweet about it. #USWNT— Jeff Kassouf (@JeffKassouf) October 15, 2015
Ellis and U.S. Soccer may treat the Olympics as the last big tournament of this cycle, or they could consider it a bridge to the next cycle. Retirements have already kickstarted the program's transition phase whether U.S. Soccer is ready for it or not. The rest of the Victory Tour may point towards the roster Ellis will take into Olympic qualifying, or at least the gaps she wants to fill (see: pushing Becky Sauerbrunn up into the defensive mid position against Haiti) and qualifying will be where we see how her tweaks and experiments gel together. The team will have further opportunities to get used to each other at the Algarve tournament in March. There's a lot of opportunities between now and this summer to see if new callups and new lineups pan out.
Only one thing is really certain, and that is Crystal Dunn is going to have a good time in Rio.