On Tuesday afternoon 26 players gathered at the U.S. Soccer National Training Center in Carson, California as the United States Women’s National Soccer Team turned its focus from celebrating its 2015 World Cup title to defending the Gold Medal the USWNT won four years ago in London.
After a 17 day camp, the U.S. WNT will play its first game of the New Year when they face perennial victims the Republic of Ireland on January 23 at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego.
18 players will dress for the U.S. that night and following the presumed American victory U.S. coach Jill Ellis will name the 18 players that she will bring to Rio de Janeiro to as the Americans look to win a third consecutive Olympic Gold.
From there it is on to the CONCACAF Olympic Qualifiers starting February 10, in Frisco, Texas before moving on to Houston.
Throughout the teams 2015 World Cup Victory Tour Ellis attempted the difficult task of allowing fans to honor their World Cup heroes while simultaneously building for the future.
23 players traveled to Canada and brought home the World Cup trophy, Ellis can bring five less to South America.
Who will she call? Let’s take a look. Four players have retired from the World Cup team, and while Abby Wambach is the biggest name, Lauren Holiday leaves the largest hole to fill. Right in the center of the U.S. midfield.
Ellis gave the creative Tobin Heath a shot but by the end of the Victory Tour, the coach seemed to have all but settled on Lindsey Horan as Holiday’s replacement.
Horan first made a splash as a goal scorer in the U.S. youth ranks, before her pioneering decision to become the first U.S. woman to spurn college and turn pro, joining French club PSG.
Though thought of as a poacher, Horan showed well at the heart of the U.S. midfield, distributing very well while defending as needed. The feeling here is that Horan will have to play her way off this roster and looks a solid bet to start in Rio.
Crystal Dunn was the final player cut from the World Cup squad last summer, it won’t happen again. Capable of playing fullback, midfield, as a winger or a striker, Dunn had best make sure her passport is in order.
Also stepping away from the game after long and meritorious service to the U.S. WNT are Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny. Both saw playing time in Canada though neither played a key role and cruel though it may sound, replacements are on hand.
Ellis may also be without winger extraordinaire Megan Rapinoe, remember that it was Pinoe that kept the Americans moribund attack above water in the early stages of Canada 2015 before Lloyd went on her historic run.
Rapinoe is recovering from a serious knee injury picked up during the disastrous trip to Hawaii. Pregnant striker Amy Rodriguez is expected to miss most of the year while 40-year center back Christie Rampone is recovering from injury. Ellis may yet opt to bring the veteran to Rio as an experienced backup with Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston firmly entrenched as starters.
So, who will make the cut? Barring injuries and with the expectation that Ellis will bring just two goalkeepers, here is our best guess.
If Ellis does travel with two goalkeepers the only drama surrounds who backs up Hope Solo. It will come down to Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher, with Adrianna Franch one for the future.
Of the 26 in camp, only Franch and 17-year U20 starlet Mallory Pugh were not involved in the Victory Tour. Could Pugh wow Ellis and force her way onto the squad? Sure, but it would be quite a leap, even for this gifted youngster.
Including two keepers, I see 15 certainties. Defenders Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Kelley O’Hara, and Ali Krieger, midfielders Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Morgan Brian, and Lindsey Horan, and forwards, Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, Christen Press, and Sydney Leroux.
That leaves just three spots up for grabs. If Rapinoe is healthy or even close she’s an automatic. Who else? Ellis may want to bring Rampone along if she can make it back to fitness.
Whitney Engen had the first shot replacing the injured Rampone before the World Cup, but she picked up an unfortunate injury opening the door to Julie Johnston.
Engen made the World Cup squad but did not see any action. University of Virginia’s Emily Sonnett and Jaelene Hinkle of the Western New York Flash saw action throughout the victory Tour. Engen is the safe pick for Ellis, it comes down to what positional needs the coach chooses to prioritize.
Much depends on Rapinoe’s health. If she can’t go, Heather O’Reilly is a logical replacement. Having said that O’Reilly might make the team even if Rapinoe does return.
A natural winger, O’Reilly can stretch any defense and serves up a beautiful cross. With Wambach retired that skill may not be as important to the U.S. team, but FC Kansas City star is vastly experienced and won’t shy away from the big moments.
Stephanie McCaffrey of the Boston Breakers brings much of the same skills as O’Reilly does and showed well on the Victory Tour. Ellis will have to decide if the 22-year-old is ready to push the somewhat underappreciated O’Reilly aside.
Personally, I don’t see it.
With Lloyd playing as a de facto striker at the World Cup, Ellis may take an additional midfielder, which could make room for Samantha Mewis.
So, who will Ellis select? Ellis threw on Rampone, not Engen to close out a 1-0 win over an explosive Nigeria team at the World Cup, that says the coach trusts the longtime captain. If Rapinoe can’t go O’Reilly does, if not she probably goes anyway.
Ellis could bring a third keeper, but assuming she doesn’t that leaves one precious seat on the plane to Rio. If it is not Rapinoe, then I think Mewis has a good chance to provide cover in the middle of the park, with Pugh as a wild card.
Here is 26 player roster in camp now, followed by my Olympic 18.
GOALKEEPERS (4): Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns FC), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
DEFENDERS (8): Whitney Engen (Boston Breakers), Jaelene Hinkle (Western New York Flash), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City), Emily Sonnett (Univ. of Virginia)
MIDFIELDERS (8): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Danielle Colaprico (Chicago Red Stars), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (PSG), Rose Lavelle (Wisconsin), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Samantha Mewis (Western New York Flash), Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City)
FORWARDS (6): Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Sydney Leroux (Western New York Flash), Stephanie McCaffrey (Boston Breakers), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (Real Colorado)
GK (2): Solo, Naeher.
Defense (6): Johnston, Klingenberg, Krieger, O’Hara, Sauerbrunn, Rampone, if healthy. Engen if Rampone can’t go.
Midfield (6): Brian, Heath, Horan, Lloyd, O’Reilly, Mewis
Forwards (4): Dunn, Morgan, Press, Leroux