Sounding relaxed and confident U.S. WNT coach Jill Ellis spoke to the media via a conference call today just hours after naming her 18 player Olympic roster.
Even with the inclusion of 18-year-old Mallory Pugh and late-blooming international Allie Long, there were no real surprises in this group that will try to become the first team to win the Olympics back to back with the World Cup.
Ellis addressed that issue today. “One of the things I really looked into,” Ellis said, “is why has a repeat never been done?” “Was it a change of personnel,” Ellis wondered? How about complacency? – or maybe it was timing?
In meeting with her players recently Ellis put it to them. “Are you as hungry?” the coach said she asked the prospective Olympians. “Do you feel as focused?” “The resounding response,” Ellis relayed, “was yes.” The players Ellis said, “want to make history, want to try to be the first to go back to back.”
Where Ellis has gambled is in relying on Megan Rapinoe and Morgan Brian to be healthy enough to contribute enough in Brazil to warrant one of the 18 precious roster spots.
Ellis sounded certain that Carli Lloyd would be up to the task, despite having just played her first game in several weeks in Sunday’s 1-0 over South Africa. The coach was happy that both Lloyd and Rapinoe had experienced full contact, had taken some tackles and emerged unscathed.
Lloyd, Ellis explained, “played 100% at our training, her fitness is great, she’s going full into tackles,” so no injury worries it seems concerning the team’s World Cup hero.
The odds are bit longer on Rapinoe and Brian, though Ellis makes it clear that both players are worth the risk, saying that “Megan does have an “it” factor.” Ellis cited her set pieces, and called the winger “one of the best crossers in the world.”
“The plan for Megan,” Ellis revealed, “is we’ve got to build her in this tournament, much like we did with Alex (Morgan).” Morgan sat out the first game of last year’s World Cup and then struggled in the early rounds and while the star striker never hit peak form in Canada her contributions helped the U.S. win its first Women’s World Cup since 1999.
“Is she (Rapinoe) going to be able to play 90 minutes in six games? the coach asked before answering her own question. “Of course not but I think her special qualities, also what she brings in terms of personality, her leadership off the field; it was a tough decision in terms of would she be back in time to contact” Ellis said, “but once I saw her in contact it wasn’t a hard decision.”
Ellis also referred to “building” when asked about Brian, who “is on the mend for sure,” according to the coach.
Ellis’ comfort level in bringing these potentially iffy players is raised by a solid foursome of alternates at the ready. Ellis noted that “many, many years ago” alternates did not travel with the team. Now, in the event of injury Ellis can turn to goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris, defender Emily Sonnet, or one of two midfielders in Heather O’Reilly and Sam Mewis.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about today’s roster announcement was the utter lack of a surprise that the inclusion of 18-year-old Mallory Pugh generated.
Remember that it was only on January 23, 2016, that the then 17-year-old attacker made her full national team debut, scoring a goal in the U.S. WNT’s 5-0 win over the Republic of Ireland, less than a month after leading the U20 nats to the CONCACAF Championship.
The teenager was mentioned by Ellis as a factor in the veteran O’Reilly’s failure to make the roster and would seem to have bypassed Cristian Press on her way to a starting berth on the U.S. Olympic team.
Ellis says that success at such a young age is a combination of “soccer ability and their psychological profile.” The coach says that Pugh has “ice in her veins, she doesn’t get rattled, she’s very competitive, always has a big smile on her face and,” Ellis says, “she’s having fun, and she’s enjoying it.”
2016 U.S. Olympic Women’s Soccer Team Roster by Position:
GOALKEEPERS (2): Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
DEFENDERS (6): Whitney Engen (Boston Breakers), 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)
MIDFIELDERS (6): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)
FORWARDS (4): Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (Real Colorado)