Five Points: 2016 predictions for new-look USWNT

The Victory Tour, thank goodness, is over.

The United States women’s national team is eager for its next challenge: The Olympics in Rio. First, they must qualify to get there. Also, the team enters its post-Abby Wambach phase. That means coach Jill Ellis should have some fun re-tooling the roster to move away from the direct style which characterized the team game plan during the Wambach’s reign as the all-time greatest goal scorer in international soccer history. Onward!

Canada aim for revenge vs. U.S. in Olympic Qualifying Final:

The CONCACAF qualifying tournament takes place Feb. 9-21, and the seedings point towards a United States vs. Canada final. So, let’s start the year off with some drama!

Two CONCACAF teams will qualify for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Brazil, so, in the end, all the U.S. must do is get to the final on Feb. 21. But Christine Sinclair & Co. might be eager to avenge the devastating loss to the U.S. in the 2012 Olympics. What if John Herd has his Canadian women believing this final as the perfect place to make a statement? There’s no love lost between these North American rivals, so this showdown figures to be a fun grudge match.

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The U.S. starts Olympic qualifying Feb. 10 against Costa Rica at Toyota Stadium in Frisco Texas. Then on Feb. 13 they take on Mexico, followed by a Feb. 15 match against Puerto Rico. The semifinal match is Feb. 19 and — if form holds according to tournament seedings — the U.S. could face Canada in the final on Feb. 21 in Houston.

Don’t be surprised if Canada wins the final in regulation, as the U.S. side is still getting accustomed to life after Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday. If it goes to penalty kicks, however, all bets are off. Either way, both the U.S. and Canada earn berths to the Olympics.

2016 Olympic team roster:

In 2015, Ellis was allowed to take 23 players to Canada for the Women’s World Cup. This summer, the U.S. Olympic roster is only 18. That means only two goalkeepers. And, despite the retirements of Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny, Ellis will most likely stick with players she knows can handle the pressure cooker of international competition — especially in Brazil.

For goalkeepers, Alyssa Naeher got her share of minutes during the Victory Tour. Ellis seems to be trying to make the decision about who backs up Hope Solo this year and Naeher could move ahead of Ashlyn Harris in that spot.

Here’s our best guess at the 18 who have a shot of booking flights to Rio next summer: Solo, Naeher, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Ali Krieger, Meghan Klingenberg, Christie Rampone, Carli Lloyd, Tobin Heath, Kelley O’Hara, Heather O’Reilly, Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez.  

Rampone = Insurance:

All signs lead to Rampone retiring, or do they? The U.S. captain will be 41 by the time the Olympics roll around in August. She has been battling leg injuries for the past year and has been soundly replaced by Johnston — a move Rampone predicted and championed years ago, like the selfless team leader she is.

But, here’s the rub: If you were Ellis, and you had the best centerback in the world in Sauerbrunn anchoring your defense, and you had a young star in Johnston, who would you carry on your roster in the event either Sauerbrunn or Johnston get injured?

Given the quality of those two centerbacks, no one except Rampone comes to close to their level. Rampone’s leadership, speed and skill make it painful to consider what a U.S. national team would be like without her around, even if she never plays a minute. Unless Rampone’s injuries are career-ending, she’s still a very important part of team.

Horan, Dunn are USWNT shoo-ins:

These two quality players represent the next generation of U.S. stars. While the U.S. team was celebrating its 2015 Women’s World Cup throughout the year-ending Victory Tour, Dunn was called into camp in September and Horan joined the team in December. The future looks alive and well even as the U.S. national team fans bid farewell to Wambach, Boxx, Holiday and Chalupny.

Dunn made a bold claim for a roster spot last summer when she took over the National Women’s Soccer League. That was after Ellis decided to leave the Long Island native and University of North Carolina star off the 2015 Women’s World Cup roster — a mistake in the eyes of many who knew Dunn has the goods to be a versatile part of the U.S. roster. She has already connected on goals with Lloyd, delivering the ball on great play out on the wing during the Victory Tour campaign. Dunn can also put the ball into the net. And, if Ellis is ever desperate for help on the backline, Dunn could play there, too.

Horan, meanwhile, has taken a different road back into the U.S. national team fold. The Colorado native had dreamed of being a pro footballer since she was a little kid and consequently passed up college scholarships to sign a pro contract in France. In December, Horan could not comment on negotiations taking place that would bring her to the Portland Thorns of the NWSL, but with U.S. Soccer underwriting the women’s league, and with a premium being placed on U.S. players being stateside in order to be monitored by national team coaches and to train in national team camps, Horan’s future appears to be all about the U.S. national team.

Ellis is looking to condition Horan to become the team’s new center midfielder to replace Holiday. Horan is a formidable presence who could solve a multitude of problems should she make good on the promise of converting to this prime midfield position.

Five midfielders are a charm:

HEAR US OUT

Wambach is right: The U.S. women won the 2015 Women’s World Cup without her on the field. The reliance on longball soccer spearheaded by Wambach’s once-dominant presence at the top of the U.S. attack has already given way to a somewhat different style of play.

This is also the moment that many women’s soccer fans have been waiting for: The chance to remake the U.S. women’s national team in a mode that better models where women’s soccer globally has gone. The 2015 Women’s World Cup may have been won by the Americans, but the tournament proved ball control, dribbling skills and versatility on the attack are the hallmarks of international women’s soccer now.

In that sense, the biggest issue facing Ellis now isn’t how to replace Wambach. The critical remaking of the roster heading into Olympic qualifying centers around the midfield; Holiday has retired; Megan Rapinoe is recovering from ACL surgery; Lloyd — destined to win the FIFA Women’s World Player of the Year award in Zurich on Jan. 11 — seems to have won the battle for being a bonafide attacking midfielder.

Ellis used five midfielders to beat China and Germany in the quarterfinal and semifinal of the 2015 Women’s World Cup. Morgan was the lone striker up top. It worked out very well, as Lloyd was finally unleashed as a de facto attacker. Does this make Ellis consider dropping Leroux in favor of adding an additional midfielder?

Stephanie McCaffrey scored her first international goal in her first cap for the U.S. national team when she was subbed in against Brazil in Orlando on Oct. 25 and she could bolster the midfield with more bulk and versatility.