Who will make the USWNT’s roster for the Olympics in Rio?
The 2016 Olympics Games are almost here, and that means another title for the U.S. Women’s National Team to try to win.
Coach Jill Ellis told FOX Sports she plans to notify players whether they made the roster on Sunday — and it will be a very difficult roster to make. With only 18 spots, it is the smallest roster of any tournament the team will compete in. (Unlike on the men’s side, women’s national teams field their full senior rosters during the Olympics.)
The squad list does include one quirk: Four "alternates" will travel with the team to Brazil and be available in case of injury. But it’s a somewhat empty consolation prize — if the USWNT places in the tournament, the alternates do not win medals.
If the USWNT does win gold in Rio, it would make them the first country to win a Women’s World Cup and then win Olympic gold the following year. A sizable portion of last year’s World Cup-winning roster is not on the team anymore though, so it will be a new-look group.
The roster should be announced soon, but until then, here is our best guess at projecting the USWNT’s roster for the Olympics in Rio:
Roster: Hope Solo, Alyssa Naeher
Alternate: Ashlyn Harris
Solo just hit 100 shutouts on Saturday, which is a world record in international soccer for both men and women. She is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world right now and arguably the best the USWNT has ever had, but she’s undoubtedly the top of the current player pool.
The question is who her backup will be. While Harris hasn’t featured for the USWNT since September, Naeher started twice this year and as recently as April. Both goalkeeper options have been doing relatively well in club play for the National Women’s Soccer League, but Ellis seems to prefer Naeher.
Roster: Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, Kelley O’Hara, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Whitney Engen
Alternate: Emily Sonnett
It will be no surprise to see the group who dominated the Women’s World Cup last summer return: Sauerbrunn, Johnston, Klingenberg and Kreiger went a whopping 540 consecutive minutes as a unit without conceding a goal in the World Cup. Meanwhile, O’Hara’s versatility to play any of the positions on the field makes her a lock on the roster — but her speed and attacking ability may give her the starting edge over Krieger if Ellis wants her fullbacks pushing up high.
The bubble players are 22-year-old Sonnett and 28-year-old Engen, both centerbacks. Sonnett is a new addition to the national team, while Engen has been with the team for a while, albeit never quite growing into a consistent starter. Engen was with team at the World Cup last summer, but didn’t play a minute.
Ellis has hinted she is looking at the Rio Olympics not as just a standalone event, but as a key step toward the 2019 World Cup in France. In that sense, Sonnett is the kind of player who could be an important member of the squad in three years, and giving her major tournament experience could be a good development opportunity. But Ellis used one of her few final tune-up matches on Saturday to give Engen minutes, not Sonnett, which suggests she may want a more experienced option if Ellis needs to turn to her bench.
Roster: Carli Lloyd, Morgan Brian, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long
Alternate: Samantha Mewis
Lloyd and Brian both were part of that World Cup-winning squad last year and are locks to return and start. (Lloyd was named the best player in the world by FIFA in January, in case you forgot.) Horan broke through the national team shortly after the World Cup, and has been a consistent starter for good reason. Ellis’ formations have a tendency to shift, whether they start as a 4-4-2 or a 4-3-3, and they often involve a lot of positional interchange, but it seems like a good bet the trio of Lloyd, Brian and Horan will be starting together during the tournament.
The bubble players here are Long and Mewis, but Long is the clear favorite. Not only has Ellis given Long a lot more minutes in the past several months, but Long is just the better, steadier choice. At 23, Mewis has a lot of potential, but she lacks the consistency and composure of her more veteran colleagues in the central midfield. Long has been on an upward trajectory, proving herself in the NWSL, and represents the safer choice.
Roster: Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn, Christen Press, Mallory Pugh, Megan Rapinoe
Alternate: Heather O’Reilly
The most surprising lock here is Pugh: She’s only 18 years old and most USWNT fans hadn’t heard of her a year ago. But she plays with the confidence of a veteran and has proven herself as a crafty, creative force in the final third who links up with the veterans around her. Morgan, Heath, Dunn and Press are a bit more obvious as locks — Dunn is the only one that didn’t make the World Cup roster last year, but plenty of fans were upset about it. Any player in this group can start, but it’s a matter of finding space on the field.
The biggest question revolves around Rapinoe. She’s one of the most creative wide players in the world, but tore her ACL in December, a long injury to recover from. She still isn’t quite back to 100 percent yet, so at what point does Ellis make room for her? 95 percent? 90 percent? Lower? That Ellis named Rapinoe to the roster for the team’s pre-Olympic friendlies despite her not being fit to play a single minute speaks volumes.
It’s not as if we haven’t seen something similar before. When Morgan, the striker, went into the World Cup last summer, she didn’t play at all in the pre-tournament friendlies either. In fact, she wasn’t even fully training with the team. She had what the team called a bone bruise in her knee and returned from a two-month layoff during the group stage of the World Cup, building minutes as the tournament went on.
That means that O’Reilly, who has represented the USWNT in the last three Olympic Games — winning three gold medals — may be off the roster for the first time in more than a decade. She is an intense, physical player who always seems to find an extra gear on the pitch, but the crop of more technical, creative wingers have seemingly encroached on her spot along the right flank. Of the projected alternates, O’Reilly is the one who may deserve a roster spot the most, but her playing time has diminished under Ellis and she appears to be falling out of favor.
MORE ON FOX SOCCER: