Soccer 

Forecasting the USWNT’s Future

If you were one of the 24.3 million Americans who tuned in for the FIFA Women’s World Cup Final last Sunday night, the celebratory aura probably hasn’t washed away yet.

The players have ventured across North America since their 5-2 victory over Japan. The entire team visited Los Angeles for a victory pep rally on Tuesday and is traveling to New York for a ticker tape parade on Friday morning, the first such parade thrown in honor of a women’s sports team in the city’s history. Fox Sports 1 televised the L.A. Live celebration and will televise the parade as well.

After the parade, most players will rejoin their club teams in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL) before reuniting for a 10-game victory tour. The victory tour games should all draw sellout crowds as long as the United States Soccer Federation selects the correct cities and venues.

After the NWSL season and victory tour are over, the team will start looking ahead to the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The U.S. has won gold in four of the five Olympics it has competed in (they were silver medalists in 2000) so it will be gold or bust as usual.

Olympic roster sizes will require coach Jill Ellis to cut down her roster. Eighteen players will head to Rio as opposed to the 23 that suited up in Canada, which is a significant change.

Ellis and her staff really benefited from having the deepest team in the World Cup, allowing them to tinker with the lineups and adjust to different scenarios. When midfielders Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe were suspended for the quarterfinal match against China due to red card accumulation, for instance, they were replaced by Kelley O’Hara and 22-year-old Morgan Brian. Brian earned a spot in the starting 11 for the rest of the tournament, while the valuable increase in minutes helped O’Hara gain confidence and score in the semifinal game against Germany.

The Americans will still be deep in 2016, but they won’t be able to be as ridiculously deep as they were this past month. The tough decisions Ellis has to make will be made a bit easier by retirements (both announced and anticipated), but the hard truth is that this team will not stay intact the next time we see them in a major tournament.

What does the future look like for the USWNT? Let’s go player-by-player to predict the Olympic squad.

Announced/expected retirements: Lauren Holiday, Christie Rampone, Shannon Boxx, Abby Wambach. Holiday is the only announced retirement so far; the 27-year-old said Tuesday that she gave 10 years to the U.S. program and wishes to start a family with husband Jrue, who plays for the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans. Rampone, the lone two-time World Cup winner on the squad, just turned 40 and probably wouldn’t make the 2016 team even if she still wanted to play. The 38-year-old Boxx only played in one game this World Cup and is in the same boat as Rampone.

The 35-year-old Wambach could have a reserve role on the Olympic squad if she really wants it, but I don’t think she’s going to want to keep playing based on her comments about how frustrating it is to be on the bench and have no impact on the game as well as the fact that she finally captured that elusive World Cup. Ellis won’t pull a Jurgen Klinsmann and leave her most decorated star off the team if she really wants to play, but I don’t think Wambach will decide to keep playing.

Those four retirements would bring the current squad down to 19 players. Only one player from the current roster would actually have to be cut, but more than one will be sent home to make way for younger talent. Who stays and who goes from the rest of the team? Note: the 2012 London Olympic team was made up of two goalies, six defenders, five midfielders and five forwards. The 2015 World Cup team was made up of three goalies, eight defenders, seven midfielders and five forwards.

Hope Solo stays. Solo, the 2011 and 2015 World Cup Golden Glove winner, is still the best goalkeeper in the world. She’ll be 35 when the Olympics roll around and could honestly play well into her 40s with the incredible shape she’s in. She has remarkable fitness and has never missed major tournament competition due to injury. The only conceivable ways she wouldn’t be on the roster are major injury or major legal trouble.

Ashlyn Harris stays. The team’s backup keeper didn’t see the field in the World Cup but has established herself as the team’s second-string goalie for the long run in training and club play. The biggest highlight of the 29-year-old’s career came in the 2011 Women’s Professional Soccer League championship, when she made the winning save in penalty kicks for the Western New York Flash.

Alyssa Naeher is left off of Olympic roster, stays in program. The 27-year-old Naeher was the starting keeper on the 2008 U-20 World Cup championship team and figures to stay in the national team program for years to come, but the 18-woman limit means only two goalies will be on the team. Solo is obviously the starter and Harris is second string, so Naeher’s only chance to be on the roster is an injury.

Lori Chalupny is left off. Chalupny is another one of the players that makes a 23-player roster but doesn’t make the cut in the Olympics. The 31-year-old started her career on the senior national team in 2001, but didn’t play internationally from 2009 to November 2014 due to her concussion history. She got the call this year but only appeared in one World Cup match, and I can’t imagine her making the trip to Brazil next summer.

Becky Sauerbrunn stays. Sauerbrunn was the rock of a historic American defense that tied the 2007 Germany team for minutes played without allowing a goal, and many analysts felt that she should be named the MVP of the tournament before Carli Lloyd scored a hat trick in the final. The 30-year-old still has some solid years in her, and she will be welcomed to the Olympic team with open arms.

Ali Krieger stays. Like Sauerbrunn, Krieger started all seven of the USA’s World Cup matches and was consistent throughout. Not only is she an excellent defender, she is a strong passer and extremely quick as well. Little-known fact: the final was played at BC Place in Vancouver, the same place she tore her ACL at three years earlier. The 30-year-old played a pivotal role the entire tournament and has at least one more Olympics and World Cup in her.

Whitney Engen stays. She didn’t play in the World Cup and probably won’t play much if at all in the Olympics either, but the 27-year-old has 26 caps and three goals in her national team career, so she’s no scrub. Each player has their role, and Engen keeping a spot on this team shows she has clearly embraced hers. She’s done nothing to lose her spot, so I think she stays.

Kelley O’Hara stays. O’Hara is a versatile stud who will be one of the faces of this team for years to come. The Stanford grad won the 2009 Hermann Trophy as the best player in college soccer for her work as a forward (26 goals, 13 assists in her senior season) but was converted to outside back with the national team in 2012 and played midfield in the 2015 World Cup. Having a player who can be plugged in anywhere on the field at any given moment is invaluable for Ellis’s team, so the sky is the limit for O’Hara, who is only 26.

Meghan Klingenberg stays. If you haven’t figured it out already, spoiler alert: Hope Solo’s starting defense is staying pat. Klingenberg has come a long way from being an alternate on the 2012 Olympic team; her goal-line save against Sweden was the best defensive play of the World Cup. She’s still young as well- two days older than O’Hara, to be exact.

Julie Johnston stays. The center back is the youngest defender at age 23, and probably the most important one going forward. Johnston replaced Rampone as the starter in February, and the U.S. hasn’t lost since. The team’s opening match of the World Cup against Australia posed its challenges for the young defense, but the group quickly became a juggernaut and will be for years to come as long as Johnston can continue her rapid rise to stardom.

Heather O’Reilly stays. There have been rumblings since the World Cup ended that O’Reilly’s time on the national team will be coming to an end soon, but I don’t see her being left off the Olympic team. The 30-year-old may have only appeared in the China quarterfinal game this World Cup, but her track record and veteran guidance, along with Holiday’s retirement, should keep her around for at least one more tournament.

Carli Lloyd stays. Do I need to go into great detail about this decision? The woman just scored a hat trick in the World Cup Final. The last player to do that was Geoff Hurst of England in the 1966 men’s fnal. Lloyd is only 32 years old and is clearly in excellent shape, so another Olympics and World Cup are in her future.

Megan Rapinoe stays. The 30-year-old star is the facilitator of this team, making everything go by pushing balls forward or attacking the goal herself. Lloyd is the best midfielder, but Rapinoe may be the most valuable. Neither player has shown any signs of quitting the national team yet, and U.S. Soccer is certainly not going to push them out the door.

Tobin Heath stays. Looking at Heath, you’d have no idea that she’s 27 years old and has earned 98 caps with the national team. She has indeed been on the senior team since 2008, however, and the North Carolina alum is a regular starter for the Americans. Heath’s championship pedigree is extremely impressive: three-time NCAA national champion with the Tar Heels, two-time Olympic gold medalist, NWSL champion and now, World Cup champion. Not many players have won seven championships at the age of 27, putting her into elite company. Could two more Olympic gold medals and two more World Cups be in the scrappy midfielder’s future?

Morgan Brian stays. At 22, Brian is the youngest player on the team, but that didn’t stop her from making an immediate impact in the World Cup. As mentioned before, she started in place of Lauren Holiday in the quarterfinal match and never surrendered a starting spot after that. The University of Virginia product can’t even be called a UVA alum yet; she took a break from school this spring due to her soccer schedule but will be back in school this fall and plans to finish off her 27 remaining credits online next year. Brian may be a year behind in school, but that seems to be the only aspect of life she’s behind in- she already has 35 international caps and was the first pick in the 2015 NWSL Draft.

Amy Rodriguez stays. “A-Rod” only played in two games in the World Cup, but you can blame a stacked group of forwards for that. She is only 28, so just like many players, two more Olympic Games and two more World Cups is doable. Rodriguez excels in her role and will provide necessary leadership on this team as she gets older, even if she doesn’t see a lot of time in the next few major tournaments. This simply isn’t the same team without Amy Rodriguez on it; she provides some of the intangibles necessary for a championship team, not to mention a knack for finding the back of the net when given the chance.

Alex Morgan stays. Only an idiot would even think of making an Olympic or World Cup team that doesn’t include Morgan. Forget about the commercials and photo shoots for a second (yes guys, I’m talking to you) and realize the impact Morgan, who is not so much of a “baby horse” anymore, had on this team in the World Cup when she was healthy. She dealt with a knee injury throughout the tournament but had a goal and nearly missed on a few tantalizing chances. She was never 100 percent, but she energized an offense that never really showed its true powers until the final. Morgan will try to avoid future injuries as she becomes the top forward on this team with the departure of Wambach.

Sydney Leroux stays. Leroux’s lack of playing time in her birth country truly showed how deep this team was in the World Cup. A slimmer roster will give the 25-year-old the platform to show why she’s one of the stars on this team. I expect a huge Olympic Games out of the Canadian-born forward, with multiple goals to her name by the end of it.

Christen Press stays. Press flew under the radar in the World Cup, mainly because the casual fans weren’t watching the first game against Australia in which she scored the game-winning goal. In 49 appearances with the senior national team she has scored 21 goals, including a beauty against France in the Algarve Cup when she raced through the defense and made it look easy as she booted the ball into the net. She’s far from a household name yet, but you might want to start paying attention to the Stanford grad; by the time the 2019 World Cup rolls around, she will consistently crack the starting lineup.

By my count, 17 players remain on the team for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. That means one player that is not currently on the team will be added to the squad. That player will be…

Crystal Dunn joins the team. Dunn was the final cut from the U.S. World Cup roster, but she is proving herself in the NWSL this season. The 23-year-old from New Hyde Park, N.Y. leads the league with seven goals and her Washington Spirit team is one point out of first place in the standings. The defender/winger is a versatile player with a nose for the ball who would ease the losses of Rampone and Boxx. Dunn is definitely the frontrunner to be the new addition in Rio.

Agree? Disagree? Drop a comment or tweet me @chuckiemaggio to make your opinion heard!

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