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USWNT: Three questions after Olympic disappointment

Mallory Pugh (2) figures to be a big part of the U.S. women's team for many years to come. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Mallory Pugh (2) figures to be a big part of the U.S. women’s team for many years to come. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

Now a full weekend has gone by since the United States’ shocking exit from the Olympics in the quarterfinals against Sweden. In truth, the loss shouldn’t be so shocking as the cracks in the foundation were seen prior to the team getting bounced on penalty kicks (namely, the shoddy goalkeeping in the Colombia game and the inability to play through central midfield in the game against France).

As the post-mortem of the team’s tournament continues, the question becomes where does the team go from here?  The loss will certainly impact the team’s battle with the U.S. Soccer Federation when the collective bargaining agreement expires as well as NWSL, which from a marketing perspective, was unquestionably banking on the U.S. at least placing in the games. These questions are far from the only ones to consider. Here are three more issues that many will ponder following the loss to Sweden.

1. Veterans Want A Shot At Redemption

After the stinging loss to Japan in penalty kicks in World Cup in 2011, some members of the team decided to give it a go for another cycle. And that’s after a second place finish. How could anyone blame the aging players on the current roster from feeling similarly after the worst finish in a major tournament in the team’s 31-year history?

{LAULETTA: Five reasons the Olympics are over for the USWNT}

Five members of the roster for the Rio games are over 30 now and the majority of the eighteen will be 30 or older by the time the next Word Cup rolls around. While athletes can certainly play at a high level past 30, there are obvious concerns about an aging roster even though the U.S. answered critics at the 2015 World Cup.

While it’s impossible to know how many players will feel this way or how many players will change their career plans based on the failure in Rio, it undoubtedly will change the course of the team. How does Head Coach Jill Ellis balance the need of the squad to move forward while respecting the players that helped her raise the World Cup trophy last year?  Of course, when speaking about the future of veterans on the U.S. team, Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux, who missed the Rio games while adding to their respective families, shouldn’t be forgotten.  It will be a difficult balancing act to be sure for Ellis.

2) Integrating Youth Into The Team

After seeing the success of Mallory Pugh, many are eager to see the integration of more youth into the side. While Pugh is one-of-a-kind, there are certainly other players both in the NCAA and NWSL ranks who could be of value to Ellis as she continues to transition from the old “long ball” style of play to a more modern, technical style. In Brazil, the growing pains of progression were certainly noticeable, much like an awkward teenager trying to adapt to the myriad changes adolescence brings.

For the USWNT, winning has been the only acceptable outcome of tournaments for essentially the entirety of the team’s existence. In order to continue to progress and play a style that is more conducive to competing at major tournaments in the years to come, more time and patience on the part of U.S. Soccer will be required.  The need for patience, of course, increases when you bring in new personnel. How quickly does Ellis begin looking at new players? Which areas of the field does she focus on in doing so?

{MORE: Solo calls Sweden cowards | U.S. fans use dog photos in effort to console Press}

The obvious answer to the second question will be outside back and central midfield, adjudging from Brazil. Western New York’s Jaelene Hinkle has already seen time with the full team and Chicago’s speedy outside back pairing of Arin Gilliland and Casey Short would also be worthy of a look given Ellis’ stated preferences for that position.

Central midfield is where it gets a bit tricky. Clearly, France dominated the midfield in the second game of the tournament. If the U.S. is to win battles in the center of the park against the top tier teams,  more technical, cerebral players in the midfield will be needed. Here, it might make more sense for Ellis to go younger. Rose Lavelle, who’s in her final year at Wisconsin, and has already seen some time with the full national team, could be an option. Andi Sullivan, a junior at Stanford, could be another player for Ellis to take a look at. Sullivan would allow Morgan Brian to return to her natural attacking midfield position.

In NWSL, Chicago’s Danielle Colaprico could get another look with the national team. While she won Rookie of the Year honors last year as a defensive midfielder, she played almost every conceivable midfield position superbly while at the University of Virginia. Moreover, her ability to take set pieces could make her a valuable asset to the team moving forward.

Of course, the players listed here are far from an all-encompassing list and  it may be a bit premature to predict how Ellis and U.S. Soccer decide to move forward from a personnel standpoint. It is, however, worth some consideration.

3) Pressure on the Youth Teams

For the last several cycles, the U.S. has failed to find success at the youth level, with the last youth World Cup title coming in the 2012 U-20 World Cup.  While the youth national teams aren’t perhaps as results focused as the full team given that the primary purpose of youth national to help mold the talent that will fill the full team ranks in the future, the results of recent youth teams have disappointing.

To recap, the 2012 U-17 team was bounced from the World Cup on goal differential, while in 2014, the U-17 team failed to qualify after falling to Mexico on penalty kicks during the CONCACAF qualifying tournament. In August 2014, the U-20 team failed to advance past the quarterfinals, where they lost to North Korea on penalty kicks (you sensing a pattern here regarding penalties yet?).

{CURREN: Things learned from U.S.’s shocking quarterfinal loss to Sweden}

The U.S. will have two chances to turn recent results around this fall starting with U-17 World Cup this October in Jordan, followed by U-20 World Cup this November-December in Papua New Guinea.

In the last couple of years, US Soccer has invested money in bolstering the girls/women’s development program. Surely, the powers that be in US Soccer will want to see a return on that investment. Will the federation be more desirous of a youth title this fall after the full team’s plunge off the medal stand in Rio?

These and many other questions will be debated and discussed for weeks and months to come. Albeit penalty kicks are a cruel way to lose in soccer, the USWNT enters a new world following Friday’s exit. In uncharted waters, how does the team, the staff, and federation respond?

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