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2016 Rio Olympics

Long way to Rio: Making sense of latest USWNT roster

USWNT coach Jill Ellis selected her 20-player roster for qualifying, but the Olympics are still a long way out. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

USWNT coach Jill Ellis selected her 20-player roster for qualifying, but the Olympics are still a long way out. (Photo Copyright Erica McCaulley for The Equalizer)

The United States women’s national team’s 2015 Olympic qualifying roster is out, and the injection of youth along with the omission of veteran midfielder Heather O’Reilly has U.S. fans buzzing.

Jill Ellis’ 20-player roster for next month’s tournament is considerably younger and more forward-thinking than any assembly of players seen in a U.S. uniform in her tenure as coach. Some of that is by force: Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny retired; Christie Rampone and Megan Rapinoe are injured; Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux are pregnant. Add that to O’Reilly and Whitney Engen being cut and only 13 players of the 23 on the team which won the U.S. the World Cup are on this qualifying roster.

So what does all of this mean?

This isn’t the Olympics roster

I know, ‘duh’ — each team can only carry 18 players (a ridiculously low amount for such a compact tournament) at the Olympics and there are 20 players on this qualifying roster. (This is also the point at which players remind us that the No. 1-ranked Americans and three-time defending Olympic gold medalists still have to qualify, however heavily favored they may be to win the tournament.) But what is important to remember is that even this group of 20 is not necessarily the final 20, with two of them needing to be cut. Rapinoe is trying to recover from a torn ACL in time for the Olympics. Rampone is still fighting for a spot. And yes, O’Reilly is still very much in the mix. If anything, Ellis may have decided that she has a complete assessment of O’Reilly and needs to see more of 17-year-old Mallory Pugh — who scored in her first appearance on Saturday — and 22-year-old Stephanie McCaffrey, two forwards who are on the bubble for the Olympics but who have very little game experience. O’Reilly is the seventh-most capped U.S. player in history and she just set a U.S. women’s national team fitness record four days after her 31st birthday. Remember when Julie Johnston didn’t make the World Cup qualifying roster, only to become one of the most important players at the World Cup last year? There’s a long time until the Games kick off in Rio, and plenty still has to happen.

[MORE: Alex Morgan scores 57th goal in 100th career USWNT cap]

The kids are alright

Eight of the 20 players on this qualifying roster have eight caps or fewer. Pugh is the youngest player to ever be named to a U.S. Olympic qualifying roster, per U.S. Soccer. Sonnett seems to have assumed the role of No. 3 center back, for now, beating out Engen and presently injured Rampone. Lindsey Horan is now a fixture in midfield, having started four of the past five games for Ellis in a more-withdrawn-than-usual role. And Mewis has fought her way into this conversation after her first start and full-90 under Ellis. The most interesting player to keep an eye on could be 22-year-old defender Jaelene Hinkle, who has quickly earned a significant number of looks from Ellis after a strong rookie year with the Western New York Flash in NWSL. Hinkle is a a left-footed left back, a rare find at any level of soccer and a combination which coaches are often eager to take utilize.

But Hinkle’s positions on this U.S. team are really left back, left back and left back. That leads to one last and important point…

The bubble and the all-important versatility

This current U.S. team is very different from the one which won the 2012 Olympic gold medal. New coach, for one, but also a largely new batch of players in a different system than Pia Sundhage’s 4-4-2. But for comparison’s sake, Sundhage brought six defenders, five midfielders and five forwards to the 2012 Games. That’s how they were officially listed, anyway. Lauren Holiday (then Cheney) was listed as a forward but played in the midfield. Kelley O’Hara played ever minute at fullback but could have played anywhere — and she still can, which is a major advantage for her heading toward Rio.

“With only 17 field players allowed on the roster, and minimal time in between matches, I think we have one of the most versatile rosters ever for a qualifying tournament,” Ellis said of her qualifying roster. “Most of the field players are capable of playing at least two positions and as CONCACAF competitions generally present teams that will sit low and get numbers behind the ball, it is important to have players that can individually and collectively break teams down to create chances.”

There’s that word again: versatility. Crystal Dunn thrived as a forward in 2015, winning NWSL MVP honors. But she is more than capable at fullback, if needed. Christen Press is best-suited as a striker but has played on the wing most of the past two years and can fill that hybrid role. Horan can play anywhere from holding mid up to striker, and on Saturday Ellis even gave Ali Krieger a look at center back for a large portion of the second half. As previously reported, Krieger trained there some during January with both Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston battling injuries. So Ellis’ final decisions could come down to versatility vs. specific needs. Does she feel that she needs a left-footed left-back in Hinkle? A super fit, right-sided winger in O’Reilly? Another central midfielder in Mewis? Or does Ellis bring O’Hara, knowing the player can fill in at fullback, forward (suddenly a thin position) or on the wing (her best position). That’s not to mention that with Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez pregnant, the pathway to Rio is that much more open for either McCaffrey or Pugh. Oh, and did we mention that Rapinoe might be just healthy enough just in time for Olympic rosters to be due? Decisions, decisions, decisions….

[MORE: Canada looks toward future with young additions to Olympic qualifying roster]

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