Forget everything you thought you knew about who would represent the U.S. women’s national team at the Tokyo Olympics.
With the Olympic Games now officially pushed back to 2021, the dynamic of the USWNT squad is poised to shift dramatically. Players who were seeking a storybook ending to their career may never get the chance. Others who seemed to have almost no shot at a ticket to Japan are on even keel.
If the USWNT’s Olympic roster was destined to mostly resemble a 2019 World Cup redux, that possibility feels much further away now.
Retirement looming on the USWNT
Why would a one-year delay to the second-biggest event in women’s soccer affect the USWNT so much? Simply put, some of the USWNT’s key players are near the end of their careers, and the 2020 Olympics were probably going to be their last hurrah.
The USWNT fielded the oldest team by average age at the 2019 World Cup in France. Sure, the USWNT also had the oldest squad four years prior at the 2015 World Cup – but after it ended, six players retired. This time around, the Olympics were poised to be the pre-retirement tournament for many players.
Carli Lloyd, who has essentially taken Alex Morgan’s job since Morgan got pregnant, will be 39 years old by the summer of 2021. Megan Rapinoe, who tore her way through France, will be 36. Becky Sauerbrunn, the anchor of the backline and a key veteran, will also be 36. Ali Krieger, a dependable defensive backup, will be 37.
Age, of course, is just a number.
Just look at former USWNT center back Christie Pearce Rampone. She initially planned to retire after the 2012 Olympics at 37 but, without any younger players taking her spot, she represented the USWNT until age 41. When the USWNT won the World Cup in 2015, she became the oldest woman to play in a World Cup final.
Another USWNT icon, Kristine Lilly, retired at 39. She holds the iron woman record for most USWNT caps – and most caps of any player in the world, male or female – at a stunning 352 international appearances.
But players like Rampone and Lilly are notable because they are exceptions. Most players around the world retire by the time they reach 30 – and although USWNT players tend to skew older, they aren’t invincible.
It’s not just that players slow down or have less endurance as they age. They may also become more injury prone, as anyone over the age of 30 can probably attest.
It’s not fair to rule anyone out just because of their birthdate, but the extra year until the Olympics certainly raises new possibilities for how coach Vlatko Andonovski might shake up the USWNT.
The Carli Lloyd question
If there’s one player whose retirement has become a hot topic, it’s Carli Lloyd – and that’s partially because Lloyd herself has openly addressed it.
Quickly after the announcement that the Tokyo Olympics had been postponed, Lloyd made the rounds, expressing support for the decision and announcing her own intention to delay plans to retire.
“I was going to take it to this summer’s Olympics and then see where I was mentally and physically,” she told the LA Times on Tuesday. “I wasn’t sure when I would officially retire. So now I have the opportunity to stick around another year and it would be a dream come true to win gold with my teammates.”
“That would be satisfying enough for me to officially retire.”
Her latest comments seem to signal that she and Andonovski are on the same page as far as the role she should play.
Last year, before a new USWNT coach had been named, she essentially said she’d rather retire than ride the bench and play a non-role at the Olympics.
“I hope a coach comes in that values me, respects me, wants me a part of the Olympic plans,” Lloyd told the podcast Laughter Permitted. “There’s no question that my ability’s there. Physically I’m able to do it. I’d love to be a part of it, but I want to have an open, honest conversation because if I’m not, I can’t go through what I went through for three years.
Asked if she would keep playing for the USWNT if she was coming off the bench at the Olympics, Lloyd replied: “No, because I honestly believe that I deserve be out there and I’m good enough to be out there. Different story if a coach says ‘Hey, you’re old, you’re good for 20-30 minutes, you cool with that?’ Then maybe I’d be like ‘Alright, yeah’ but the way that I feel I’m playing, I can definitely have an impact.”
It appears that conversation has happened. Since Andonovski took over the USWNT in November, Lloyd has been in his plans for the future.
“I didn’t want to look at age – whether they are old or not,” Andonovski said before Olympic qualifying in February. “It was about whether they can do it or not, whether they are good or not. Carli Lloyd certainly proved that she is good enough.”
With two goals and three assists in six appearances in 2020, including one each against England at the SheBelieves Cup, Lloyd still has value to give.
Alex Morgan becomes a near-lock
The complicating factor for Lloyd, however, is that lately she has essentially filled the spot of Alex Morgan, who is pregnant.
Morgan, who is due to give birth to her first child in April, was staring down a short turnaround to play in a July 2020 Olympics. Not all players have been able to bounce back from pregnancy so quickly and if Morgan couldn’t have made the roster, Lloyd would’ve been a shoo-in.
Now, it appears Morgan will be a lock for the Tokyo roster.
A revised date for the Tokyo Olympics has not yet been set, but it probably won’t be until the summer of 2021, which gives Morgan plenty time to get back to full fitness and game sharpness. When Morgan is in shape, she’s the best striker the USWNT has.
Lloyd can absolutely still make the roster, even with Morgan on it – but it will be far more difficult.
The Olympic roster has just 16 field player spots, too few for Andonovski to bring any player he doesn’t think is capable of starting and contributing significantly.
For the World Cup, which had 20 field player spots, coach Jill Ellis had a forward-heavy roster with relatively few defenders. If Andonovski goes with a more balanced approach for his smaller roster, there could be a few as two strikers at the Olympics, which means Lloyd would need to fend off challenges from players like Lynn Williams and Jessica McDonald, or a bubble forward who can play across multiple positions, like Mallory Pugh.
Lloyd has a proven track record of ratcheting up her form ahead of big tournaments, and she’s been clutch in high-stakes games. But now there’s a whole year for someone to edge past her.
Will the defense skew younger?
The part of the roster that skews oldest traditionally, other than goalkeeper, is the back line. Depending on how a team plays, it can be less demanding in defense, with less of an emphasis on speed and endurance.
Thus, questions about whether Carli Lloyd or Megan Rapinoe will still be in top form in 2021 are more urgent. But it’s still worth asking: Will the back line shed some of its veteran presence?
The USWNT has two solid center backs who emerged in only the last couple years thanks to a relentless search by former coach Jill Ellis. First, there’s 26-year-old Abby Dahlkemper, whose long-ball distribution is something of a specialty on the back line. Then there’s Tierna Davidson, who at 21 already displays the composure and awareness of a veteran.
Becky Sauerbrunn, 34, started at the World Cup in a tandem with Dahlkemper. Lately, it hasn’t appeared that will change.
But if Davidson is the future of the USWNT and someone who figures to anchor the back line for years to come, at what point does Andonovski make that switch? Does a 2021 Olympics pass that point?
The outside back spot raises similar questions, especially given the attacking and highly demanding profile for USWNT fullbacks. Both Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara figure to be the starters, even if they could be effective in other positions on the field, but who will back them up?
Ali Krieger, 35, was shock addition to the World Cup roster that Ellis apparently added due to her experience. Does Andonovski value tournament experience as much, or could 29-year-old Casey Short grab a spot?
Right now, there aren’t any other good options. But an extra year gives Andonovski time to shake every tree and turn over every stone to find someone else.
After all, Julie Ertz only became a starter for the USWNT as a center back three months before the 2015 World Cup, and she went on to play almost every minute of the tournament and be named to the tournament’s best XI by FIFA’s technical committee.
With an extra year, a lot can change.
Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.
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