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Meet the United States women’s 2020 Olympic soccer team, same as the United States 2019 Women’s World Cup team. Or largely, anyway.
If all goes as it should, the American women will qualify for the 2020 Summer Games on Friday with a win over Mexico in the semifinals of the 2020 CONCACAF Women's Olympic Qualifying Championship. Which, by the way, begs the question why there will be a title game on Sunday, since it isn’t an actual championship but a qualifying event and there is no prize other than an Olympic berth for the winning semifinalists.
While the team has a new coach in the Macedonian-American Vlatko Andonovski, it looks remarkably similar to that of Jill Ellis, who left the job late last year after a second straight World Cup title.
In December, Andonovski held an identification camp in Florida, inviting 24 players who hadn’t made the 2019 World Cup roster to do his due diligence, to get a better sense of the player pool. Yet when it came time for the new head coach to submit his roster for this qualifying tournament, 18 of the 20 names on it had also been to the World Cup. And of the two who didn’t go to France – Andi Sullivan and Lynn Williams – neither had been part of the identification camp and both were well into double-digits in caps prior to the tournament.
Which is to say that the national team has stayed much the same. Even Alex Morgan, the star striker seven months pregnant with her first child, has actually been practicing with the team in Southern California, in a feat more impressive than anything her peers have done in actual competition.
That also means that, absent the 30-year-old Morgan, the national team is anchored by veterans very much in the last flush of their careers. Carli Lloyd, now leading the line, will be 38 by the time the Olympics begin, although her conditioning remains irreproachable. The defense is still anchored by Becky Sauerbrunn and the revived Ali Krieger, who are 34 and 35, respectively. Megan Rapinoe, who provides much of the creative impetus, will be 35 in Tokyo. Even the sparkplugs Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Kelley O’Hara all turn 32 this year.
A young team this is not.
Certainly, there isn’t time to rebuild a team between the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics. Such is the nature of the women’s international cycle that the two major tournaments fall in back-to-back summers, followed by almost three years of nothing other than friendly tournaments and a single and typically unchallenging World Cup qualifying event.
Ellis ran into much the same quandary. She was appointed a year out from the World Cup and had no time to shape her team until after the Rio Olympics, almost a year and a half later. Only then could she begin cutting players who were aging or didn’t fit her vision, and integrate new ones and introduce her ideas.
But what rankles about this roster is that not so long ago, the impression of this team was of a young, talented bunch with a future every bit as rosy as the recent past. Yet the attacking prodigy Mallory Pugh and upstart defender Tierna Davidson, both 21 years old, were left off the qualifying roster, as was 26-year-old midfielder Morgan Brian.
The latter decision was understandable, considering the logjam in central midfield and the similar age of her competitors. Pugh, however, was supposed to be the future of this team. And her omission meant there is no player on the team younger than 24. Fully half of it is 31 or older. Only the midfield is young, with Sullivan, Julie Ertz, Rose Lavelle, Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan all between 24 and 27 years of age.
The trouble with that is the Olympics force the two finalists to play six games in just 17 days. And the roster is much smaller than at the World Cup – 18, instead of 23. The tournament will scatter its games all over Japan, but it’ll be warm in all of them in July and August.
The Olympics weren’t pretty for the Americans in 2016, in the aftermath of a first World Cup title in 16 years. In Brazil, the group stage was a slog. And then they were eliminated by a well-organized Swedish team – the “cowards” in Hope Solo’s famous putdown – in the quarterfinals. It was the first time the Americans hadn’t reached the final at the Olympics, after four gold medals and a silver.
There still isn’t a country that has won Olympic gold the year after winning the World Cup. Judging from this qualifying tournament, the Americans seem to be betting on veteran experience, at the expense of youth, to become the first.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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