For the USWNT’s veteran core, Tokyo Olympics provide one last hurrah

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Jesse Louie/Just Women's Sports

When Alex Morgan announced her pregnancy shortly after the USWNT won the 2019 World Cup, fans were equally excited for the new mother as they were nervous she might not make it back in time for the then-2020 Tokyo Olympics. The question at the time was whether Morgan’s new venture into motherhood would create a space on the Olympic roster for Carli Lloyd, who despite limited playing time in France, had no intention of taking her foot off the gas.

Fast forward two years and one coronavirus pandemic later, and we have both Morgan and Lloyd in peak condition, heading to Tokyo with the USWNT. It turns out Lloyd didn’t need any circumstantial luck to claim her spot as the oldest player in USWNT history to make an Olympic team.

While 38-year-old Lloyd is leading the way with the supervet status, players like Morgan and Tobin Heath are also entering the later stages of their national team careers. For those of us who can still vividly recall seeing these players first set foot on the pitch as young, up-and-coming superstars, it’s strange to see them in this light. But time flies when you’re winning World Cups and Olympic golds (we won’t talk about Rio in 2016), not to mention leading a global charge for equal pay.

With head coach Vlatko Andonovski opting to give all but one Tokyo roster spot to a 2019 World Cup returner, we now have the chance to watch this USWNT veteran core in what could be their final major tournament together. Fittingly enough, they’ll be attempting to make history once again, as the only team to ever win a World Cup and an Olympics back-to-back.

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The USWNT’s Olympic roster is the most experienced in recent history, and possibly ever. The average age for the 2019 World Cup squad was 28. With 17 of the 18 players on the Tokyo roster having also played in France (the one addition being 30-year-old Kristie Mewis), it’s no surprise that the average age of this roster is now 30+. And with age comes experience: The average number of international caps per player is 111. At the last Olympics, that number was 77.

Six of the eighteen have been playing together for the USWNT since before the 2012 London Olympics: Becky Sauerbrunn, Megan Rapinoe, and Kelley O’Hara, along with Morgan, Lloyd, and Heath. When you add in Alyssa Naeher, Christen Press, and Julie Ertz, who all got called up ahead of the 2015 World Cup, you have half of the Tokyo roster who are entering their fourth major international tournament together.

As much as we’d love to see this group defy mother nature and continue on the roster indefinitely, the reality is it’s extremely unlikely that we’ll see all nine on the 2023 World Cup roster.

The number of talented up-and-comers ready to break onto the team continues to grow, and while Andonovski may have opted for experience this time around, it’s unlikely that’ll happen again in two years.

Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images

Catarina Macario, the latest version of the USWNT’s “Next Big Thing,” is headed to Tokyo as an alternate, and with a recent rule change that allows alternates to be moved on and off the official roster for each game, she has a solid chance of getting actual playing time. At her current trajectory, she’s a shoe-in for 2023.

Other up-and-comers include Margaret (Midge) Purce, who many were shocked didn’t at least get an alternate spot for Tokyo; Alana Cook, a four-year Stanford starter who just signed a three-year deal with OL Reign; Sophia Smith, the top overall pick in the 2020 NWSL draft; Lynn Williams, who made the Olympic roster as an alternate; and Andi Sullivan, the Washington Spirit captain who joined the USWNT for matches against Sweden and France this past April.

And let’s not forget Mallory Pugh, who, despite not being in the Olympics conversation, is still just 23 years old.

While it’s unavoidable that older players eventually retire and younger players come in, there is a noticeable trend that over time the USWNT average age and experience continues to inch upward as we make advancements in medicine, training, recovery, etc. One illustration of this is the fact that Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Joy Fawcett were all just 32-34 years old when they retired in 2004. Carli Lloyd (38), Becky Sauerbrunn (36), Megan Rapinoe (36), Tobin Heath (33) and Alyssa Naeher (33) are all older than Mia Hamm when she retired at 32, and they’ll all likely be starting games at the Olympics.

Bill Connelly at ESPN looked at the USWNT’s average age weighted by percentage of minutes played and found that the World Cup weighted average age increased gradually from 23.1 in 1991 to 28.7 in 2019. What has yet to be determined is the upper limit of that trend. This summer, we will all be along for the ride as this star-studded cast gets another chance to push another boundary in what will likely be the last hurrah for one of soccer’s greatest generations.

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