The U.S. women's national team's Women's World Cup triumph is still fresh, but a year from Monday, the women's soccer tournament at the 2020 Olympics will begin, and at some point sooner than later, the focus will have to shift from celebration to preparation.
No team has ever won the Women's World Cup and then followed it up immediately with Olympic gold. In fact, four years ago, when the U.S. was in the same position, it wound up with its worst performance at an Olympics ever, a quarterfinal exit to Sweden on penalties. So while the U.S. stands atop the world, there's still a frontier left to conquer.
Provided the U.S. qualifies for Tokyo 2020, it will be joining a 12-team field that's already half filled out. There's host Japan; European qualifiers Great Britain, Netherlands and Sweden (due to UEFA's nonsensical "qualifying process" that rewarded the continent's top three finishers at the World Cup with Olympic berths. Spain and France can't qualify because their World Cup path included the USA in the early knockout rounds? Sure...); Copa America 2018 winner Brazil; and Oceania Nations Cup 2018 winner New Zealand. Two places will go to Concacaf, two will go to Asia, one will go to Africa and a final one will go to an Africa-South America playoff winner (Chile, by virtue of its runner-up finish at Copa America 2018, will take part) to complete the field.
It will be a challenging field, certainly, but after rolling through what was billed as the most competitive and deepest Women's World Cup field ever, the U.S. will surely enter as the favorite.
There's one big question that needs to be sorted and will be soon. Manager Jill Ellis's contract expires at the end of the month, though there's an option to extend her through the Olympics before determining her long-term future. If she remains in charge, then it's less likely that there would be sweeping roster changes. If she elects to go out with her second straight World Cup trophy, then her successor–and remember, there's a USWNT general manager entering the picture, too–could wind up crafting things quite differently.
Olympic rosters are unique, in that 18 players go instead of the 23 that typically get brought to tournament play. With that comes some tough decisions and ones that put an even greater emphasis on versatility, given the shortened squads.
Presuming that Ellis stays on, here are the players she could bring to Japan to tie up the one loose end from her tenure as manager. For comparison sake, on her 2016 Olympic squad, 14 of the 18 players were on the World Cup team the year prior. Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Allie Long and Mal Pugh were the newcomers. Absent international retirements, though, there doesn't figure to be as much change this time around:
Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
Naeher would likely go in as the preferred starter after her stable showing in France, while Franch, 28, would be a more logical candidate as the backup than Ashlyn Harris, 33–though that might put a damper on the post-medal celebrations, should the U.S. win it all. Jane Campbell, 24, is another one to watch if the U.S. wants to groom a long-term solution. She's fresh off preserving a win for the Houston Dash by saving a Pugh penalty.
Abby Dahlkemper (NC Courage), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Crystal Dunn (NC Courage), Becky Sauerbrunn (Utah Royals), Kelley O'Hara (Utah Royals)
The core of the Women's World Cup unit that conceded just three goals in France should return, though that's all given that health is in order. O'Hara has battled various ailments in recent years, and while she was good to go for the World Cup, her situation will merit watching over the next 12 months.
Any injury could open the door for someone else, and should Ellis look to reinforce her defensive options regardless (and thus cut back on the attacking end), then World Cup reserve right back Emily Sonnett, left back Casey Short and right back Merritt Mathias could be options to augment the back line. In 2016, Ellis took six defenders, but Julie Ertz's ability to play center back could give her something to think about in regard to her roster construction.
Julie Ertz (Chicago Red Stars), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (Washington Spirit), Sam Mewis (NC Courage), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)
The top four options here no-brainers, as they'll make up the core of the national team's midfield for the next World Cup cycle. Ertz's versatility and ability to play in the back only increases her already sky-high value. That leaves room for one minor surprise. Ellis opted to bring Morgan Brian to the World Cup despite her relative lack of inclusion in the build-up to France. That kept the 23-year-old Sullivan on the outside looking in as one of the chief roster snubs, but with an eye on integrating at least one new, younger face into the squad, perhaps this is where it happens.
Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns), Carli Lloyd (Sky Blue FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Megan Rapione (Seattle Reign), Christen Press (Utah Royals), Mal Pugh (Washington Spirit)
This is where it gets a bit tricky. Does the U.S. need six forwards–a third of the roster–at this competition? Or is that leaning too far into the luxury the Americans possess, especially when shoehorned-left-back Dunn is an attacking star by trade? It's hard to leave any of these six out, even the now-37-year-old Lloyd, who remains the best second option at the head of the attacking spear behind Morgan. If she chooses to keep herself eligible for selection and not retire after what she called a difficult experience as a reserve in France and a "tough two years" in the lead-in, Ellis would be hard-pressed to omit her.
Beyond Lloyd, this is an aging group altogether. Rapinoe, the World Cup's golden ball and golden boot winner, just turned 34, though she has been unequivocal about her desire to play on at the Olympics. Heath will be 32 next summer, while Morgan and Press will be 31. At a certain point, the balance between present contributions and building for the future comes into play. For that latter trio, though, it's not quite yet their time.
That brings us to Pugh, who hardly played in France but did manage to get in on the scoring barrage against Thailand. There's clear value in bringing the 21-year-old and building her experience and exposure, even if she's the fourth option on the wing. As her older teammates hit the downside of their careers, she's going to need to take on a heavier burden at some point.
All in all, if there's a place where a shock occurs and a major name is left out, this is it.