NOTE: This was written before Megan Rapinoe tore up her knee, virtually guaranteeing that she won’t play in the Rio Olympics next summer. With this unexpected vacancy in the midfield, Heather O’Reilly’s stock rises immediately; she is suddenly much more valuable to coach Jill Ellis than she was a week ago.
Since the U.S. women captured the World Cup, four players have retired — from a roster of 23.
If my arithmetic is correct, that’s an attrition rate of more than 17 percent in just five months. Annualized, the departure rate would be almost 41 percent.
That may seem high, but a changing of the guard was expected. And needed. The U.S. team was the oldest in the World Cup, with an average age that exceeded 29. Nine Americans were 30 or older when the tournament started.
Of the four departures so far, only Holiday’s caught fans by surprise. The superb midfielder, at 27, was at the peak of her career when she announced, just two days after the World Cup final, that she was leaving. She and her husband, NBA point guard Jrue Holiday, want to spend more time together.
Boxx, who turned 38 during the World Cup, had been absent from the team for more than a year because of injuries and a pregnancy. When she decided to return, everyone knew was one last run at a championship.
Wambach, 35, made it clear in this video, which first aired on Fox right before the World Cup final, that if Team USA took the title, she’d feel that she had accomplished everything she could as a player:
So who’s next? Who might follow Holiday, Boxx, Chalupny and Wambach out the door?
Here are three reasonable guesses.
She had a change of heart. After the United States won the World Cup, Rampone told The Equalizer that she hoped to suit up in Rio next August.
“If my body holds up I’ll be there,” she said.
That’s a big “if.”
Until this year, Rampone — despite her age — remained one of the fastest, best-conditioned, most dependable players on the team. Her 312 caps are second only to Kristine Lilly’s 352 among all players in the world, past or present, male or female.
But injuries and time have slowed her.
As recently as last year, she was a mainstay of the U.S. team, appearing in 17 of its 24 games, and starting in 14. She logged 1,328 minutes, sixth-highest on the team.
This year, she sat out the first eight games because of various injuries and didn’t make her first appearance until May 17, when she played the second half of a match against Mexico. In all, she’s played in just seven of 23 games in 2015, for a total of 300 minutes. Among players with at least five appearances, only Boxx has fewer minutes (219).
Perhaps most telling was how little she was used in the World Cup. U.S. coach Jill Ellis slipped Rampone in for the closing minutes of two games — for a total of 14 minutes.
One of those appearances was clearly a ceremonial gesture by the coach to honor the longtime captain: Rampone went on in the 86th minute of the final against Japan, with the United States leading 5-2.
At that point, I don’t think Japan could have won if Ellis had pulled her whole team off the field except for Hope Solo and Carli Lloyd.
Upon entering the game , Rampone became the oldest woman ever to play in a World Cup match: 40 years, 11 days old.
Ellis may have thought at the time that the switch was temporary.
Rampone may have thought so, too.
Johnston, who barely made the roster for the World Cup qualifying tournament, surely must have thought so: She was just holding things down until the veteran could return.
That’s not quite how it worked out.
The 23-year-old Johnston has emerged as one of the game’s bright lights. She played every minute of every match in the World Cup and was one of five Americans named to the tournament’s All-Star squad.
Her place in the starting lineup should be secure for years to come.
As a longtime admirer of Christie Rampone’s — and who isn’t? — I’d like to believe there’s a spot for her on the national team if she wants to stick around for one more year. She has more than earned that consideration. Captain America has been — is — an extraordinary player, an exemplary leader, a generous mentor and an idolized role model. A gold medal from the Rio Olympics would be her fourth. (She also has a silver.)
But that’s a sentimental fan talking. With an Olympic roster of just 18 players (compared with 23 for the World Cup), Ellis can’t afford the luxury of sentimentality. There are no free seats that she can hand out as Thank You gifts for past accomplishments.
The coach has said as much in interview after interview: Every roster spot is up for grabs. They will go to the players who earn them, the players who demonstrate that they can help the United States win a gold medal in Rio.
“It’s going to be ultra-competitive,” she told The Guardian.
At most, she thinks she can carry three center backs.
Let’s work with that math.
Assuming that Ellis doesn’t break up the defensive line that was so dominant in the World Cup — and she might, to plug the huge hole that Holiday’s departure creates in midfield — the two starting center backs will be Johnston and Sauerbrunn.
How confident can the coach feel about entrusting that third and final center-back slot to a 41-year-old, one whose fragility has begun to show?
Is Rampone a more dependable choice than say, Whitney Engen, a talented but little-used 28-year-old?
What if keeping one of them automatically means the other won’t make the roster?
No one questions Rampone’s heart. It’s her health that’s become unreliable. The team that wins the gold medal will have to play six games in a little over two weeks. Bench strength could be critical. If Rampone is suddenly needed — if a starter is injured or catches a stomach bug or draws a red card — will her body allow her to do her job?
We don’t know the answer. But I think Christie Rampone will, when the time comes.
And I have faith that when the time comes, she’ll do what’s best for the United States.
The spirited midfielder with the unsettling game face is only 30. But Heather O’Reilly has never found favor in Ellis’ plans, and she’s tumbled down the depth chart.
Not long ago, she was a starter/go-to sub. Now, she rides the pines.
In 2013, O’Reilly played in 14 of the United States’ 16 games and started in 13. Her 1,143 minutes led the team by a wide margin.
In 2014, she played in 22 of 24 games, starting in 10. She slipped to No. 11 in minutes, but still logged a healthy 1,116.
Then came 2015: 10 games, three starts, 331 minutes.
In the World Cup, her only appearance was in the final nine minutes against China.
O’Reilly’s predicament is that she’s a very good midfielder on a team filled with very good midfielders. The things she does best, others do just as well. And some of her fellow mids do things she can’t.
She’s strictly a wing player, known for her pace, her crosses and her ability to push the ball in toward the net.
But she’s not nearly as effective in the middle of the field. And she’s not particularly good at defense, meaning she offers Ellis little at the holding mid position, one the coach has struggled to fill.
Limited to 18 players for the Olympics, Ellis is keenly interested in those who can fill more than one role. As she pares her list, “versatility will come into play,” she told The Guardian.
That’s bad news for O’Reilly, Julie Foudy wrote for ESPNW.
The 23-year-old Dunn was the last player cut by Ellis before the World Cup. She went on to have a sensational season with the Washington Spirit of the National Women’s Soccer League, winning the league’s scoring title and MVP award.
“Even though Heather O’Reilly brings speed and one-on-one ability down the wing, she gets the short straw on this one,” Foudy wrote. “We saw how little Ellis used O’Reilly in the World Cup, and with winger options in Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Kelley O’Hara (and even Dunn if needed), O’Reilly will be on the outside looking in. Plus, Dunn gives you the added versatility of being able to play centrally…”
O’Reilly joined the national team as a high school student 13 years ago. Even though she’s only 30, hers has been a long, and productive career.
At 34, Hope Solo remains the world’s premiere goalkeeper (particularly with the retirement of Germany’s Nadine Angerer). There’s no reason to think Solo wants to leave. But it might not be up to her.
In October, an appellate court in Solo’s home state of Washington reinstated domestic violence charges against her. The misdemeanor charges stem from a drunken, late-night melee in the summer of 2014 involving Solo, her half-sister and a 17-year-old nephew.
The keeper has steadfastly maintained her innocence — any violence on her part, she said, was a matter of self-defense. In January of this year, a week before her trial was to begin, the judge dismissed the case, citing the refusal of Solo’s relatives to comply with court orders.
The dismissal was a godsend for U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati, who had decreed that no sanctions would be imposed against Solo until her criminal case was resolved — since she is, after all, innocent until proven guilty.
Gulati’s decision not to suspend her immediately drew criticism from victims’ advocates, media moralists, even a U.S. senator. They suggested that the U.S. Soccer chief wasn’t nearly as worried about due process and the doctrine of presumed innocence as he was about how Team USA would do in the World Cup without its star goalkeeper. They noted that the National Football League had suspended players accused of domestic abuse without waiting for their cases to wind through the courts. What was good for Ray Rice, they contended, ought to be good for Hope Solo, too. (Never mind that Rice’s actions and Solo’s were comparable only by a difficult stretch of the facts.)
The argument over whether and when to suspend Solo became moot once the case against her was dismissed. Now that it’s back, Gulati could again face pressure to give Solo the hook.
And Solo faces the prospect of a resolution far worse than suspension: She may have to exchange her national team kit for a set of jail denims. That isn’t likely. But it is possible.
On the other hand, it’s possible that she will yet emerge from this mess unscathed, or nearly so. No trial date has been set. Her lawyers continue to raise legal challenges to her prosecution. They maintain that the trial judge was right to dismiss the case, and that the appellate court erred in overturning that judgment.
A plea bargain, while unlikely, isn’t out of the question — although, it must be noted, there has been no hint that a deal is in the works.
Both sides could find benefit in an agreement that A) spared the state the expense of a trial and lengthy appeals (as well as the potential embarrassment of losing after targeting a high-profile celebrity); and B) enabled Solo to avoid jail time by pleading guilty or no contest to a lesser, nonviolent offense (while avoiding the embarrassment of detailed, unflattering trial testimony about her behavior on the booze-infused night in question).
Solo is an even bigger superstar in Washington than she is everywhere else — she was a three-time All-American at the University of Washington, and her club team is the Seattle Reign. She could offer, as part of a plea deal, to lend her voice to the struggle against domestic abuse, through personal appearances, PSAs, and so forth.
Even if she is made to stand trial, Solo, of course, could be acquitted. To the limited extent that she has discussed the case publicly — either directly or through her lawyer— her version of events differs fundamentally from that of her accusers. And neither side comes across as saintly.
For example, if called to the witness stand, Solo’s half-sister and nephew would be questioned about their acknowledgement that they destroyed physical evidence and about how their stories became embellished over time.
Testimony would also show that all parties, including Solo, sustained physical injuries in the confrontation; that all admitted to having thrown, and landed, blows; that Solo and her nephew taunted one other with vulgar insults (according to police reports obtained by TMZ, Solo called her nephew a “p*ssy” and he told her to “get her c*nt face out of my house.”); and that the nephew at one point threatened Solo with a gun.
Who can say which witness or witnesses a jury would find most credible, and which would come across as shifty? Who can say whether the prosecution or the defense would present its case more convincingly? (Solo’s principal lawyer, Todd Maybrown, is a name partner in one of Seattle’s top criminal defense firms, and, by all accounts, very skillful.)
So maybe she prevails if she has her day in court.
Or maybe not.
As long as the charges hang over Solo, she and U.S. Soccer have to be prepared for the worst possible outcome: A conviction and time behind bars. Each of the two counts she faces carries a maximum penalty of a year in jail.
If Solo were incarcerated, she’d have bigger problems, certainly, than missing the 2016 Olympics.
But miss them she could.
“It is common for a judge to sentence a first-time offender to probation or a suspended sentence,” says a fact sheet from a Seattle law firm that specializes in assault cases.
“However,” it warns, “the court is always free to sentence a defendant all the way up to the maximum penalty.”
Whatever sentence the court imposed, U.S. Soccer would have little choice but to suspend its star goalkeeper. Since Solo’s arrest, Gulati’s public stance has been that he would await the judgment of the courts before acting. The political and public-relations repercussions would be devastating if, having heard that judgment, he let her off with a tap on the wrist.
Whether a suspension would keep her out of the Olympics would depend, of course, on its duration and effective date. Maybe everything could be neatly wrapped up in time for a chastised, remorseful Solo to accompany her teammates to Rio next August.
Or maybe not.
And maybe, just maybe, it would become a punishment from which there was no return.
Solo turns 35 on July 30, 2016. That’s six days before the start of the Rio Games.
Where and under what circumstances she spends that birthday may well be beyond her control.