Thanks to Megan Rapinoe’s torn ACL and Lauren Holiday’s retirement, the U.S. women’s team heads for the Olympic qualifying tournament — and, presumably, the 2016 Olympics — without two of the finest midfielders ever to wear the crest.
With different strengths and very different styles, Holiday and Rapinoe are game-changers, players who could — and often did — make the difference between a win and a draw, or a draw and a loss.
Well, as they say at Notre Dame, “Next man in.”
That was exactly the sentiment expressed by coach Jill Ellis when she talked about the loss of Rapinoe.
“All of her teammates know that one of the strengths of this team is depth,” Ellis said, “and everyone in the player pool is prepared to step up as we continue to prepare for Olympic qualifying.”
The Americans have been here before — less than six months ago — and they responded like champions.
At the World Cup this summer, Rapinoe and Holiday were both suspended from the team’s quarterfinal match against China. Each had accumulated two yellow cards in earlier games.
The loss of two world-class midfielders could have derailed the Americans’ quest for the Cup. Both had started in every game up to that point, and Holiday had not missed a minute of the tournament.
Rapinoe had two goals, both in the opening game against Australia, when the U.S. attack otherwise mostly fell flat. (The Americans won 3-1.)
Against Nigeria, Rapinoe delivered a flawless corner service to Abby Wambach, who volleyed the ball in for the game’s only score. That victory clinched first place for Team USA in the group stage.
Ellis turned to Kelley O’Hara and Morgan Brian to fill in for her suspended stars against China.
Brian, at 22, was the youngest player on the team.
O’Hara hadn’t yet made an appearance in the World Cup, and she hadn’t started in a game in more than three months. (Moreover, when she did play, she was normally a defender.)
Next man in.
The U.S. team turned in its best performance of the tournament up to that point, winning 1-0 on a Carli Lloyd header in the 51st minute.
The match was not as close as the score. The Americans controlled the flow of the game, possessing the ball 56 percent of the time and thwarting China’s would-be attack at every turn.
The U.S. women launched 17 shots, compared with six (and only two on goal) for the Chinese. Hope Solo never touched a ball in play until the closing minutes.
Brian played back, allowing Lloyd to roam forward. The youngster, playing with a composure beyond her years, calmly snuffed out any effort by China to advance the ball up the middle.
O’Hara was a dynamo, covering ground like a woman possessed, pestering the Chinese on the ball, diving to take headers, nutmegging one-on-one defenders, winning 50-50 balls all over the pitch. When she came off in the 61st minute, her nose was swollen and bruised, and she was bleeding from both nostrils.
She didn’t care.
“Her engine was something that we needed out there,” Ellis said after the game.
As a bench player who knows she could be called on at any time, O’Hara said, “you just have to show up for practice, be professional, work your ass off -– sorry, butt -– and be ready. Be the best teammate you can be, be the best player you can be.”
Next man in.
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