There wasn’t a lot of suspense* about who would and who would not make the cut when U.S. coach Jill Ellis got out her pencil and picked her 2016 Olympic team. (Full roster at the end of this post.)
Would the backup goalkeeper be Ashlyn Harris or Alyssa Naeher? (Not that either would spend a minute in the net as long as Hope Solo stayed healthy.)
Would the last defender to make the squad be Whitney Engen or Emily Sonnett? (Not that either would seize much of a role in preserving the rock-solid defense that helped make Team USA dominant in the 2015 World Cup.)
And would Megan Rapinoe, fighting her way back from injury, make it?
All those questions were answered on Tuesday:
Naeher. Engen. And Pinoe’s headed to Brazil.
The colorful, creative midfielder underwent surgery after tearing up her right knee on Dec. 4 while training with the team in Hawaii on a crappy field provided by U.S. Soccer.
For Pinoe and Ellis — who both started thinking about the 2016 Olympics the day after the 2015 World Cup ended — the timing of the injury produced seven months of uncertainty.
Both of them knew that Rapinoe, who turned 31 on July 5, would eventually be back.
What they couldn’t know was when.
The doctors’ optimistic estimates had her barely healed in time for the Rio Games.
More conservative estimates had her barely missing the deadline for Ellis to submit her Olympic roster.
It was going to be close either way.
Rapinoe didn’t rejoin her teammates until three weeks ago, when Ellis included her on a 24-player training roster for the last two games leading up to the Olympics: the match against South Africa last Saturday (July 9), and the one coming up against against Costa Rica on July 22.
Ellis made it clear that Rapinoe was only with the team to train and continue her rehab. No thought was given to using her against South Africa. It’s unknown whether she’ll play against Costa Rica.
In a July 6 interview with Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, Rapinoe clearly had doubts about making the Olympic team.
She said she was “pretty close” to fully recovered and felt “pretty comfortable” on the ball, but still wasn’t doing any training that involved contact. (“People can’t tackle me, which is how I prefer it anyway,” she joked.)
She acknowledged that by her own assessment, she wasn’t capable of playing a full game — that at best, she might be able to come on for 30 minutes to a half.
She understood that Ellis would have to weigh such a limited (but valuable) contribution against the strengths of the other players competing for a very few unfilled roster spots.
“Bottom line, I have to be good enough to make the team,” Rapinoe said. “I have to bring something in and beat somebody else out.”
The midfielder she probably beat out was Sam Mewis, a smart 23-year-old who’s shown great promise, but not Rapinoe’s gift for changing a game with one play:
The most accomplished mid left off the roster was veteran Heather O’Reilly, but that was destined to happen with or without Rapinoe in camp.
O’Reilly is fast as a blur dribbling up the wing, and her crosses into the box have launched many a scoring play over the years.
That was a more valued role when the team’s offensive philosophy was:
A) Get It Into Abby
B) Get It Into Alex.
Ellis preaches a different style, one that puts a premium on finesse and precision passing to advance the ball through the midfield; and artful defense to start counterattacks.
The coach also preaches versatility. Nearly everyone on the Olympic roster can play multiple positions, and most of them have.
O’Reilly is comparatively one-dimensional. She knows her comfort lane and she prefers to stick to it.
Fans of Megan Rapinoe know she has never been lacking in confidence.
Yet, as the SI interview and this video from U.S. Soccer make clear, she wasn’t at all sure even this month if she ‘d see her name on the Rio roster.
I’m glad she did.
She is, too, judging from her comments after the announcement was made:
This is really special to me. There was a big part of me that didn’t know if this was possible … It’s very surreal, mostly because I have a lot of work to do. … Where I am at now is not where I am going to be in a few weeks.
Going to the Olympics and representing your country is incredible, but this one is that much better. After everything I went through, this one is very special.
*Let the record show that I got 17 out of 18 correct. My only bad guess: Mewis over Rapinoe!
The 2016 U.S. Women’s Olympic Team
Listed alphabetically by position.
GOALKEEPERS: Alyssa Naeher, Hope Solo
DEFENDERS: Whitney Engen, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara, Becky Sauerbrunn
MIDFIELDERS: Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Carli Lloyd, Allie Long, Megan Rapinoe
FORWARDS : Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Mallory Pugh
Plus alternates: Ashlyn Harris (goalkeeper), Samantha Mewis (midfielder), Heather O’Reilly (midfielder), Emily Sonnett (defender)