This may seem surprising or disconcerting, but in the past two years, the average age of the United States Women’s National team has advanced two years.
If you need a moment to get over the shock, it’s understandable.
After the USWNT reached for the stars Wednesday to announce the roster for the upcoming Olympic Games – “Ted Lasso” leads Jason Sudekis and Brandon Hunt on Twitter, decorated striker Alex Morgan joining Robin Roberts on ABC’s Good Morning America – there was plenty of criticism regarding the dearth of young players and the advancing age of those who made the team.
Forward Carli Lloyd (below) will be 39 at the Olympics. Defender Becky Sauerbrunn will be 36. There are more players over 30 than not. However, every player included save one was part of the 2019 World Cup championship squad.
“No huge surprises in the USWNT squad which, I think, is quietly disappointing. The likes of Midge Purce, Catarina Macario, Casey Short etc. are all names more than worthy of a spot in the 18-player squad,” wrote Olympic journalist Courtney Hill, “but, as is the theme with (national teams), age and experience prevails once again.”
“Could we please get younger players experience? The whole front line is over 32,” was the comment from Twitter account maizenblu52.
Here’s the thing: The task at the Olympic Games is not to gain experience. It’s to win. Vlatko Andonovski’s objective in assembling his first major tournament roster as USWNT head coach was to select the 18 players best suited to winning the games necessary to claim the gold medal. One can debate whether he achieved this with the players chosen, although those lining up on the side opposite the coach should be aware that squads fielded for his first 20 games won 19 and drew once. He’s undefeated in actual competition, so he’s probably winning any argument with you.
“I was very happy with a lot of those players that didn’t make it. I was very thankful for everything they did, for the effort they put in, and in some ways they helped this team grow and develop and prepare for the tournament,” Andonovski told Sporting News. “We still believe those players are good players; just in evaluating them and analyzing them and comparing them with some of the other players we have on the roster, we believe the ones that made it are slightly ahead and give us the best chance to win the tournament.
“But with that being said, we keep an eye on all of the players that didn’t make it, especially the young ones, to have them back as soon as the Olympics are over and start preparing them for the World Cup and beyond that.”
With Olympic rosters accommodating only 18 players, there is not a lot of room for experimentation, for the luxury of including a young player who is unlikely to appear but would benefit from the experience of being in camp.
The fair question is how particular veterans might hold up to such a compacted schedule: three games in six days at the group stage, a total of six over 17 days for those teams that reach the gold medal match.
Among the healthy players, that is particularly a concern involving Megan Rapinoe (above), who’ll be 36 when the Tokyo Games start. Even at the 2019 World Cup, she did not demonstrate great speed covering the left flank and often could be seen abandoning still-promising movements if there was some possibility they could fail, allowing her to conserve energy. It’s a pattern repeated through several appearances in this calendar year. However, at the World Cup, Rapinoe scored six times and earned the Golden Ball as the tournament’s best player. And in 2021, she has scored seven goals in nine appearances, including three from open play during the SheBelieves Cup.
What coach would leave home that player?
(Yes, the obvious answer is Jurgen Klinsmann. It was a test).
“I don’t look at players by age, because there’s so many other things we look at,” Andonovski said. “The most important thing is whether they perform or not, whether they’re going to be able to help us win the Olympics or not.
“We do look at data, and every data we get from a physical perspective, they’re hitting all the numbers that they need in order to fulfill the tests that we believe are going to be given to them. On top of that, you can look at the statistical data, you’ll see that Megan Rapinoe has scored the most goals in 2021, and Carli Lloyd has the most assists.”
The greatest risk Andonovski has taken with his roster is with Julie Ertz and, more to the point, forward Tobin Heath.
Although Andonovski said Heath is closer to regaining full health than Ertz and could play in pre-Olympic friendlies against Mexico on July 1 and July 5, Ertz was an easy choice because of the absence of an experienced replacement at the defensive midfield position. They’ll wait as long as necessary for her, even if she can’t open the tournament.
Heath has played only nine times in 15 months because of pandemic cancellations, her decision to opt out of the NWSL Challenge Cup in June 2020 and knee and ankle injuries that ended her season at Manchester United and kept her from any recent national team involvement. But the substitute rules are such the USWNT could withdraw her, for legitimate injury reasons, even after the Olympics began and bring in a replacement such as 28-year-old Lynn Williams or 21-year-old Catarina Macario (below).
“Catarina is an exceptional player … a player with exceptional potential,” Andonovski said. “She’s not quite ready, I think, right now, at this moment. I wouldn’t say she’s not ready, but other players were more ready than her to be at the Olympics. We believe she has the potential to be on this team for a long time.”
To this point, it hasn’t made much difference to Mallory Pugh’s career to have been included on the 2016 Olympics roster at age 18, except, possibly, to frame her past five years as a disappointment. She was a part of the 2019 World Cup roster and scored six goals in 19 total appearances that year, but Pugh has earned only one cap since.
At 19, when a deep reserve for Bundesliga titan Bayern Munich, Julian Green was included on the 2014 USMNT squad at the World Cup in Brazil – some viewed his as the spot that should have belonged to Donovan – and Green even scored an extra-time goal against Belgium. But he has spent most of his club career since playing in Germany’s second division and hasn’t earned a cap since 2018.
Playing a young player on a major-tournament roster can have its benefits, but it is not a magical device for conjuring future superstardom. No sport is conquered so easily. Were the USWNT to be forced to field a less-prepared player because youth was valued over, well, value, that could cost a game that costs a gold medal. The U.S. women have won 67 percent of all golds ever awarded in women’s soccer. Andonovski knew the standard he was expected to maintain when he accepted the job.
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