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U.S Women's National Team

Jill Ellis Faces Tough Choices Ahead of Rio Olympics

The United States women's national team is loaded with talent, but Jill Ellis has to choose 18 players for her Olympic roster, which creates a collection of tough battles among some deserving players. 
BY John D. Halloran Posted
July 09, 2016
8:35 PM

CHICAGO—Following the U.S. women’s national team’s 1-0 victory over South Africa on Saturday afternoon, one big task remains for head coach Jill Ellis: selecting a roster for Rio. After the contest, Ellis confirmed that she will inform the players tomorrow of her final decisions.

On Friday, she reiterated both the luxury and difficulty of picking a final roster from such a talented pool of players.

“It’s a tough process because everybody gives everything they have,” said the coach.

“The confidence we have as a staff, in terms of our personnel, in terms of our depth, the 18 we select and even any of the 24 players we’ve got in camp right now can help us. It’s a hard problem to have, but we’re also lucky to have such talent.”

“I had a meeting with my staff this morning,” she added after Saturday’s match. “We were up late last night. So, I feel there’s been a lot of healthy discussion. I don’t make decisions in a vacuum and I value my staff’s input.”

The coach also acknowledged how relatively inexperienced this current crop of players is on the international level, which is especially striking compared to many U.S. teams in the past.

“I’m really excited to take a new group down there,” said Ellis. “I was thinking about it the other day, potentially [the roster] could be 11-12 Olympic debutants out of a roster of 18.”

Boosted by the return of Carli Lloyd (who played 45 minutes on Saturday) and Megan Rapinoe (who Ellis confirmed is healthy enough to be under consideration for a roster spot), the coach looks to have 15 players who are essentially “locks."

Lloyd, playing for the first time since injuring her knee on April 23rd, said, “It felt good. [I’m] knocking the rust off. As a player, you want to come on and think everything’s going to be perfect and you have to remember it’s been 11 weeks since you’ve played a game. For the most part, it felt pretty good. It was the perfect amount of time for me to play in my first game [back].”

Lloyd also said that her knee is “100%” and that her fitness would be “120%” by the opening of the Olympic games.

Forward Christen Press added, “It’s great to have Carli back. She’s always the driving force of this team.”

Of the remaining nine players making up the current roster, Ellis will need to choose a back-up goalkeeper (between Alyssa Naeher and Ashlyn Harris) and two field players from a pool including Samantha Mewis, Whitney Engen, Heather O’Reilly, Jaelene Hinkle, Emily Sonnett, Allie Long, and Gina Lewandowski. Three players who don’t make the final 18-player roster will also travel with the team to Brazil as alternates.

Starting with the goalkeeper position, Ellis didn’t give anything away.

“I think I have three of the best keepers in the world and I would be confident with any of them having to step into an Olympic game. It’s incredibly competitive—it’s splitting hairs,” said the coach.

“Unfortunately, one has to come in an alternate role, but again, there’s nothing between them in terms of Alyssa and Ashlyn competing for that second spot.”

Earlier this spring, Ellis declared that Naeher was the team’s No. 2 in the net. The coach also chose Naeher as the team’s back-up on Saturday, while Harris did not dress.

Naeher, for her part, admitted that knowing she’s in a constant battle for a roster spot can be mentally tough. However, she said she’s focusing on doing what she can to make the team better and taking the process one step at a time.

“You try to stay in the moment and each day is a new day,” said Naeher. “Take everything one day at a time and keep focusing on what I want to work on that day and keep progressing from there.”

Heather O’Reilly, a fan favorite and veteran with more than 200 caps, is the only winger seemingly on the bubble—assuming Rapinoe is fit and selected. However, Ellis cites depth on the wing as her strongest asset, not a good sign for the American vet.

“I think the No. 7 and No. 11 positions, we’re much deeper than we’ve ever been,” Ellis said. “I think the flexibility—Crystal can play wide, Press can play wide, we’ve got Pugh, we have Tobin, Rapinoe coming back on the scene, O’Reilly—we’ve got a lot of depth there. In a pinch, I can slide Kelley O’Hara up there. That’s our deepest spot right now.”

Of the other six field players, defenders Hinkle and Lewandowski seem destined to be cut. Lewandowski has not earned a cap yet in 2016 and Hinkle has not played for the U.S. since February. That sets up positional battles at center midfield (between Long and Mewis) and center back (between Engen and Sonnett) for the final two places in the 18.

Reading the tea leaves, Long and Engen look to be the smart bets. While Sonnett seemed to enjoy the advantage earlier in the year, Ellis has preferred Engen as a late substitute in three of the U.S.’ last five matches.

Long has surged of late for the team, starting four of the U.S.’ last five matches. She also nearly scored on Saturday, but South Africa managed to clear her second-half header off the goal line.

“Every time I put the USA jersey, it’s an honor,” said Long. “I just take it game by game. It’s such a humbling experience playing for the U.S. and representing my country.”

The midfielder added that her best qualities were “being able to possess, and be a quarterback. Win my tackles on defense and build the attack from deep.”

Final projections

ON THE TEAM: Hope Solo, Mallory Pugh, Becky Sauerbrunn, Kelley O’Hara, Whitney Engen, Meghan Klingenberg, Julie Johnston, Carli Lloyd, Ali Krieger, Christen Press, Alex Morgan, Morgan Brian, Megan Rapinoe, Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, Alyssa Naeher, Allie Long.

MISSES THE CUT/ALTERNATES: Samantha Mewis, Heather O’Reilly, Ashlyn Harris, Jaelene Hinkle, Emily Sonnett, Gina Lewandowski.

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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