• Charles Olney

It doesn’t really matter who the US takes to the Olympics

They’d still be favorites even if they picked names out of a hat.


The women’s Olympic soccer tournament generally creates a lot of terrible choices for coaches. World Cup rosters run to 23 names, which gives you a lot of lead to work with. But the Olympics only permit 18 slots, which makes every choice critical. Can you really justify leaving X player off and taking Y? Do you have enough flexibility to cover multiple tactical approaches? Can you cover for an injury to a key player? With matches coming in rapid succession will anyone still be fully fit by the end of the tournament?


For the United States Women’s National Team, the tension behind these questions is almost completely absent. That doesn’t mean we won’t see countless articles over the next few months debating the marginal roster choices. Has Kristie Mewis done enough to earn a place? Just how close is Alex Morgan to getting back to her peak? Can Carli Lloyd continue to defy time? Does Megan Rapinoe still bring enough quality to justify a place given her age and lack of playing time? Is Lynn Williams actually as good as we smart people insist she is? Are they really banking on Emily Sonnett as the cover at fullback? Can we really justify keeping Casey Krueger off another roster? The list goes on and on.


But the simple reality is that the US is so ridiculously stacked that coach Vlatko Andonovski could pick his team randomly and still be in great shape.


The US have literally dozens of world-class players

The US midfield is anchored by Julie Ertz, possibly the best player in the world. Just in front of her, you can take your pick of Sam Mewis, Lindsey Horan, and Rose Lavelle—each of whom has made a case for herself as being the best in the world over the past few years.


And you can do this with every line. Across the pitch, the US have multiple players who could conceivably fit into a World XI.


Consider the top strikers in the game. Australia have Sam Kerr. Denmark have Pernille Harder. Poland have Ewa Pajor. Norway have Ada Hegerberg and Caroline Graham Hansen. England have Ellen White and Beth England. Wow! Those are some great front lines. Then remember that the US have Alex Morgan and Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath and Lynn Williams and Carli Lloyd. And Catarina Macario. Oh, and Crystal Dunn—who might just be the best player in the world but doesn’t even play in her best role on this team because they just don’t need her there.


Oh, they also have Midge Purce Mal Pugh and Sophia Smith and Jess McDonald and Shea Groom and…


And that’s the real killer. It’s not just that the US has some of the best players in the world. It’s really that you could eliminate the entire first team and still have a roster that was competitive with the very best teams in the world. Go down to the 4th or 5th choices and you still have players who would be starting for basically any other country in the world. Vanessa DiBernardo would have eighty caps if she was Irish or Portuguese. Ashley Sanchez would already be a legend if she were Argentinian. Emily Menges would be the best defender in her nation’s history for all but a dozen or so countries.


It’s not gambling if there are no real consequences

This incredible depth really just means that roster cuts are more an exercise in cruel choices than in any kind of serious cost-benefit analysis. If Casey Krueger or Kristie Mewis doesn’t make the 18, it will be deeply sad. But it almost certainly won’t materially affect the US chances one way or the other. They’re great, absolutely incredible players. But so are the folks competing with them for slots.


Similarly, the US can afford to gamble in a way that no one else really can. Is Megan Rapinoe really fit enough for a compact international tournament? She barely played in 2020 and hasn’t really looked up to her best in close to three years at this point. Do you really want to gamble on that? Especially since there’s history here. A far-from-fully-fit Rapinoe was included on the 2016 Olympic roster, and her main contribution was to come on as a substitute, only to herself be subbed out later in that fateful quarterfinal exit.


But 2021 is not 2016, and there’s no point in over-learning from the mistakes of the past. Rapinoe may never get back to 100% again, but even if she can’t, she’s still Megan Rapinoe. She’s incredible. Even in an absolute worst-case, where she basically contributes nothing, who cares? It’s not like the don’t have a Plan B, Plan C, and Plan D all waiting to be deployed.

Point being: when you start with a stack that’s five times bigger than anyone else, you can afford to take risks that would sink the small fish. Not all of those gambles will pay off, but some will. And that often only increases the gap.

Nothing is guaranteed, but this isn’t going to be determined on the margins

So does this mean the US is a shoe-in to win Olympic gold? Of course not. Soccer is not a game of certainties. The best team doesn’t always win, and you obviously can’t control every possible bounce of the ball. Just think back to the last Olympics, where the US went out to Sweden despite comprehensively outplaying them for 120 minutes. That happens to even the best teams.


That said, the US is a lot better than they were in 2016, so even that sort of bad luck might not derail them this time around. For one thing, they now have a coach who is far better-suited to respond mid-game to potential problems. For another thing, this roster is just flat-out better. Most of the holdovers from 2016 are better now than they were then. And some younger players have launched themselves into the stratosphere in the intervening years.


Ultimately, all sorts of things could prevent the US from coming home as Olympic champions. Maybe Team GB will gel. Maybe Debinha will put Brazil on her shoulder. Maybe Vivianne Miedema will score a hat-trick of wonder goals. Maybe Canada will finally give Christine Sinclair another victory over the US. In a tournament, all kinds of things can happen. But almost no version of the story hinges on the US roster choices.


Which doesn't mean these roster debates aren't still engaging. Chances are, everyone will continue to offer their takes over the next few months. And that’s good and fun. But let’s not lose the forest for the trees. The US are always going to be heavy favorites, and nothing that happens with the final four or five roster spots will do anything to move that needle.


So my advice: think about what list of 18 would give you to most satisfaction and feel free to root for that. Do Kristie Mewis and Casey Krueger unequivocally deserve spots? I’m not sure. But I want them to get their moment in the sun, so I’ll be rooting for them.


And, to be perfectly honest, I'm also rooting for Carli Lloyd. I've declared more than once that her time at the top was just about over. I find it delightful to consistently be proven wrong.

So that's really all there is to it. Pick the players you'd like to see and root for them. And don't worry too much about whether it makes sense.

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