I heard a quote once that I come back to time and time again, “the sky is not falling, but it is starting to rain.” A reminder that before the very worst that can happen, happens, there are warning signs.
There are warning signs with the current United States Women’s National Team player pool right now. Maybe not on the score sheet and maybe not at first glance, but baked into every conversation there is a group of numbers just out of sight that might end up being a big problem. And soon.
The United States Women’s National Team is becoming old as hell.
The roster they put out for the 2020 CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship features ten players over 30 and only two players under 25. The 2016 roster, in comparison, had only five players over 30, while nine were under 25. The 2012 roster was made up of six players under 25, seven between 25 and 29, and seven over 30.
There was a balance to these teams of players the coaches thought would be in the program long term who needed the experience. In 2012 it was Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Tobin Heath, Lauren Holiday and Amy Rodriguez who were all under 25. For the 2016 roster it was Mallory Pugh, Lindsey Horan, Emily Sonnett, Jaelene Hinkle, Stephanie McCaffrey, Morgan Brian, Julie Ertz, Crystal Dunn and Samantha Mewis coming in under the quarter century mark. Now? It’s Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan, one of whom has played a starting role on the team for over a year and the other who likely would have if not for an ACL injury a few years back.
Outside of Hinkle and McCaffrey everyone on the list of players taken under the age of 25 since 2012 has gone on to support the USWNT as they won back to back World Cup titles. And while I do think Lavelle and Sullivan both have the skills to do that as well (Lavelle already has), who might be joining them in 2023 to do it? Look at some of the current key players for the US as they head toward 2023. Kelley O’Hara will be 34 on her way to 35 at the start of 2023. Likewise, so will Jessica McDonald, Tobin Heath, Christen Press and Alyssa Naeher. Crystal Dunn, Sam Mewis and Julie Ertz will all be 30.
Age isn’t everything in sports. I’m not here to say that 31 years old Christen Press should be left off the roster because she is 31. But I am saying that having a team made up of roughly the same players as four years ago who are now four years older, with few battle-tested options available, is not the most comforting sight to see.
But what can be done? Should Carli Lloyd, who admittedly played well the second half of 2019, be cut because she is closer to 40 than 30? What about Becky Sauerbrunn, who is a half step slower than four years ago but still able to do what made her Becky Sauerbrunn more often than she isn’t? What about Megan Rapinoe, the face of women’s soccer over the last year or four?
Talking about age when it comes to sports is a weird conversation to have. There are very few professions on Earth where being thirty is seen as a warning sign that you might be on the downward slope of your career. But with sports, age can matter. As players age they have more miles on their bodies, thereby creating more potential for injury. Additionally, continuously being named to rosters on teams with limited roster space is keeping younger players from entering the player pool.
The NWSL being as successful as it is also presents a problem in terms of making the possible player pool wider, while the current USWNT pool stays relatively stable. There are USWNT players who have come from the NWSL to the USWNT in the last cycle or so. Sam Mewis likely wouldn’t be where she is without the Western New York Flash or North Carolina Courage.
Will having players stay on longer and longer, while not having new players regularly folded into the mix be better under Vlatko Andonovski than it was under Jill Ellis? I don’t know. But I do know having a starting XI with an average age just a tick under 30 can’t last forever.
This isn’t to say that post Olympics there won’t be time for new players to rise up, play in big friendlies and then World Cup qualifying, because there is time. But we’re running out of time to get any young players major tournament experience before three years of building back up again.
This may just be rain. I’m willing to admit with five to ten retirements or players turning over in the year after the 2020 Olympics, most of this problem is corrected. But until names start being left off of rosters and new names start showing up the USWNT is putting itself in a place where time marching ever forward might have the last word on the matter.