The Power of the Olympic Alternate
Between now and the release of the official Olympic roster, WOSO fans are bound to see dozens upon dozens of roster predictions. As Vlatko Andonovski points out, there are 18 roster spots available, and as the wise Charles Olney points out, Andonovski could quite literally pull names out of a hat and that random roster would still compete for an Olympic medal. So, while everyone else focuses on roster selection, I am going to dive into how roster selection impacts the alternates and the opportunity presented to those chosen as such. On the plane to Tokyo, on the pitch at practice, in the stands at games. Four players will be selected by the coaching staff, and these spots will be filled by a goalkeeper and three field players. The goalkeeper might be the most important piece to the alternate puzzle (remember Portland during the Challenge Cup), but also the least interesting as we can expect some combination of Ashlyn Harris and Jane Campbell to be backups to Alyssa Naeher. So, what about the field players?
Why alternates matter
The USWNT, especially under Jill Ellis, has not been known for roster rotation, and rosters could be easily predicted save for Ali Krieger making the 2019 World Cup. Head coaches have the unenviable task of choosing just 18 players to fill out an Olympic roster, instead of the typical 23. That's where alternates come into play. Alternates are essentially practice players who will add depth during training sessions, but they find themselves hard pressed to suit up for any games because they are used only to replace a sick or injured rostered player. However, being selected as an Olympic alternate has jump-started a few notable careers. Dating back to the 2000 Olympic games, Aly Wagner was selected as an alternate, and she would later become a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the 18th player in history to reach 100 caps. The Athens Games in '04 saw 20-year-old Krieger join the ranks of alternate who was destined to be a National Team veteran. In 2012, Christen Press--then uncapped but now one of the most prolific USWNT goal scorers--was tapped by then-coach Pia Sundhage to join the team in London, along with fellow 2015 World Cup champion Meghan Klingenberg. Most recently, Samantha Mewis, debatably the most important player in the national team pool aside from Crystal Dunn, recalls her time as a 2016 alternate as one of the most formative experiences of her international career. Another notable alternate from 2016: Emily Sonnett.
Now, this is an article about alternates, but for context it is important to note who WILL NOT be considered for an alternate spot for the Tokyo games. Without saying who, because I am not looking to get blocked on Twitter, there are 14 players who have all but punched a ticket to Tokyo, whether that be this summer or in the ether of “what could have been.” In my best estimate, the four remaining spots are going to be some combination of a goalkeeper, one midfielder and two defenders; or a goalkeeper, one forward and two defenders; or none of the above because Andonovski is playing Wizard’s Chess, while I still struggle with Minesweeper.
From the start of his tenure as head coach, Andonovski has been clear that club play matters. And, frankly, I believe him. Look at the rise of Kristie Mewis, and the call-ups of Shea Groom, Bethany Balcer, Aubrey Bledsoe, Casey Murphy and Ashley Sanchez. All signs indicate that Andonovski’s notebook is in fact full of observations from NWSL matches, not just set pieces designed for Becky Sauerbrunn to finally score her goal. I think there is real merit in believing that the Challenge Cup and *maybe* the April friendlies will be the final opportunity for many bubble players to make their cases. And by bubble players I mean Campbell, Harris, Casey Krueger, Tierna Davidson, Krieger, Kristie Mewis and Catarina Macario.
The forward line will not be determined by club play. Tobin Heath could not put on a Manchester United jersey for the rest of the spring, and if she’s healthy, she will make the 18. Alex Morgan could yet again have a very underwhelming showing for the Pride, and she and Charlie will still take a selfie at the Tokyo Skytree. Press can be played tragically out of position for the rest of the FAWSL season and deservedly start as a winger come group play in July. Lynn Williams can continue to create an absurd number of chances for the Courage, get bashed on Twitter for not finishing and still get her shot at a big tournament. Megan Rapinoe is still really flipping good at soccer, and she proved at SheBelieves why Pinoe being Pinoe for 30 minutes is better than no Pinoe at all.
List over. Did I just get blocked on Twitter? Yes, Carli Lloyd is still very good, and on almost any other national team would be a shoe-in for yet another Olympic games. But a lot rides on the decision to take six forwards in this particular group. If there is a sixth forward, dollars to donuts, it will be Lloyd. For bubble forwards in the National Team pool, that means either going as an alternate or staying with their club teams.
Who is the next big alternate and why is it Sophia Smith?
There are a few players currently in Andovoski's mix who are waiting for their break-out tournament. We have seen the progression of Florida State Seminole Jaelin Howell as a holding mid, seizing opportunities throughout the year and even filling in for an injured Sam Mewis during SBC. Casey Murphy finally got her call in to a full team camp. Even though she didn't see the pitch, she is clearly an important part of the goalkeeping pool and is likely play-in ready. The justifiably hyped Macario has shown presence and poise under the bright lights of international competition. Any one of these young talents might find themselves as an alternate on this Olympic squad, with Macario even making a case for the roster. There is one player who knows exactly where she will be in July. Sophia Smith will be on a plane to Tokyo, donning red, white and blue, ready to fill her role as an alternate. A role she should relish. Smith has been quite consistent over her time with the National Team over the past year or so, and she has proven she is only getting better with time. While a bummer for the Thorns, who will undoubtedly miss the diverse and effective play of Smith, this opportunity could be huge for the trajectory of the young forward’s career with the USWNT.
Smith has slowly started to show why she is in such high favor with Andonovski. Missing the 2020 Challenge Cup due to injury, Smith made an emphatic entrance into the NWSL, scoring within three minutes of her debut against the Utah Royals in the Fall Series. Looking back to the November friendly against the Netherlands, Smith took the pitch in her first cap as if she was shot out of a cannon, immediately making her presence felt. Since then, she has honed her energy and become an important piece of the USWNT off the bench. In fact, it was Smith’s possession and gorgeous pass that led to Morgan’s comeback goal in the game against Argentina during the SheBelieves Cup. She has great vision, speed on the outside and dynamic footwork, and we all bore witness to her incredible finishing ability during the Fall Series and her short tenure at Stanford. Smith can play both sides of the ball and contribute to the high press, while also being a major threat inside the 18. Through limited minutes and few caps, Smith is slowly carving her way into becoming a regular call-up.
While going to the Olympics as an alternate could be seen as a setback, for Smith it should be the ultimate confidence booster. Unlike a Mal Pugh or even a Jessica McDonald, Smith is untapped in her senior team experience. She hasn’t had the taste of a huge tournament and then the fall from grace of not being selected for the next roster. Her freshness allows for a different alternate experience because she knows nothing else and can reap the benefits of watching and learning. Not only will she get training time with the national team, she will experience a senior level international tournament. Travel with the team, quick turnarounds between training and games and intensive film study will only make her better for her first senior international tournament roster. Not to mention the added perk of consistent exposure to some of the best forwards in the world, who will surely become mentors. She will also get to go up against some of the most formidable defenders each day in training. It’s like preparing for and taking the hardest test of your life without the pressure to get a good grade. The role of the alternate is the ultimate training ground for future USWNT stars, and I, for one, can’t wait to watch Sophia Smith shine.