Monica Esenwein, Washington Spirit writer and USWNT aficionado, and I sat down to talk about our thoughts on the roster and the team’s chance in Rio.
GOALKEEPERS (2): Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars), Hope Solo (Seattle Reign FC)
RJ Allen: OK, let’s start with the easy group. Goalkeepers. What do you think?
Monica Esenwein: No surprise here.
RJ Allen: Not really, no. Not when Harris hasn’t played since, when, September?
Monica Esenwein: Yeah, you knew Jill’s mind was made up when Ashlyn didn’t play in Orlando.
RJ Allen: Ellis said in her conference call that Ashlyn had knee issues during the winter. But I haven’t noticed it affecting her NWSL play, have you?
Monica Esenwein: No, I haven’t. She’s seemed fine.
RJ Allen: Though a backup keeper hasn’t played in the Olympics for the US since…ever. We’ve only had a single keeper play in each Olympics.
Monica Esenwein: Right. So, I guess it didn’t matter who she took. If she felt Ashlyn wasn’t healthy, then Alyssa would make sense.
Monica Esenwein: I agree with Jill that we have 3 of the best keepers in the world—that decision will always be difficult.
RJ Allen: It was always a race for #18. Good on Naeher, though. She worked hard over the last year to get the spot.
Monica Esenwein: She did; she’s been on point for Chicago and has kept them in a lot of games.
DEFENDERS (6): Whitney Engen (Boston Breakers), Julie Johnston (Chicago Red Stars), Meghan Klingenberg (Portland Thorns FC), Ali Krieger (Washington Spirit), Kelley O’Hara (Sky Blue FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (FC Kansas City)
RJ Allen: Alright, go on. Be excited about Krieger. I know you want to.
Monica Esenwein: All kinds of excited for Ali! I didn’t think she wouldn’t make it, but you never know. I’m actually excited about this group as a whole. Defense wins championships!
RJ Allen: They do. And these 6 are a fine group to play in front of Solo. Engen, I think, somehow won the most though. A few months away from Boston and the Breakers.
Monica Esenwein: Agreed! She needs that break. This whole group—it’s not going to matter what combo you put them in—they have trust in each other, and Hope has trust in them.
RJ Allen: Having KO be able to play on both sides does take some pressure off. Ellis has options for a back 4 in 6 really strong defenders. And yes, I called Kling a strong defender.
Monica Esenwein: It’s nice to have KO, because some games are going to be more defensive minded, so you’ll play Krieger at right back. Or, if you want to go more wingback style, play KO at RB. But KO being able to play anywhere also helps in case of injury or yellow card suspension *cough* Horan *cough*.
RJ Allen: KO really is the jack of all trades on the team—right back, left back, right wing, left wing; forward.
Monica Esenwein: And with all the retirements and babies, we need someone who can play anywhere, just to cover in case “crazy” happens. It is the Olympics after all.
RJ Allen: KO at right back is better than Tobin the right back, for sure.
Monica Esenwein: Yes, we can all agree to that. But KO at left back and Krieger at right back makes more sense.
RJ Allen: Unless you’re Ellis and want Kling in at all times.
Monica Esenwein: Right, which seems to be the theme.
MIDFIELDERS (6): Morgan Brian (Houston Dash), Tobin Heath (Portland Thorns FC), Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns FC), Carli Lloyd (Houston Dash), Allie Long (Portland Thorns FC), Megan Rapinoe (Seattle Reign FC)
RJ Allen: This was what we all feared would happen.
Monica Esenwein: It is. We all knew it. I mean, a healthy Pinoe, all day. But we don’t know if she’s healthy, and that could be a problem.
RJ Allen: She is going to be a little rusty at times. I just worry she isn’t going to be in form when we need her.
Monica Esenwein: Like Jill said on the call, “We’re going to ease her in, like we did Alex.” My only problem there is that 3 weeks and 6 months are a huge difference. And Alex had a scope. Pinoe had a torn ACL.
RJ Allen: Not to mention Alex’s role and Pinoe’s role are very, very different.
Monica Esenwein: Very. Pinoe needs to be able to cover half of the pitch, at least, and Alex just needs to be able to turn and go and get on the end of the ball.
RJ Allen: The Olympics are different than the World Cup, in that she has more flexibility when to call an alt up. She also said she is “taking a roster of 22.”
Monica Esenwein: True, but she is not taking a roster of 22. She has a roster of 18. Which is why taking Pinoe is such a risk, especially when you had a healthy and experienced player like O’Reilly just hanging out at camp.
RJ Allen: Do you think Ellis is banking on the fact if Pinoe is somehow unfit, she can call O’Reilly up and get away with the “bold move” and the “smart move” all together?
Monica Esenwein: I think Ellis has no intention of calling up any of the alternates unless she has some huge catastrophe. She plans on playing Pinoe as often and as much as possible. Just holding this spot for her, for as long as she had, shows that to me. As a former coach, I am shocked that she would chance it, but I don’t know the inside of this team like she does.
RJ Allen: If it works though, is she a genius or just lucky?
Monica Esenwein: She’ll be held as a genius. Luck is fickle and can be seen as “the harder you work, the luckier you get.” But kudos to Pinoe for making it back in time for the roster. That’s not easy, and she works really hard. Not trying to take that away from her at all.
RJ Allen: What do you think about the center midfielder options? Long, Lloyd, Horan, and Brian?
Monica Esenwein: I knew Lloyd, Brian, and Horan were going. That was pretty much a given, as long as all were moderately healthy. Long was a bit of a shock, mostly because of her late call-up. She’s worked hard and, for the most part, hasn’t played badly. She seems to work well with the back line; that’s helpful. My biggest issue is that Lloyd is considered the 10 spot. I feel like Horan is the more creative player there, but Lloyd on the wing is awful.
RJ Allen: And Carli as a forward doesn’t really work. She just sort of plays the position of “Carli Lloyd”. She does it masterfully in big games, no doubt.
Monica Esenwein: She’s huge in big games—we all saw that in Canada last summer. It’s the in-between games that I question. She’s also coming back from not playing for the last few months. She looked pretty good against South Africa. I see her being more game ready than Pinoe, and you know Jill is going to play Carli.
RJ Allen: Do you think she goes 90 against Costa Rica later this month, or will Jill give her a half to come back to speed?
Monica Esenwein: Jill said that Lloyd playing full 90 “wasn’t part of her plan” for last game. I don’t see it being part for the next game. Maybe a halftime sub or start and be off at half. Just to get her some more quality minutes and test the knee a little.
FORWARDS (4): Crystal Dunn (Washington Spirit), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Chicago Red Stars), Mallory Pugh (Real Colorado)
RJ Allen: Why are all our forwards, other than Morgan, rarely played as true forwards?
Monica Esenwein: Because you have Alex Morgan—a healthy Alex Morgan at that. Dunn and Press have been playing anywhere for their teams in the NWSL, and I just think Pugh is too young yet to bear the full load of being that lone striker.
RJ Allen: This might be the group, other than goalkeeper, I’m least worried about in Rio. Even though 3/4 are Olympic rookies.
Monica Esenwein: When you have someone like Morgan up front, it leaves the other 3 to play off of her, knowing she’ll be the main target. They all have speed and are good at timing their runs and crashing the net. I’m not worried about these 4 at all. I’m way more concerned about that wingback system than anything.
Alternates: Heather O’Reilly (FC Kansas City), Ashlyn Harris (Orlando Pride), Emily Sonnett (Portland Thorns) and Samantha Mewis (Western New York Flash).
RJ Allen: How much alcohol is going to be drunk over this list?
Monica Esenwein: Lots of alcohol and shark talk and UNC love. I can’t believe we are going into a major tournament and will not have HAO game face pictures. This saddens me. Sonnett and Mewis will learn a lot, that is for sure.
RJ Allen: She’ll be training with the team. That has to account for something, right?
Monica Esenwein: Her training ones are good, but nothing beats a HAO game-day game face. At least we have the NWSL.
RJ Allen: This is going to be the first time since the Olympics installed women’s soccer that either Mia Hamm or Heather O’Reilly has not worn #9. And the first time since 1996, when Cindy Parlow wore the number, that #3 isn’t worn by Christie Rampone. This really is a changing of the guard, isn’t it?
Monica Esenwein: It is. I think that when Rampone stepped aside last month, and with HAO being an alternate, you really see the youth coming through. It’ll be hard for us old people (in our 30s) to adjust to, but I think we’ll be ok. It helps that this new crop is talented and can play the US style still. They’re just green. If you look, all through the women’s system, we win. Period.
RJ Allen: Maybe we’ll at least get our corner kicks back?
Monica Esenwein: Wish we could just sub Pinoe in and out for those.
RJ Allen: Just give her a chair and let her chill until we need her.
Monica Esenwein: I have a feeling that has been Jill’s plan since December.
RJ Allen: Looking at this roster and how they have been playing—all the factors—do you think they can win a gold in Rio?
Monica Esenwein: I honestly don’t think it’s going to be the players who lose it. We are talented and the best in the world overall. Where we may lose it is in Jill’s ability or inability to make proper changes when necessary.
RJ Allen: Have you ever seen a coach so hesitant to make subs?
Monica Esenwein: No. I have seen coaches hold spots for their preferred players, I have also seen that backfire hard. My concern isn’t with the players and their abilities, my concern is solely with Ellis. When you have a team that can win, no matter the situation, it gives you a false sense that a system is working, when otherwise you might change it up and try something new. I’m afraid she will become—or has become—complacent in her choices, and that could hurt us in the long run.