Eugenio Savio
August 08, 2016

BELO HORIZONTE, Brazil (AP) Whitney Engen went to the Women's World Cup last year but didn't play in a single match. A year later at the Olympics, the 28-year-old American got her chance on a big stage.

Engen was in the starting lineup for the 1-0 victory over France on Saturday night. While most of the attention was on United States goalkeeper Hope Solo, who made her 200th international appearance, Engen was steady at center back.

''Anytime you get the opportunity to put on our jersey and represent the United States is a tremendous honor. Obviously, the Olympics adds to that,'' Engen said. ''I was happy to get some minutes and get my feet wet in an international tournament.''

United States coach Jill Ellis made the move because defender Julie Johnston was out with a groin injury. Johnston is key to a stellar backline that is considered among the best in the game. During the World Cup last year, the group anchored by Solo went 540 minutes without conceding a goal.

That Engen was so capably able to fill in on that solid line is testament to the U.S. team's depth.

Mallory Pugh, the 18-year-old sensation who has been steadily winning playing time, was also held out of the match against France in Belo Horizonte because of an ankle injury in the group opener last week.

Ellis later described Pugh's availability for the match at ''50-50.'' But she didn't need her. The team inserted Crystal Dunn into the lineup.

Like Engen, Dunn was making her first start of the Olympics. In fact, both she and Engen were also making their first starts in a major tournament at the senior level. Allie Long, making just her 12th appearance with the senior team, got her second start.

Those players are among 11 first-time Olympians on the U.S. national team, which has a decidedly different - and younger - look than the squad that won the World Cup.

Veteran stars Abby Wambach and Lauren Holiday have retired. Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriquez stayed home because of pregnancy.

And the roster for Rio de Janeiro was also smaller, at 18 players, than the 23-player squad for the World Cup. So Ellis had to choose her players carefully with an eye on versatility.

''All 22 players that are here - the 18 that were selected and the four reserves - every single one of them could step on this field and play for this team,'' Engen said. ''So I knew I had a great cast around me and all I had to do is do my role and they would support me.''

While Engen was on the World Cup roster, Long stayed home last year, playing for the National Women's Soccer League's Portland Thorns. Dunn, the last player cut from the World Cup team, played for the Washington Spirit and was named the league's most valuable player.

The newcomers will be important as the Americans seek their fourth straight Olympic gold medal. Ranked No. 1 in the world, the United States is also vying to become the first to win and Olympics after earning a World Cup title.

The team continues to wait for the return of veteran midfielder Meghan Rapinoe, who hasn't played since knee surgery late last year.

Rapinoe, playing in her third Olympics, has looked strong in pregame warmups and could play as early as the quarterfinals.

With the victory over France, the United States was assured a spot in the quarterfinals. Canada and host Brazil have also gone through to the knockout round with one match remaining in their groups.

''We've got a great support staff here that keeps us ready no matter what,'' Engen said. ''And I think we knew coming into this tournament it was going to take 22 players to get the gold medal, and at the end of the day we're all ready if our name is called.''

The United States will play Colombia on Tuesday in the final group match in Manaus, more than 1,700 miles away from Rio de Janeiro.

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