BRASÍLIA, Brazil — There will be 34 long months until the start of the next Women’s World Cup in France in 2019. If you’re a women’s soccer fan, that gives you plenty of time to focus on the NWSL—and, one hopes, a proposed FIFA Women’s Club World Cup, which is starting to gain global momentum as an idea.
But what comes next for the U.S. women’s national team after Friday’s stunning Olympic quarterfinal exit against Sweden? After winning last year’s World Cup, coach Jill Ellis has a long-term contract and figures to still be in place once 2019 rolls around. Ellis has already said that the transition on the team this year has taken place with one eye on 2019.
As we’ve seen with the U.S.’s numerous changes since last year’s World Cup, chances are there will be more turnover over the next three years than you’re expecting right now. That’s good in some ways. If you’re Ellis, you hope one or two teenagers emerge in the next couple years to make an impact the way 18-year-old Mallory Pugh has done in 2016.
Stylistically, Ellis tried to turn the U.S. over the past year into a team that plays better soccer, keeping the ball on the ground, and with fullbacks who push forward, speedy wingers and a lone centerforward in Alex Morgan. But in the Olympics the U.S. struggled to create much in the central midfield, no matter whether the opponent played the U.S. straight up (like France) or parked the bus (like Sweden).
Some of the U.S.’s best attacking moments in the second half against Sweden came when Pugh and Crystal Dunn cut inside from their wide positions and took players on one-on-one with the ball. Pugh’s composure on the ball in the center was enough to make you wonder: If she’s 21 at the next World Cup, might she be able to handle the pressure of being the U.S.’s central attacking midfielder?
I think the answer is yes.
Morgan, for her part, scored two goals in three-and-a-half games here, a solid strike-rate for her position. But she said she doesn’t always feel comfortable as a lone centerforward, which makes me wonder if a 4–1–3–2 formation might be a better U.S. option than the 4–3–3 we saw here. If you were to take the players from this 18-player Olympic roster, my lineup for the start of World Cup 2019 would be:
Hope Solo; Kelley O’Hara, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg; Morgan Brian; Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh, Tobin Heath; Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan.
I’d continue asking the fullbacks to get forward and the wide players (Dunn and Heath) to cut inside and take players on with the ball. I’d also go ahead and make Lloyd an out-and-out striker. She has a terrific nose for the goal and sense of the game, and I think Morgan would be more comfortable working off a partner up top. As a Plan B, you could always go 4–1–4–1 and drop Lloyd into the midfield but not ask her to be the sole focus there.
Would Brian be enough defensive midfield protection against counter-attacks from teams like France and Germany? That’s a good question, but it would be one worth trying to answer over the next three years. As for the ages of the regular U.S. Olympic players at the start of the next World Cup, here they are:
Hope Solo: 37
Kelley O’Hara: 30
Julie Johnston: 27
Becky Sauerbrunn: 33
Meghan Klingenberg: 30
Allie Long: 31
Morgan Brian: 26
Carli Lloyd: 36
Tobin Heath: 31
Alex Morgan: 29
Mallory Pugh: 21
Crystal Dunn: 26
Megan Rapinoe: 33
Christen Press: 30
Lindsey Horan: 25
(Sydney Leroux*: 29)
I’m probably being conservative by picking a lineup in which six of the 11 players will be in their 30s. The biggest question marks age-wise will be around Solo (37), Lloyd (36), Rapinoe (33), Klingenberg (30) and O’Hara (30), the last two because their fullback positions require so much running. I don’t include Sauerbrunn at 33 because her game is built more on positioning than speed.
Still, not a single player should assume she has a secure spot for 2019. Lloyd spoke several times about the 2019 World Cup and 2020 Olympics as her targets to end her career. Lloyd’s work habits are legendary, and she’ll need those to continue being fit enough to excel at the next Olympics at age 38.
As for Solo, the main question will be: is she good enough? Her Olympic performances were mixed, ranging from game-saving plays against France to a howler against Colombia that cost the U.S. two points. Current backup Alyssa Naeher has been as good or better than Solo in the NWSL this season, and club performance should be part of Ellis’s consideration moving forward.
Plenty of goalkeepers have played at a high level through their late 30s, and Solo could surely be one of them. It also remains to be seen whether Ellis takes into consideration the off-the-field attention that Solo brings more than any other player with some of her comments and actions.
Other significant developments are also on the horizon. The U.S. players’ collective bargaining agreement concludes at the end of this calendar year. And while larger-than-expected Olympic TV audiences no doubt helped the players in CBA negotiations, the earliest-ever USWNT exit from a major tournament did not. A gold medal in Rio would have focused even more attention on the players’ push for equal pay to the U.S. men’s team. Now that’s an opportunity missed.
U.S. Soccer in 2016: USMNT and USWNT year in photos
Klinsmann fired, replaced by Arena
Jurgen Klinsmann was fired after the USA's World Cup qualifying loss in Costa Rica, bringing an end to more than five years in charge. He was replaced by Bruce Arena, who returns to the bench after coaching the USA from 1998-2006.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, November 15
The dejected faces on Bobby Wood, left, and John Brooks say it all, as the U.S. drops to 0-2-0 in the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal following a 4-0 loss and embarrassment at Costa Rica.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 13
Morgan Brian gets a congratulatory hug after her converted penalty kick, which helped the U.S. women close out 2016 with a 5-0 rout of Romania at StubHub Center in Carson, California.
USMNT vs. Mexico, November 11
Mexico players celebrate Rafa Marquez's late winner, which delivered a 2-1 triumph for El Tri over the USA to open the CONCACAF Hexagonal. It ended years of U.S. domination over Mexico in Columbus.
USWNT vs. Romania, November 10
Crystal Dunn congratulates Christen Press on one of her three goals as the USA handled Romania with ease, winning 8-1 at Avaya Stadium in San Jose, California.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 23
Carli Lloyd gets a hearty welcome after scoring on a long-range blast to kick-start the U.S. in a 5-1 rout of Switzerland in Minneapolis.
USWNT vs. Switzerland, October 19
A new-look U.S. women's team routed Switzerland 4-0 at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy, Utah, with Samantha Mewis (3) at the center of the celebrations after scoring the final goal of four-goal second half.
USMNT vs. New Zealand, October 11
Julian Green is congratulated by captain Michael Bradley after scoring the opener, but the U.S. was forced to settle for a 1-1 draw vs. New Zealand in the last game before the CONCACAF World Cup qualifying Hexagonal kicks off.
USMNT vs. Cuba, October 7
Chris Wondolowski scored a goal and assisted on another, as the USA continued World Cup qualifying preparations by beating Cuba 2-0 in a historic friendly in Havana.
USWNT vs. Netherlands, September 18
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal that kicks off the scoring for the USA in a 3-1 win over the Netherlands at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
U.S. women's national team co-captain Carli Lloyd happily signs autographs after scoring a hat trick in a 9-0 romp over Thailand in Columbus, Ohio.
USWNT vs. Thailand, September 15
Megan Rapinoe kneels for the national anthem ahead of the U.S. women's national team's match vs. Thailand, continuing her public protest in line with that of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
USMNT vs. Trinidad & Tobago, September 6
Fabian Johnson, Christian Pulisic and Sacha Kljestan celebrate during a 4-0 win, which cemented the USA's place atop its World Cup qualifying group and a berth in the CONCACAF hexagonal.
Hope Solo's USWNT contract terminated
Following the USWNT's Olympic loss to Sweden, Hope Solo lashed out at the opposition, calling them "cowards" and drawing the ire of U.S. Soccer. The incident pushed the federation over the edge, and it terminated the goalkeeper's contract while suspending her six months–meaning any chance at reinstatement won't be possible until February.
USWNT vs. Sweden, August 12
The long and stunned faces say it all, as the U.S. women try to comprehend a penalty-kick loss to Sweden in the Olympic quarterfinals. The 4-3 PK defeat after a 1-1 draw marked the earliest ouster for the U.S. women in a major competition ever.
USWNT vs. Colombia, August 9
Hope Solo lets a Catalina Usme free kick slip through her hands and legs in a shocking 2-2 draw. The USA still won its Olympic group despite the slip-up.
USWNT vs. France, August 6
Carli Lloyd scores the only goal in a 1-0 win over a stout France side to punch the USA's ticket to the knockout stage at the Olympics.
USWNT vs. New Zealand, August 3
Carli Lloyd celebrates her goal in the USA's 2-0 win over New Zealand in their opening match of group play at the Olympics. Alex Morgan doubled the USA's lead in the second half.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, July 22
Christen Press and Carli Lloyd celebrate an easy 4-0 win, which sent the U.S. on its way to Rio with an unbeaten record in 2016.
USWNT vs. South Africa, July 9
Hope Solo salutes the crowd after posting the 100th clean sheet of her career in a 1-0 win in Chicago. Crystal Dunn scored the lone goal.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 25
For a second time at Copa America, the USA falls to Colombia, with Carlos Bacca's goal the difference in a 1-0 result in the third-place match in Arizona.
USMNT vs. Argentina, June 21
Lionel Messi converts an incredible free kick to punctuate a dominant performance for Argentina against the USA in the Copa America semifinals.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, June 16
Goal scorers Clint Dempsey and Gyasi Zardes share a celebratory hug with Matt Besler in the Copa America quarterfinals, where the Americans held on for a 2-1 win and a place in the semis.
USMNT vs. Paraguay, June 11
Clint Dempsey celebrates his goal in a 1-0 win over Paraguay, which secured the USA's place in the Copa America knockout stage.
USMNT vs. Costa Rica, June 7
Bobby Wood caps a dominating first half for the USA in a must-win game vs. Costa Rica in Chicago at Copa America. Clint Dempsey, Jermaine Jones and Graham Zusi also scored.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 5
Co-captain Becky Sauerbrunn defends as the U.S. bounces back to shut out Japan 2-0 in a rain-shortened friendly in Cleveland.
USMNT vs. Colombia, June 3
James Rodriguez beats Brad Guzan from the penalty spot in Colombia's 2-0 win over the USA to open Copa America Centenario.
USWNT vs. Japan, June 2
Lindsey Horan heads the USA in front to cap a comeback from two goals down, but the Americans conceded in extra time to 10-woman Japan, settling for a 3-3 draw.
USMNT vs. Bolivia, May 29
Christian Pulisic scores his first international goal in the USA's 4-0 win over Bolivia in a final tune-up for Copa America. Gyasi Zardes scored twice, and John Brooks added one of his own in the triumph.
USMNT vs. Ecuador, May 25
Darlington Nagbe is hugged by Christian Pulisic after his 90th-minute volley delivers a 1-0 victory for the USA in a pre-Copa America friendly.
USMNT vs. Puerto Rico, May 22
Tim Ream scores the opening goal in the USA's 3-0 win over Puerto Rico in the first meeting between the two sides. Bobby Wood and Paul Arriola scored as well.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 10
Julie Johnston, left, is mobbed after one of her two goals in a 3-0 USA win at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Pennsylvania.
USWNT vs. Colombia, April 6
Allie Long, left scores twice, and five other players score as well in a 7-0 rout of Colombia in East Hartford, Connecticut.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Christian Pulisic, 17, makes his U.S. debut in a World Cup qualifier in Columbus, Ohio, becoming cap-tied to the USA. He was otherwise eligible for Croatia.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 29
Clint Dempsey and Jozy Altidore celebrate during a thorough 4-0 World Cup qualifying win, putting the USA's campaign back on track after the setback in Guatemala.
USMNT vs. Guatemala, March 25
There was no way through for DeAndre Yedlin and the USA during a 2-0 loss in Guatemala in what was a stunning setback in the Americans' World Cup qualifying campaign.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The USWNT celebrates the inaugural SheBelieves Cup title after beating European powers England, France and Germany in succession.
USWNT vs. Germany, March 9
The U.S. celebrates Alex Morgan's equalizer vs. Germany in the SheBelieves Cup in Boca Raton, Florida. Samantha Mewis's winner a few minutes later cemented the Americans' overall triumph in the competition.
USWNT vs. France, March 6
Alex Morgan scores the game-winner in a 1-0 victory over France in the second game of the SheBelieves Cup in Nashville, Tennessee.
USWNT vs. England, March 3
Crystal Dunn is mobbed after her game-winning goal kicks off the SheBelieves Cup in a 1-0 triumph in Tampa Bay, Florida.
USWNT vs. Canada, February 21
Lindsey Horan celebrates her goal that helps the USA to a 2-0 win over Canada and a first-place finish in CONCACAF Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Trinidad and Tobago, February 19
Alex Morgan celebrates one of her three goals that helped the U.S. clinch a berth in the 2016 Olympics after a 5-0 triumph in Houston.
USWNT vs. Puerto Rico, February 15
Crystal Dunn scores one of her five goals, tying a single-game U.S. record in a 10-0 rout to close group play in Olympic qualifying.
USWNT vs. Mexico, February 13
The U.S. needed a penalty kick from Carli Lloyd to beat Mexico 1-0 in the second match of CONCACAF's Olympic qualifying tournament.
USWNT vs. Costa Rica, February 10
Alex Morgan scores the fastest goal in U.S. history, netting 12 seconds into the USWNT's Olympic qualifying campaign and sending the Americans on their way to a 5-0 win.
USMNT vs. Canada, February 5
Jozy Altidore heads in the winner to secure a 1-0 win over Canada at StubHub Center to cap the annual winter training camp.
USMNT vs. Iceland, January 31
Steve Birnbaum heads in a late winner in a 3-2 victory over Iceland in the opening match of the year.
USWNT vs. Ireland, January 23
17-year-old Mallory Pugh scores on her debut, helping cap a 5-0 win for the USA to open the year. Carli Lloyd led the way with a hat trick, and Alex Morgan scored as well in San Diego.
As for the NWSL, it has already achieved one milestone by surviving into its fourth season, which neither of its two predecessor leagues, the WUSA and WPS, had done. But the league needs to raise its professionalism and find ways to increase sponsorships and improve TV deals. Some U.S. players are also considering moving to European clubs, which could add even more complications to the CBA negotiations with U.S. Soccer (which pays the national team players for their NWSL work).
When I asked a few U.S. players here what they think are the most important things for the NWSL to do moving forward, there was a common response. The two U.S. co-captains, Lloyd and Sauerbrunn, said they would like to see more MLS teams start or take over NWSL teams in the way that we’ve already seen in Houston, Orlando and Portland.
It makes sense. If you have training and stadium facilities already, why not support the women’s game as well? This U.S. team has shown that if you invest in it, you can also make money off it. And with MLS looking for $200 million up front from new expansion teams, adding a requirement that they start an NWSL team would be a good way to go.