For months, the biggest problem facing the U.S. women's national team ahead of the Olympics was the kind any manager around the world would welcome.
With so much talent, how do you only pick 18 players?
And while that's still the case in many ways for Vlatko Andonovski, he and the U.S. are faced with another pressing issue now, one that's less of an enviable proposition.
What if the team's most indispensable player isn't healthy?
Julie Ertz's injury status is now item No. 1 on the docket as the days tick down to this summer's Olympics in Tokyo. Ertz suffered a right MCL sprain in the Chicago Red Stars' NWSL season-opening loss to the Portland Thorns on May 16, an injury that, all things considered, was not a worst-case scenario—at least for the national team. Ertz looks unlikely to play again for her club until after the Olympics, but she's now in a race against time to get in game shape for a major international competition.
She's expectedly not part of the squad gathering for the "Summer Series" trio of friendlies in Texas next month, the roster for which was unveiled Tuesday. Another veteran, Tobin Heath, is also not included due to her long-term injury. Heath hurt her ankle with Manchester United in January and was supposed to be out for 10–12 weeks, but she suffered a knee injury during her rehabilitation that prolonged her recovery.
Andonovski told reporters in Louisville recently that Heath was still on track for Tokyo, and while she's not technically on the upcoming camp's 23-player roster, she will be present as a "training player," which suggests that she's both close to getting back to the field and is still very much in the mix for the Olympic squad.
"Because of her recovery and how well she is recovered, she was invited to come into camp as a training player, because the next step is a team environment and training with the team," said Andonovski, who added that Heath has been doing on-field work with U.S. U-20 coach Laura Harvey. "It's basically day by day. As she's progressing she'll get more and more."
While Heath brings so much to the table in terms of attacking quality, unpredictability and veteran know-how, there are like-for-like replacements that would allow the U.S. to not miss much of a step at all in her absence. In Ertz's case, however, she's more of a unique asset.
No player in the U.S. pool can replicate the job she does in covering the space in the midfield and neutralizing opponents' attacks while also serving as a link between the defense and attack. The aerial threat she brings on set pieces and center back cover she can provide are both qualities that are also so useful in tournament play—especially when roster versatility becomes more valuable with limited squad size. If the U.S. is a well-oiled machine, then Ertz is the engine. Andonovski allayed worst fears Tuesday, saying that when all is said and done, Ertz should be ready to go.
"MCL injuries usually take time to heal, but she'll be good and ready to play in our send-off series," Andonovski said. "Right now, her progression is going well. She started back jogging, but we're going to be very careful in terms of how we approach her recovery and make sure she's 100% by the Olympics."
The upcoming games against Portugal (29th in FIFA's world ranking), Nigeria (38th) and Jamaica (51st) are all about fine-tuning and shouldn't realistically challenge the U.S., but then again, perhaps they come at the perfect time. With the U.S.'s needing to prepare for all scenarios, including one in which its midfield linchpin is not available, the ability to find some alternative solutions will otherwise be limited to the pair of send-off matches Andonovski alluded to, which will take place once the Olympic squad is set. Whether it's a tactical tweak, a lineup swap or a reassessment of player responsibility, there's suddenly another problem to solve aside from cutting what's effectively become a 25-player pool (the Summer Series squad plus the two injured stars) to 18.
“These games and the few training sessions we’ll have are just more tests, more challenges and more learning opportunities, for the players and coaches,” Andonovski said. “The three matches will certainly be important in the selection of the Olympic team, but we are also focused on the big picture and the overall body of work the players have put together over the past year or so for the national team and their clubs. During these games we’ll also focus on preparing for the Olympic group matches, so we need to balance all of that, as well as manage the overall physical load on the players.”
Full USWNT Summer Series Squad:
GOALKEEPERS: Jane Campbell (Houston Dash), Adrianna Franch (Portland Thorns), Alyssa Naeher (Chicago Red Stars)
DEFENDERS: Alana Cook (PSG), Abby Dahlkemper (Manchester City), Tierna Davidson (Chicago Red Stars), Crystal Dunn (Portland Thorns), Kelley O’Hara (Washington Spirit), Midge Purce (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Becky Sauerbrunn (Portland Thorns), Emily Sonnett (Washington Spirit)
MIDFIELDERS: Lindsey Horan (Portland Thorns), Rose Lavelle (OL Reign), Catarina Macario (Lyon), Kristie Mewis (Houston Dash), Samantha Mewis (North Carolina Courage), Andi Sullivan (Washington Spirit)
FORWARDS: Carli Lloyd (NJ/NY Gotham FC), Alex Morgan (Orlando Pride), Christen Press (Manchester United), Megan Rapinoe (OL Reign), Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns), Lynn Williams (North Carolina Courage)
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