-- Ask any coach in any sport and they'll tell you that cutting players is their least favorite thing to do. No coach enjoys having to tell players who have worked so hard and for so long on a dream that they are no longer on the team.
So imagine having to shave off five players from your Women's World Cup- winning roster. That is what U.S. coach Jill Ellis will have to do next spring when she names her Olympic roster for the Rio Games, which open a year from today. Women's soccer in the Olympics is a competition of only 12 teams (the Women's World Cup had 24), and the Olympic roster -- 18 players -- is much smaller than the 23-player World Cup roster. So naturally, one year out from Rio, the obvious question is which players might get cut from the U.S. World Cup side, and who gets added?
Let's start first with the players who are stepping away. Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx are the only two World Cup players who have officially announced their retirement. There were questions regarding whether 35-year-old Abby Wambach would continue to play, but she recently said that she intends to be available for Rio. Captain Christie Rampone, 40, says she also still hopes to play in the 2016 Olympics "if her body holds up." However, staying healthy has been an issue for Rampone in the past six months.
Assume for the moment that Ellis keeps the two veterans, Wambach and Rampone, in the mix. Ellis fully understands their leadership value, and if both are playing well, she might want them present. That still leaves three players who need to be cut, and that is without even opening up the potential for new players. (At the 2012 Olympics, 17 players returned from the 2011 Women's World Cup team. Sydney Leroux was the lone addition and the youngest player to round out the 18-player roster.)
That potential pool of players who could break onto the scene in such a short timeline is a small group. Realistically, it probably consists of only two players: Crystal Dunn and Lindsey Horan.
Dunn, 23, was the last player cut from the 2015 World Cup team. The Washington Spirit forward leads the NWSL with 12 goals and two assists. Not surprisingly, she is having an excellent season and continues to be one of the most versatile players ever to wear a U.S. uniform. Dunn is a player the United States wants to invest in, and her ability to play on all three lines is a huge bonus on a small roster.
Horan is another young player to watch. The 21-year-old plays professionally at Paris Saint-Germain in France. Horan turned down a scholarship to play at North Carolina, instead choosing to go straight to France out of high school. Horan has been on Ellis' radar for many years with the U.S. youth national team, but ill-timed injuries continue to set her back. She is currently recovering from microfracture knee surgery she had last winter. That is not an easy recovery. If Horan can get back to form and stay healthy, she is the heir apparent to Wambach.
Adding Dunn and Horan into the mix gets us back to 23 players competing for 18 spots. If Ellis had to name that 18-player roster (plus three alternates) today, these are the biggest things to consider at each position.
Goalkeepers: Ellis can't take three on a roster this small, so expect her to name one of the goalkeepers from the World Cup squad as an alternate for the Olympics. That means either Ashlyn Harris or Alyssa Naeher will get dropped. Given both have had their share of injury issues, the decision will likely depend on their health next spring.
Defenders: Ellis will most likely have to drop at least two from the World Cup squad, and my guess is Lori Chalupny and Rampone would be omitted. If not Rampone, then Whitney Engen. Ellis knows the value Rampone brings as a leader and excellent center back, but with a small roster, is she willing to leave herself exposed to the potential for injury with what will be a 41-year-old captain?
Midfielders: I think Dunn definitely gets added into the mix with Holiday and Boxx retired. Even though Heather O'Reilly brings speed and one-on-one ability down the wing, she gets the short straw on this one. We saw how little Ellis used O'Reilly in the World Cup, and with winger options in Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Kelley O'Hara (and even Dunn if needed), O'Reilly will be on the outside looking in. Plus, Dunn gives you the added versatility of being able to play centrally in the midfield, as well.
Forwards: Immediately after the World Cup, both Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux announced they were having surgery: Morgan on her "other" (right) knee, and Leroux on her ankle. Morgan's surgery is just a "clean up," which means she is most likely out just a month, but Leroux's is listed as out "up to three months." With such a tight turnaround between the World Cup and the Olympics, in addition to Leroux's being injured for an extended time leading into the World Cup, Leroux faces a tall task to make it back in time for the Olympics -- especially if Wambach is still playing at a high level and Horan is recovered from her knee surgery.
This forward decision will obviously be a tough one for Ellis. If Horan is tearing it up in France, I can see Ellis replacing Leroux with this target-type forward, a position at which the United States clearly needs more depth.
So, given all the above, who could possibly make that final Olympic roster of 18? Here's my take:
Goalkeepers: Hope Solo, Ashlyn Harris
Defenders: Becky Sauerbrunn, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, Kelley O'Hara, Whitney Engen
Midfielders: Carli Lloyd, Megan Rapinoe, Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn
Forwards: Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Amy Rodriguez, Lindsey Horan
The roster would include 16 members of the World Cup team, plus two new additions in Dunn and Horan. O'Reilly, Chalupny and Leroux would be my three alternates, with Naher as the alternate goalkeeper.
As you can see, narrowing the roster will not be an easy task by any measure. But it's a great problem to have if you are Jill Ellis. The U.S. depth is what sets this team apart. The hardest decisions will involve the U.S. women's stellar veteran leaders. If Rampone does not make the final roster, my hope is she retires and is saluted for a national team career that has been absolutely remarkable.