When head coach Jill Ellis named her roster for the 2016 Olympic Games, there were many familiar names. The team assembled to travel to Brazil is an exciting mix of veterans and up-and-coming talents, but one roster note stands out: of the 18 players named to the team, 11 will be competing in their first Olympic Games.
The group of Olympic rookies, featuring players with more than 50 caps down to those with just a few, includes: Morgan Brian, Crystal Dunn, Whitney Engen, Lindsey Horan, Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Ali Krieger, Allie Long, Alyssa Naeher, Christen Press and Mallory Pugh.
“Certainly going into the World Cup, we recognized we had more of a senior roster,” Ellis said in discussing the Olympic Team selection. “Now, it’s not just having your eye on the Olympics this summer, it’s having your eye on what’s beyond that. Getting younger players experience in this world event will help down the line. I think that’s part of what you have to do in this position is always plan to continue winning world championships. It’s a great infusion of new players – a slightly different style in terms of different players and pieces and putting it all together – and that’s actually been good. It’s refreshing, as a staff, to work with different faces and try to blend them.”
Brian, Engen, Johnston, Klingenberg, Krieger, Naeher and Press were all part of the World Cup championship team in 2015, while Dunn, Horan, Long and Pugh will experience their first world championship at the senior level, although the quartet have each have represented the USA in a youth World Cup.
“Myself and other older players do have some experience from last year’s World Cup, even if this is our first Olympic Games, so we can bring that to the table,” Naeher said. “Those that have been at the Olympics before will give support to us first timers and we can reciprocate by bringing what we learned during the World Cup experience to those who are experiencing their first world championship.”
Defender Julie Johnston (left) and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher were part of a U.S. defense that pitched a convincing shutout in
the team's final pre-Olympic warm-up game, a 4-0 win vs. Costa Rica in Kansas City.
Krieger, who started every game at the 2015 Women’s World Cup at right back, was an alternate for the 2008 Olympic Team and was almost certain to make the 2012 squad when a devastating ACL injury dashed her dreams. Four years later, soon-to-be 32-year-old Krieger became the oldest first-time U.S. Women’s Soccer Olympian – a fact she embraces.
“After three tries, it’s finally happened,” Krieger said. “I’ve waited for this my entire life and I’ve trained for it my entire life. You play to be able to compete at the highest level and you dream of this when you’re young, so making it a reality is amazing. Add to that, we are playing for ourselves and for Team USA so it’s inspiring to see so many athletes be a part of this. There’s extra motivation and extra support.”
Four years ago, Klingenberg and Press were still trying to break into the team when they were named alternates for the 2012 Olympic squad. Klingenberg had just two caps at the time and Press had yet to debut.
Now, after starting every match at the 2015 Women’s World Cup and playing the most minutes (384 out of 450) of any U.S. player in the Olympic Qualifying tournament, Klingenberg is a key cog on the back line. Press has an impressive strike rate, having scored 34 goals in 70 caps since debuting at the beginning of the 2013, including her first World Cup goal that came against Australia in the tournament opener last summer.
“When Jill called me she said, ‘this call is a bit different than four years ago,’ and it was one of the best things,” Klingenberg said. “I was happy and proud in 2012 as an alternate but I wanted to be on the team and win a medal with my teammates and win a medal for the USA. So to be able to go to Brazil is special and I’m humbled and honored to represent it with this group of people. We have a great team with incredible people.”
Dunn, who was among the final 25 players vying for 2015 Women’s World Cup spots before the roster was trimmed to the 23 that represented the USA in Canada, has become a valuable part of the U.S. attack, scoring 10 goals in 2016, behind only Alex Morgan’s 11. Horan, who came back to the U.S. this year after playing professional soccer in France with Paris Saint-Germain for more than three years, has developed into a strong presence as a holding midfielder, while her club teammate and fellow midfielder Allie Long made a return to the WNT scene in April and played her way into a spot on the Olympic Team.
As for Pugh, the 18-year-old forward became the second youngest women’s soccer Olympian in U.S. history. She will be about a month older than Cindy Parlow was at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The selection put an exclamation point on an incredible debut year for Pugh, who has played in 14 of the USA’s 15 games so far in 2016 and has recorded seven assists, a team-leading mark, as well as scored three goals.
Morgan Brian (back) and Mallory Pugh (front) are two of the youngest three players on the USA's Olympic roster at 23- and 18-years-old, respectively.
“When [Jill Ellis] called, a bunch of emotions were going through my mind,” recalled Pugh, who is also the captain of the U.S. U-20 Women’s National Team that will compete in the U-20 Women’s World Cup in Papua New Guinea later this fall. “I was a bit in shock because I know I’ve worked hard and it’s because of my teammates on the National Team, on the U-20s and back at home that have pushed me. I appreciate that from them and I wouldn’t be in the position I am in today without them. I thought, did that really just happen? Am I going to go to the Olympics? I will not only be with amazing athletes on my team but also on Team USA. It will be so cool to see so many different athletes, find out their journeys and be inspired by them.”
To win the gold, teams will have to slog through six games in 16 days, including three group games in the span of a week. Among several other strong contenders to win the tournament, the USA is poised to make a strong run, one in which several first-time Olympians will no doubt play major roles should the Americans once again step to the top of the podium.
The U.S. WNT will kick off Group G play at the 2016 Olympic Games against New Zealand in Belo Horizonte on Aug. 3 (6 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBC Universo). The team then remains in Belo Horizonte to face France on Aug. 6 (4 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBC Universo) before taking off to Manaus for its final Group G game vs. Colombia (6 p.m. ET; NBCSN, NBC Universo).