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BULLETIN: Jan. 26, 2016 — An evolution in the roster

The post-World Cup retirement of several key members of the U.S. women’s national soccer team could have made the job of selecting the 17 members of the Olympic team easier.

But with a key CONCACAF Olympic qualification tournament taking place next month, head coach Jill Ellis is using the occasion to try out a number of new players, especially on the attack end.

The roster, released this afternoon, shows that the U.S. is all set in the back. CONCACAF Goalkeeper of the Year Hope Solo will be in the No. 1 shirt with Ashlyn Harris and Alyssa Naeher as backups. The back four will be Julie Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Ali Krieger, just as it was during the World Cup. Kelley O’Hara (who is more of a midfielder) is listed as a backup, along with Emily Sonnett and Jaelene Hinkle. Waiting deep, deep in reserve is former captain Christie Rampone, who is still sidelined with a knee injury.

The midfield, robbed of a lot of its endeavor and experience, is going to have to coalesce around mega-star Carli Lloyd, but four very young stars — Morgan Brian, Tobin Heath, Lindsey Horan, and Samantha Mewis — will have a great chance to work off her. All four can run all day with possession, and can play off the front foot. The problem, however, is to find someone aside from Lloyd who can deliver the ball off set pieces with the kind of pace that Megan Rapinoe used to.

The Hammers will have to deal with gaping holes in the front. Of course, that will happen when your all-time leading scorer, Abby Wambach, retires. But the pregnancies of Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez have forced Ellis’ hand. In comes 17-year-old Mallory Pugh, who scored on her debut last weekend with the full national side. She will be one of four players (Christen Press, Crystal Dunn, and Stephanie McCaffrey are the others) who will be competing for a starting forward slot alongside Alex Morgan.

Thing is, there is so very little time between now and the opening of the tournament on Feb. 10, that it will take every bit of guile to figure out the right attack combination for the American side. Dunn and Pugh are very much the same kind of player — speed merchants who can withstand tackles with the best of them. Press can put good pace on the ball, but disappeared after group play in the 2015 World Cup. McCaffrey, like Pugh, scored on her debut in a match against Brazil last fall.

CONCACAF qualification isn’t a gimme this time around, especially with Canada in the tournament, and with no intercontinental playoffs this time around. The Americans are required to make the final of CONCACAF qualification in order to defend its Olympic title.

So, at some stage, the U.S. is going to have to get one or more of its new-look front six to fire off at the same pace and rate as Lloyd. It will be interesting to see how the chemistry of the team looks in a tournament setting.

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