Back in January, United States Women’s National Team head coach Jill Ellis shocked and saddened fans when she notably left midfielder Heather O’Reilly off the Olympic Qualifying roster. Naturally, this led many to conclude that our beloved HAO was out of the running to make the short Olympic roster (which allots each team 18 players total, five less than were allowed at the World Cup).
Fast forward to the most recent camp and set of friendlies in early June, in which O’Reilly was included on the roster but saw no playing time, and we all have accepted that this is how things are going to be from now on: the insane influx of young and talented soccer players has unfortunately overshadowed deserving veteran players. “Out with the old and in with the new,” while an apt saying applied to many things, when applied to our favorite soccer players is not so sweet.
— U.S. Soccer WNT (@ussoccer_wnt) January 6, 2016
Heather O’Reilly first played with the senior team at the age of 17, and has scored 46 goals and earned 229 caps since – the most caps of anyone called up for June camp (with the exception of Christie Rampone, who chose not to attend). If seniority alone isn’t enough to keep someone on a team (which, it’s not), the fact remains that this January HAO set a USWNT beep test record, proving that her fitness is game and Olympic worthy. To top it off, O’Reilly scored five goals in the 2015 Victory Tour – four of which came as two consecutive two-goal games. Goal scoring doesn’t make a soccer player, but it can’t be denied that Heather O’Reilly is capable of making a difference when given the chance.
Jill Ellis doesn’t have much time to officially name her Olympic roster, and while the majority of it might seem given, the last few spots to fill are going to be really tough decisions for Ellis. Young players like Mallory Pugh and Lindsey Horan have shown that they are not to be overlooked, but it’s really hard to compare them to the veteran players whose past on the team prove them worthy, but whose recent records are so non-existent that they’re impossible to judge (for example, Whitney Engen was one of only two players two went to the World Cup and didn’t see a single minute of playing time- not because she’s any less of a player than her fellow defenders, but because when you find a lineup that works, you stick to it).
So why do I think that Heather O’Reilly should get more playing time and get to the Olympics? I’ll admit that maybe it’s in part a personal bias- I grew up watching her and her “game face” on the team, I’ve seen her at her best, and I miss watching the chemistry she has with some of the other veterans on the field. But there’s also something magical that happens when Heather O’Reilly steps onto the field, and I can only compare it to what happened when Abby Wambach or Christie Rampone would play – just these players’ presence on the field can bring the whole team to another level. There’s a level of confidence that younger players gain when a more experienced player steps onto the field that’s hard to describe; there are certain players who can elevate the level of play in a game without ever even touching the ball, and Heather O’Reilly is one of them. Experience isn’t just a benefit during gametime either- when you’re a player like Pugh or Horan, who has just started their international career, having O’Reilly in camp and being able to learn from someone as experienced as her is extremely beneficial.
Team turnover is a completely normal process that happens on every team at every level – older players age and younger players with fresher legs and many things to learn take their place. This isn’t even specific to sports, but to life in general. We all know its going to happen – we knew that Abby Wambach was going to retire eventually, but that doesn’t mean that I wasn’t a sad mess when it happened. I, like many others, took to Twitter to express my fury at HAO not being named for Olympic Qualifiers in January, and I’ll probably do it again if she isn’t named to the final Olympic roster, but through all the anger I know that the USWNT will be fine, having too many good players is both a blessing and a curse, but the team will manage with any combination of 18 we put out there. Let’s all just hope that Heather O’Reilly is one of those 18!