With just 13 months separating the Women's World Cup final from kickoff at the Summer Olympics, few would have blamed Jill Ellis for keeping matters simple. Want to integrate a new generation of players? Sure — but wait until after Rio.
But that's not how the U.S. national team coach has approached the job. Yes, the retirements of Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday, Lori Chalupny and Shannon Boxx forced her hand, as did Megan Rapinoe's ACL injury and pregnancies for Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez. Yet rather than rely on veterans to fill the void, Ellis has turned to a slew of enticing prospects to bolster her team's depth and challenge for starting spots.
As the U.S. clinched an Olympic berth with a 5-0 win over Trinidad and Tobago on Friday in Houston, it was 17-year-old Mallory Pugh — a player few would have imagined showing up on Ellis' radar — who served as the most enticing attacking catalyst.
Here are three takeaways from Americans' semifinal triumph, which saw the U.S. book a ticket to Rio and set up a juicy matchup in Sunday's (largely ceremonial) final against Canada:
MALLORY PUGH IS THE REAL DEAL
Ellis raised some eyebrows when she took an Olympic qualifying pool already deprived of many veterans and dropped fan favorite Heather O'Reilly — and her 228 caps — in favor of a player like Pugh, whose international debut came less than a month ago. But the soon-to-be UCLA freshman has lived up to the hype during this tournament.
Pugh earned a surprise start Friday and was an absolute handful against Trinidad and Tobago, using her pace to blow past defenders with ease. But what makes Pugh so exciting is her soccer IQ — she offers admirable work ethic, makes intelligent runs and picks out the right passes. Although she was deployed on the left flank, she recognized holes across the opposing back line and cut inside to attack them at opportune moments. Let's also note that her dynamic run and service on Tobin Heath's opener took pressure off the Americans in a must-win game.
There are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the new talent in the U.S. pool, with Lindsey Horan, Jaelene Hinkle, Emily Sonnett, Stephanie McCaffrey and Crystal Dunn (a five-goal scorer against Puerto Rico) all showing well after not playing in Canada last summer — and all 23 or younger. Yet Pugh's emergence might be the most compelling storyline of them all.
KELLEY O'HARA MAKES HER CASE AT RIGHT BACK
Kelley O'Hara, of course, is no newcomer. Yet as valuable as O'Hara has been as a versatile depth player for the U.S., a spot in the starting lineup has proved elusive for the 27-year-old. After making three appearances as a winger in the knockout round of the World Cup, she was an unused substitute for the Americans' first two group stage games of the Olympic qualifying tournament.
She did get the nod at right back as a reserve-heavy U.S. team took on Puerto Rico in the group stage finale, scoring a clever goal in the 10-0 thrashing. It was a surprise, though, to see her get the start over Ali Krieger on Friday. O'Hara responded with an energetic outing, aggressively winning tackles and jumping into the attack. She also orchestrated a goal, hitting the far-post service that led to Alex Morgan's first strike.
O'Hara has a ways to go before she takes the starting job from Krieger. But she has proved to Ellis that she's a viable alternative — especially if the U.S. wants more attacking bite against bunkered-in opponents. And let's not forget that O'Hara admirably filled in for an injured Kriger four years ago, logging every minute as the U.S. claimed gold in London.
ALEX MORGAN KEEPS SCORING GOALS
Morgan has looked like a reinvigorated player all tournament, and the goals started pouring in Friday as she notched a hat trick — bringing her total to six goals in five games this year. The explosive runs and stinging shots are now coming with regularity, with Morgan no longer forced to gut through injuries to leave her mark.
The caveat: Morgan hasn't exactly been racking up her goals against sterling opposition. Although the match versus Canada on Sunday doesn't mean anything, with both teams already going to Rio, it will bode well if Morgan can leave her mark against the Americans' biggest CONCACAF rival.
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