After Women’s World Cup triumph, Wambach, Ellis face questions about 2016 Olympics

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia – So, what now?

It’s a blunt question, to be fair, but it was the forward-looking inquiry for the United States women’s national team after the last pieces of golden confetti fell onto BC Place’s artificial turf, amid thick haze that blew into the partially-roofed stadium from wildfires to the east.

The U.S. had just won its first Women’s World Cup in 16 years, demolishing Japan, 5-2 in the highest-scoring final in history.

But the Americans are also three-time defending Olympic champions, and the Rio Olympics start in just over a year. The U.S. was also the oldest team of 24 teams at this World Cup with an average age of over 29 years old.

Longtime captain Christie Rampone turned 40 years old during the tournament. She won both the 1999 and 2015 World Cups, the only player on the current team to win two titles.

“It’s been amazing,” Rampone said. “To be put in at the end of the game is truly an honor and I thank the coaching staff for that. It just brings it full-circle for me. Starting with a win and ending with a win, it doesn’t get better than that.”

But Rampone played only 14 minutes in this World Cup, losing her spot as starting center back – initially due to injury – to 23-year-old Julie Johnston. This was Rampone’s last World Cup, but will she try to play at the 2016 Olympics? Will she retire at year’s end?

“We’ll see how it goes,” she told NBC Sports on Sunday.

[MORE: Lloyd the hat-trick hero  |  US peaks at right time  |  Japan implodes]

Rampone is not alone in the dilemma. Midfielder Shannon Boxx turned 38 years old in June; she played only 16 minutes at this World Cup, all against Nigeria.

And the big question that everyone wants to know: Will Abby Wambach retire? Wambach is the most decorated goal-scorer in the history of men’s or women’s international soccer. Her lone tally of the tournament against Nigeria boosted her haul to 183 career goals.

In the moments following the match on Sunday, Wambach was pointed about enjoying the night before thinking about or discussing her future. On Monday morning, she told Fox Sports that she needs time to think about her future.

“Right now, I’m gonna have to definitely re-evaluate in the coming weeks, the coming months,” Wambach said. “We’ve got the 10-game celebration tour that we’re gonna have a lot of fun with and we’ve got to qualify come January/February of next year for the Olympics. So, we’ll see how my body feels, we’ll see what’s going on with some of the other players on the team. It’s an 18-[player] squad, so it’s a harder squad to make. And I just want to be happy and playing really good soccer.”

Wambach’s mom, Judy, said Monday that she was “over the moon” for her daughter, but she isn’t sure what the 35-year-old forward will do.

“She has so much fun doing this, I would hope that she would [continue],” Judy Wambach said. “But she has always said they have to want her to, so it all depends on the circumstances at the time, if she’s healthy and they want her. There’s a lot of young, beautifully talented women behind her now that can take the reins and be successful.”

These roster questions are the latest that stare down U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who faced hefty criticism for the team’s uninspiring play in the first four matches of the World Cup before being anointed for her tactical changes from the quarterfinal stage onward (some changes were made by force due to suspension, but it’s irrefutable that Ellis nailed the United States’ tactics in the final two games).

[LAULETTA: Wambach gets the World Cup title she has so long desired]

Ellis said on Monday that she hasn’t yet discussed the future with Wambach or some of the other veterans, but the English-born U.S. boss will have to trim her 23-player World Cup roster to 18 players for the Olympics. The last player cut from this United States World Cup team was Crystal Dunn, who has largely played fullback for the national team but has, since being inspired by her publicly perceived snubbing from this U.S. squad, gone on a tear in the National Women’s Soccer League, scoring a league-leading seven goals in 11 matches for the Washington Spirit.

“Crystal was on the cusp and it was a really hard decision, but I know we’ve got a lot of quality and there’s some players that maybe I haven’t seen,” Ellis said. “I’ll continue to look at the NWSL games and look at the youth teams and see what’s out there.”

A usually stoic Ellis was visibly ecstatic – to use her word – on Sunday night and Monday morning. This World Cup victory was about the here and now, but it was also about sending the veterans out – with “out” at least being in terms of their World Cup careers – on a high note.

“It was one of the priorities for me,” Ellis said. “As much as you want this for your country and you want this for these players, those women have given so much and to send them off with a World Cup, I get emotional thinking about it, because that was a big, big part. I want their legacy – they’ve done so much for the game and now to leave their mark and people talk about them, and this generation now has their next set of heroes.”

That appreciation for the outgoing generation is a longstanding part of the U.S. national team’s culture. Hat-trick hero Carli Lloyd handed over the captain’s armband when Wambach checked into the final in the 79th minute, and Wambach handed it over to Rampone after the game. Rampone, in turn, made Wambach wait with her at the back of the procession for the gold medals, so that the two multi-generational legends could lift the World Cup trophy together.

That sort of togetherness isn’t lost on the new stars of the team, including the player Wambach has most directly influenced, forward Alex Morgan.

“Me and Abby spent a couple minutes sitting down in the locker room as everyone was celebrating,” Morgan said. “It was a pretty special moment for me, knowing that – I actually asked her if it was the last time we were going to play together ever on the field together, starting to tear up, and she said, ‘no, we have a couple more months together, probably.’ So, that made me smile a little bit.

“Abby, like I said before the World Cup final, she’s the glue to this team and I love her so much. She’s such a great friend of mine and it’s not only her, though. It’s honestly some of the other players like Christie Rampone, who has worked so hard and is Captain America to us. So, it’s some of those players that we look up to, still to this day.”

Wambach started three of the seven games at this World Cup but played only 25 combined minutes in the United States’ final three matches. She said last week that her time on the bench this tournament has taken years off her life, and she now knows how stressful it is for her parents to have to watch matches from the stands.

“I said it to her: ‘Now you know what it’s like to sit there patiently,” Judy Wambach said Monday.

Now the world waits patiently to see what Wambach and some of her teammates will do.

United States women overcame growing pains to peak when it mattered

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source: Getty Images
(Getty Images)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — After months of uncertain buildup to the World Cup, and then a group stage and round of 16 filled with angst and question marks, the United States finally kicked things into gear to close out the 2015 Women’s World Cup with a 5-2 victory over Japan on Sunday.

They were better in midfield against China in the quarterfinals and then superior across the park in the semifinals against Germany. And they put the finishing touches on their third World Cup title with a whirlwind 16-minute stretch that will be remembered for as long as people still play and talk about soccer.

“I feel like I blacked out for the first 30 minutes or so in that game,” Lloyd said. “It was just unbelievable.”

Lloyd should consider spending more time in a blacked-out state. Before 16 minutes were up, she became the first woman to score a hat trick in a World Cup final and had salted away the heretofore contentious battle for the Golden Ball. The stretch was the culmination of the culmination—the rise from group the angst of the group stage to dominant performances against Germany in the semifinals and Japan in the final.

“We just knew,” coach Jill Ellis said. “I just knew that the players could deliver. For me it’s no surprise. As the teams get harder and the pressure gets bigger, this team gets better. That’s what they’re about. I said to them in the semifinal game, these players were born for big moments. This is what they relish.”

As the 23 players basked in the glory of what had become a 16-year (and three-World Cup) trial of fire under the hottest pressure, some of them softly acknowledged what everyone knew a few weeks ago. The group-stage version of the United States was not playing well enough to win the World Cup.

[LAULETTA: Finally, Wambach gets her World Cup | U.S. beats Japan for third World Cup title]

“It sounds cliché because I’ve been saying it a lot,” Alex Morgan said, “but we’ve been building momentum through this tournament. I knew this was going to be our best game yet and it was. I think everyone just had this really good feeling today.”

Christie Rampone was part of all three of the near-miss teams since 1999 as well as that ’99 team that until Sunday night was the most recent U.S. team to win the World Cup. “We’ve been working so incredibly hard and (had) ups and downs and it just all came together. We were getting criticized early on for not playing our best soccer, but I think this team willed through it and pushed through it. We started pressuring more and realized that this was ours.”

The three teams did not win, finishing 3rd, 3rd, and 2nd, respectively, not exactly epic failure. But for a team that expects nothing less than winning, they all ranked as disappointments. This time, though, Rampone said it felt different.

“I just felt like we were in a good place,” she said. “I thought when we played the better competition whne it came to where it mattered I think the team really stepped up and played well. The defense was solid. Carli mov(ed) positions and played her role in this final. She just executed and finished. I’m really proud of her.”

Ellis has long talked about things being a process for the team. But it was a process that sometimes looked like it was carrying a completion date that would be too late for the World Cup. Whether it was Julie Johnston’s fortuitous insertion into the lineup or whether suspensions to Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday for the quarterfinals triggered a most important lineup change, it all came together in the nick of time.

“I said to the players we’ve got to continue to believe in the process,” Ellis said. “It had to be a fast process. I was hired about a year ago. There’s been some growing pains and such. It just feels really, really good. And I could not be more proud of these players and this staff. Because I knew they had it in them and I’m just so happy now the world gets to see it.”

Rampone, other US veterans met with Ellis at midway point of Women’s World Cup

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The World Cup is a funny thing. It goes by in a flash yet it seems to last forever. Thirty days. Lives change. Legacies are made. Teams make adjustments. And they get better.

The World Cup is long enough, and there is enough travel, that Christie Rampone does not even remember what city she was in when she talked to Jill Ellis about the state of the United States team at the approximate midway point of the tournament.

“Jill actually told us before leaving New Jersey (for the World Cup) that she wanted to meet halfway and kind of recap,” Rampone said Friday during a media session at the team hotel. “See where we’re at, see what the pulse is, how’s the energy, do we need to rest more.”

[MORE: Complete coverage of the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup]

Rampone said the meetings were informal and individual with different members of the team. “It’s all individual. I had met with her, I’m sure Carli (Lloyd)’s net with her and Abby (Wambach)’s met with her.

“She’s more of a one-one-one than having big groups. She’ll just grab you in the hallway like, ‘alrigt give me five minutes.’ So it’s never really planned which is probably better. It’s more spur of the moment. All the meetings are in her room.”

Rampone stopped short of saying it was the players who asked for more freedom. “Yes and no,” the now 40-year old veteran of five World Cups said.

However and who ever made the call to change things up, if the U.S. beats Japan on Sunday it will likely be remembered as the decision that saved the World Cup. The team went from a somnambulant 4-4-2 setup with Lloyd and Lauren Holiday playing as tandem holding midfielders to a dynamic arrangement with Lloyd sitting off Alex Morgan and Holiday combining with Morgan Brian to press underneath them. Once the formation altered against China, that team never had a chance. Germany was outplayed in the semifinal as well.

“I’m not saying I’m one of the best defensive mids out there, but I played there (in the) 2012 Olympics. And I can do it,” Lloyd said. “But at the same time for me to have more of an impact and try to gett he attack going it’s obviously my natural position.”

Lloyd also spoke of meeting with Ellis during the tournament after she played below her standards during three group matches. “Jill and I have sat down with one and other numerous times and looked at film. She’s always been in my corner. She told me after the group games ‘you’re fine, we’re going to get you going.’ It’s great to have the freedom to be able to create and impact the game.”

[MORE: Lloyd among eight up for Golden Ball]

Asked what she appreciates most about Jill Ellis, Rampone said it is the U.S. coach’s openmindedness to accepting feedback from her assistants as well as her attention to detail about each U.S. opponent.

“I think she embraces their knowledge,” Rampone said of the assistant coaches. “They are constantly meeting and constantly watching video and analyzing the team. I think she’s taken a step back where it’s not always about the U.S. team. She is breaking down the other teams and giving us that feedback. I’ve seen that in the past but just not to the extent that Jill has done.”

Rampone also made reference to the turf which has silently put a beating on those who have done 90 minutes over it throughout the World Cup.

“It was the unexpected playing on turf of how the bodies were going to respond. Do we need more rest? Can we keep pushing? It was more of that communication between players and staff to revisit and then gear up for the knockout phase.

“I think (Ellis) was holding the reins off. It’s all about coaching. It’s all about timing. I think her preparation and the coaching staff’s preparation has been brilliant.”

Meet the US Women’s World Cup team: Defenders

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Four years ago the United States women were on the verge of a third World Cup title in the final against Japan, but twice conceded equalizers before losing in penalty kicks.

Fast-forward to 2015 and the starting defensive unit has changed drastically, including a very recent injection of youth.

[ NEWS: Latest on Women’s World Cup

Julie Johnston was opportunistic while filling in for injured teammates this spring and has solidified her spot as a starting center back alongside Becky Sauerbrunn. Meghan Klingenberg is likely to start at left fullback and Ali Krieger will likely start at right back as the only returning regular of the four from 2011 (Johnston and Klingenberg weren’t on the roster, and Sauerbrunn only played in one match after Rachel Van Hollebeke (then Buehler).

Buehler, Amy LePeilbet and Heather Mitts are out of the picture and Kelley O’Hara is a reserve now.

Lori Chalupny

Lori Chalupny is one of the most interesting stories on the United States national team. In 2008 she was widely heralded by her peers as the best left back in the world, helping the U.S. win a second straight Olympic gold medal. But she suffered several concussions and did not gain clearance from U.S. Soccer to play for the national team…until November. Five years later, she returned to the U.S. national team after obtaining medical clearance. Chalupny is versatile, capable of playing outside back, forward or in the middle of the park. In league play for Chicago and in the past professional league for Atlanta, Chalupny is often the best player on the field, regardless of which position she is in.

Whitney Engen

One of a handful of U.S. players to find their form abroad, Whitney Engen credits her first trip to Sweden to play for Tyreso as reason for her still playing the game. She played in a UEFA Champions League final with the team last year and won a league title with Liverpool in between. She’s a tall center back who provides the United States depth. Engen was a large part of three NCAA national championships in her four years at North Carolina and she seamlessly stepped into the professional circuit, helping a world all-start Western New York Flash team win the (now defunct) WPS title in 2010.

Meghan Klingenberg

‘Energy’ is the first word that comes to mind regarding Meghan Klingenberg. She brings it both on and off the field, and it is particularly evident when she scores. She has two career international goals heading into the World Cup and both were highlight-reel stunners. Over the past year, Klingenberg has solidified herself as the starting left fullback, a position the U.S. coach Jill Ellis asks a lot of defensively and in the attack. Klingenberg played with Engen and forward Christen Press at Tyreso. And she has a black belt in Taekwondo, so….watch yourself.

Ali Krieger

Ali Krieger was the best right fullback at the 2011 World Cup and a big reason the U.S. found success in there in Germany, where she played for over five years in the Frauen-Bundesliga for Frankfurt, where she won a UEFA Champions League title. She missed the 2012 Olympics after tearing her ACL in qualifying (in Vancouver, where the U.S. will play in the group stage; it’s also the site of the final). She has slowly worked her way back to form and she is healthy despite and early April concussion. Krieger now wears protective head gear made of the same material as bulletproof vests.

Julie Johnston

Julie Johnston is something of an anomaly for the U.S. women, who generally have a tough lineup to crack. Johnston was left off the World Cup qualifying roster in October but was soon re-added after an injury to Crystal Dunn. Johnston didn’t play at qualifying and only started earning more minutes in March at the Algarve Cup. Veteran Christie Rampone, the team’s longtime captain who turns 40 this month, was injured through much of the winter and spring. A hamstring injury to Engen then meant it was Johnston’s time to step up and she did exactly that, scoring in an Algarve Cup final win over France to start a three-game scoring streak. Johnston captained the U-20 team to a World Cup title in 2012 and she was named NWSL Rookie of the Year in 2014.

Kelley O’Hara

Once the NCAA’s leading scorer and record-breaking forward at Stanford, Kelley O’Hara is now a defender, although her versatility could also see her push into a higher role at times. O’Hara won the MAC Hermann trophy as college soccer’s best player in 2009, tallying 26 goals and 13 assists. She played every minute at the 2012 Olympics for now Sweden coach Pia Sundhage, but O’Hara’s time on the field with Jill Ellis in charge has been more limited as Meghan Klingenberg has locked down the left fullback spot. Ellis has talked about rotating her outside backs throughout the tournament, which should see O’Hara earn minutes.

Christie Rampone

Christie Rampone turns 40 years old during the tournament and she is the last remaining link to the 1999 team, the last U.S. squad to win the World Cup. Rampone has appeared for her country over 300 times, most among active players in the world and second only to former teammate, Kristine Lilly. Rampone, the team’s longtime captain, had been seemingly ageless throughout the past four years, but a back injury followed by an MCL sprain this winter and spring limited her pre-World Cup minutes to just 75 minutes. Johnston emerged as Rampone’s immediate and seemingly long-term successor in in the veteran’s absence. Expect Rampone to still play a vital role in this World Cup on and off the field. (Buehler’s red card in the quarterfinals in 2011 serving as a prime example of the need for several good center backs.)

Becky Sauerbrunn

Two-time reigning NWSL defender of the year, Becky Sauerbrunn over the past couple of years has gained backing from many as the world’s best defender. Her abilities to read the game and make intelligent decisions – on the ball and off – are second to none and she is sneakily dangerous going forward, known to make long adventurous runs at times, a common trait historically among American center backs. The success of the United States’ defense will largely be dictated by this general, who turns 30 on the opening day of the tournament.

Australia offers another test for USWNT’s developing defense

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Tom Sermanni has a strong grasp on what his lineup looks like across about two-thirds of the field, but the back four for the United States women’s national team is still a work in progress.

Sunday’s game against Australia (1:30 p.m. ET on NBC) – the team he last managed – is the first of four matches in three weeks for the U.S. head coach to continue to get an idea of what his defensive unit might look like as the stretch-run to the 2015 World Cup approaches.

“It’s probably the area of the team that is most unknown,” Sermanni said. “I think from midfield up, it’s a fairly established group in a sense.

“But defensively, when you are looking at probably a more set, cohesive starting group, that is probably still kind of up in the air. At the moment, I don’t think we’ve got a ‘this is our best back four,’ ‘this is our most settled back four.’”

Despite personnel uncertainty in the back – and to be clear, there’s none in goal, where Hope Solo is still one of the world’s best – the United States has only given up eight goals in 12 games this year. They are 10-0-2 in 2013 and riding a 35-game unbeaten streak and 73-game home unbeaten streak.

[MORE: US women bringing full-strength roster for Sunday’s friendly]

The most set of the defensive line is captain Christie Rampone, who is still the team’s best defender at 38 years old, but whose status for the 2015 World Cup remains to be seen. She is typically paired with Rachel Buehler, though Becky Sauerbrunn’s emergence in the National Women’s Soccer League as the leader of FC Kansas City’s impressively cohesive defense has boosted her stock considerably.

And soon to be 26-year-old Whitney Engen continues her long wait for more minutes. She’s been the U.S. center back of the future for a few years, but still only has nine appearances for her country. Confidence should be high for Engen, though, who just anchored Liverpool to its first-ever first division league title in England and immediately joined Swedish club Tyresö for their UEFA Champions League campaign (a successful one thus far, beating PSG in the Round of 32).

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Crystal Dunn, 21, has emerged as one of the United States’ best options at fullback. (AP Photo)

But the recurring question for the past few years has been on the outside. Ali Krieger was arguably the best right back in the 2011 World Cup (Japan’s Yukari Kinga the other), but left back has been a revolving door. Amy LePeilbet admirably filled in there in 2011 and then at right back during the 2012 Olympics (for an injured Krieger) despite being more comfortable centrally. LePeilbet had surgery early this year on her left ACL and Sermanni expects her to join the team for its December training camp, along with forward Amy Rodriguez, who missed the entire calendar year due to pregnancy, giving birth to her son in August.

Kelley O’Hara has been the first-choice left back since early 2012 after converting from forward, but she hasn’t played since early July and underwent right ankle surgery in August that will keep her out until early 2014.

So who does Sermanni turn to at left back, with Krieger looking healthy and ready to own the right back role once more? Crystal Dunn, the 21-year-old North Carolina Tar Heel who won the 2012 MAC Hermann Trophy as college soccer’s best player, is the most likely answer.

Dunn plays in an attacking role for UNC, leading the No. 4 ranked team with 11 goals and 25 pts. But Dunn plays as a fullback for the United States. She has played there in all seven career senior team appearances, all during this “very impressive” year, as Sermanni calls it.

“I don’t have any concerns about her playing the different positions and then coming in and playing the fullback for us, because she is such a focused player,” he said. “As a young player, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone who has got a focus like she has, so I don’t have any concerns with her coming in and switching from an attacking midfield player to a fullback.”

Dunn is only in camp for Sunday’s game against Australia and will miss the Oct. 27 and Oct. 30 matches against New Zealand. It seems unlikely she would be called in for the No. 10 game against Brazil on NBC, since that is the same day as the ACC Championship.

Also in camp just for Sunday are defenders Leigh Ann Robinson and Stephanie Cox. Robinson earned her first cap last month against Mexico and Cox is back in the fold having last played for the U.S. in May 2012. Cox had her first child on April 7 and played in four games late in the season for Seattle Reign FC.