It took all the way until the day after her team won the World Cup for someone to ask Jill Ellis about her lineup for the next World Cup. The question was mostly in jest, a nod to her penchant during the tournament for stonewalling queries about personnel matters.
But only mostly in jest.
The truth is that even as the United States embarks on a World Cup victory tour that will draw hundreds of thousands of fans eager to celebrate the team's victory in Canada, the countdown has already begun to, yes, the World Cup four years from now in France, but also next summer's Olympics in Brazil. The United States, after all, has never won the World Cup and Olympics in successive years.
What, you thought we were done talking droughts?
The U.S. team must get younger, not to combat the doomsday scenarios some feared might play out this summer, but because that is the way sports work. The Rolling Stones can hang around for decades; soccer teams don't have that luxury. The team Ellis took to Canada was the oldest in the tournament. Seven of the players who appeared in the final against Japan were at least 30 years old. With barely a year to prepare, not to mention qualify, after she took over for Tom Sermanni, Ellis went with what she knew.
The smaller Olympic roster and the afterglow of victory mean the roster next summer is likely to be similar to the one we just saw, with the necessary cuts to the roster coming partly in the form of players who have retired or will before the Games (a list that it appears will not include Abby Wambach). Still, whether it starts with that roster or with the camps and games leading up to Rio, change is coming.
With that in mind, here are 10 players under the age of 25 to keep an eye on for future major tournaments. This isn't a projection of the next 10 players in line for the national team: Some are on the cusp of the roster, others are long shots for the time being, but all possess potential that could pay off down the line.
Abby Dahlkemper, D, 22 years old, Western New York Flash: Just as defenders rarely get the recognition they deserve on the international stage (see: Becky Sauerbrunn and the Golden Ball finalists), they rarely get college soccer honors. But Dahlkemper won the Honda Award, one of college soccer's top player-of-the-year awards, as a junior at UCLA and has played nearly every minute of her rookie season for the Western New York Flash in NWSL. She most recently represented the United States on an under-23 team that played three February games in Spain. Adding her to a roster gives the team an athlete but also a leader beyond her years.
Crystal Dunn, D/MF, 23, Washington Spirit: Slowed by injuries at inopportune times, namely during qualifying, she might well have been No. 24 on a World Cup roster of 23 players. But Dunn didn't let disappointment derail her. The second-year pro tore up the National Women's Soccer League while her once and future teammates were away in Canada. She leads the league in scoring with 12 goals in 14 games. We know Dunn can play any position on the field because we've seen her do it, from center back on the U20 national team to midfield at North Carolina and outside back with the senior national team. That last position might still be where she fits in best internationally, but the Swiss Army Knife factor remains.
Arin Gilliland, D, 22, Chicago Red Stars: Ellis makes it clear that in addition to their primary responsibilities, she wants outside backs who can get forward, with both Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger examples of the mold. Well, Gilliland can push on with the best of them -- she's strong, fast and possesses the attacking instincts you'd expect from a player who often ended up at forward for the University of Kentucky. She has played with the U23 national program, although that's admittedly a clearinghouse for far more players than will ever earn caps for the senior team, but she needs more reps against international-caliber foes.
Lindsey Horan, F, 21, Paris Saint-Germain: She already plays alongside a good portion of the French team, not to mention Germany and Sweden, for PSG. Horan bypassed the traditional development route when she turned down college scholarships in the United States to sign with the French power out of high school. With 45 goals in 62 appearances over three seasons (her most recent season was cut short by injury), she hasn't looked out of her element, although the signing of Anja Mittag makes the team's depth chart at forward almost as crowded as the one Horan is trying to crack with the national team. Her biggest struggle might be scheduling, as she's one of the few American prospects not in NWSL.
Sofia Huerta, F, 22, Chicago Red Stars: She turned down an opportunity to play for Mexico in this World Cup in order to keep alive her chance of one day playing for the United States. That might seem a stretch given the current depth at forward, with Sydney Leroux, Alex Morgan and Christen Press barely entering their primes and Horan and others likely ahead of her in the replacement queue. But she goes into it with open eyes. She's opening eyes, too, with her play as a rookie in NWSL, scoring goals and showing off a versatile skill set on the forward line.
Rose Lavelle, MF, 20, University of Wisconsin: There weren't many positives to take from the U.S. showing in the 2014 Under-20 World Cup, but Lavelle was a bright spot on a team that lost in comprehensive fashion in the group stage to eventual champion Germany and ultimately exited in a dour quarterfinal penalty shootout against North Korea. She isn't the biggest player on the planet at 5 feet, 4 inches, but she brings technical skill and a little bit of the mental focus of a budding Lloyd in the midfield.
Samantha Mewis, MF, 22, Western New York Flash: She has rarely come off the field in her first season for Western New York Flash, which seems like a good sign. She has already been to an Algarve Cup, which is often a first stepping stone at the senior level, and when Sermanni was in charge of the national team, there was a time when even the window on 2015 inclusion didn't seem shut and locked. Ellis knows her well, having coached her in the U20 World Cup and started the recruiting process with her at UCLA. Mewis was part of the senior team's January training camp. Her size (5-foot-11) stands out, but we're not talking about an aerial-first asset. She's a true playmaking midfielder with the ability to connect and finish.
Mallory Pugh, MF, 17, high school: Hers is the name to know among players not yet on the college or pro circuit, the player who might be best positioned to replicate the fast track afforded someone like Morgan Brian or Horan. The reigning national high school player of the year as a junior in Colorado, Pugh was a starter in the U20 World Cup at just 16 years old (and a young 16, at that). She has already created more than a few highlights, like this Maradona-esque run at the youth level. Bound for UCLA, she might be on a trajectory more suited to the 2023 World Cup, but we will hear from her.
Emily Sonnett, D, 20, University of Virginia: Easily overlooked on teams at the University of Virginia that included Morgan Brian, Danielle Colaprico and Makenzy Doniak in higher-profile attacking positions, Sonnett is a converted midfielder who has the freedom to roam under coach Steve Swanson. The result is a college center back who is entirely comfortable with the ball at her feet and possesses the natural aggressiveness that makes her a take-no-prisoners defender. She is very good right now, but given her athleticism and mentality, she's exactly the kind of defender who it's easy to envision emerging as a truly world-class player with professional experience.
Erika Tymrak, MF, 23, FC Kansas City: Not many players who aren't part of the national team have a larger or more loyal block of fans lobbying on their behalf. But it's easy to see why people flock to Tymrak, a midfielder who plays with technical creativity and style. Megan Rapinoe just turned 30. Even Tobin Heath is inching toward that mark. Neither is leaving the scene anytime soon, but Tymrak is a younger version of that same improvisational spirit. She turns 24 on Friday, so it's getting late in the process, relatively speaking, but surely she's one of those that Ellis wants a longer look at.