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U.S. women's soccer focused on Rio and beyond

The roster that the U.S. women's national team takes to the Olympics is that of a program with one eye on its present and one eye on its future.

Which makes it anatomically impossible to keep an eye on the past.

All things considered, that makes for a nice change.

The national team for years went to major tournaments with one eye glued to the past, either attempting to recapture the magic of 1999 by winning another World Cup or, just as often, trying to lessen the sting of another World Cup disappointment through Olympic consolation.

Those efforts had their moments, to be sure, but it was a formula for frustration.

Win today to escape yesterday's shadow.

Then they won. They stood and celebrated their 2015 World Cup triumph on a podium inside Vancouver's BC Place after a soul-cleansing, flag-waving romp of a final. And people started thinking about tomorrow. Not as a short-term salve but as a long-term opportunity. People including U.S. coach Jill Ellis.

"If we are about winning world championships, we can't just have all of our focus be on the Olympics," Ellis said Tuesday in recounting a conversation with U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati after the World Cup. "It has to be on looking at new players, looking at players to build for beyond. And he agreed. We still want to win a gold medal. We still want to be competitive this summer. That's still a high, high priority. I think we can do that, but we can also start to build players for the future."

Make no mistake, the roster she announced Tuesday is one selected to compete for gold in Brazil, to try to become the first team to win the World Cup and Olympics in back-to-back years. No one is asking Carli Lloyd to lead a developmental roster. It is why Megan Rapinoe is there just seven months after the midfielder suffered a torn ACL, and despite the fact that she hasn't played for club or country yet this year. Even if Rapinoe is able to play only a reserve role, either in the tournament's early stages or throughout any run, those minutes are worth the roster spot for the added value on set pieces and crosses alone.

Nor is it just loyalty to the holdovers that puts a premium on the present. A rookie in a major tournament at 28 years old, Allie Long might still be a viable option in 2019 or 2020, but she is here because of what she offers the team right now. Given their roles, it appears that Long and Samantha Mewis were competing for one roster spot. Mewis has more future ahead of her. Long is more reliable at this moment. Pragmatism won that contest (while simultaneously providing one of the team's most compelling stories in Long's lengthy journey to this stage). The same goes for Whitney Engen, who apparently edged out NWSL No. 1 pick Emily Sonnett as a back-line reserve.

But after being the oldest team in the World Cup a year ago, the United States could at some point put a starting lineup on the field in Brazil that includes Morgan Brian, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Julie Johnston and Mallory Pugh. All of them will still be in their 20s when the 2019 World Cup in France rolls around. All of them will still be in their 20s during the 2020 Olympics in Japan.

So will Mewis and Sonnett. So will players such as Jaelene Hinkle, Danielle Colaprico, Rose Lavelle and teenager Ashley Sanchez, all of whom spent varying amounts of time with the national team during the buildup to the Olympics. That wasn't possible when Ellis took over a veteran player pool with far less than a full preparation cycle left in advance of the World Cup.

"I wasn't going to be able to get experience enough for younger players to come in," Ellis said of the World Cup. "I had a very good handle on the players that were in the group. And so I felt very comfortable in terms of this is how we're going to play and this is what we need. Preparing for a World Cup, I don't think I was looking beyond what we had already in."

Veterans like Shannon Boxx and Lori Chalupny, both since retired, fit that roster. Recent high school graduate Pugh fits this one.

It isn't just about the personnel. That's only part of the picture. Ellis was almost giddy after a 1-0 win against France earlier this year, a game that looked headed for a scoreless draw until Alex Morgan scored in second-half stoppage time. It wasn't the result that pleased the coach but the way the team asserted itself on the game. The U.S. was the more technically precise team, bettering France at its own game. That wasn't a universally held view, notably getting some measure of disagreement at the time from an oft-isolated-on-the-night Lloyd.

This style suits the likes of Brian and Horan, a new generation of gifted technicians. It suits Becky Sauerbrunn and Julie Johnston, center backs able to play out. It is surely part of the reason Kelley O'Hara, with all her versatility, has claimed the starting job at right back.

Right or wrong, successfully implemented or not, this style tries to balance the traditional American strengths of athleticism and fitness with technical precision and pace of play. It is a style of play for tomorrow.

"At times I've seen us play through lines -- we want to be a balance," Ellis said. "If we can get in behind with one pass, we want to do that because it's on. And that's any team in the world, if a team is going to give you that. But then we also need to be able to problem-solve, and I think that's where we've gotten better in terms of just being able to play off of each other, have more versatility. We talk about a variety of ways to get into the goal zone."

Ellis laughed out loud at one point during a conference call to discuss the roster, asked about having the freedom of more job security after winning the World Cup. The adrenaline of a profession in which that doesn't exist, she said, is part of the allure of coaching.

But the roster she put together, for all its core familiarity, is one freed from the weight of the past. It is for today and tomorrow.

"That's the exciting part when you've got a younger group," Ellis said, "is you can plan beyond three months."

Ellis and this roster will be judged on what they do in Brazil. That's the nature of being No. 1.

But what they do in Brazil will also be the foundation of the roster that we will judge in 2019 and 2020.