The countdown is officially on for the Olympic Games and let me tell you: I wasn't entirely convinced we ("we" meaning the world) would make it to Tokyo during a pandemic, but here we are on the threshold. So that was one surprise -- and honestly, it takes a heck of a lot to surprise me these days -- given the year-and-a-half we have lived through. But in this past week, two more pleasant surprises got me as well. They came in the form of Tobin Heath and the International Olympic Committee.
Heath seems ready to roar. Yes, she is back. In a race against the clock, the question on everyone's mind heading into the final U.S. women's team roster selection for Tokyo was: Would Heath make it back? And not just back, but fit enough to contribute given the six months she was away from the game due to ankle and knee injuries. Coming into the final two sendoff games for the U.S. against Mexico, Heath had not played for the USWNT since Nov. 20, 2020. Her last competitive match was Dec. 20, 2020 with her club, Manchester United.
Heath even admitted to me over the phone recently that "I definitely had a moment in the beginning of my injury where I grieved possibly not making this Olympics. I knew I could give it a try and still not make it. I had to give it everything...
And give it everything she did.
"Every day I really, truly had to be checking off all the boxes, doing every possible thing for preparation. I know what is required to play in big tournaments. With that in mind, everything was geared toward not wasting a single second to be where the team needed me to be."
That attention to detail became abundantly clear against Mexico. In her first touch off the bench in the 74th minute during the July 1 game, she immediately tracked back to win a ball defensively, spun to get the ball back straight away in transition, and scored (of course) with her second touch of the game, converting from way outside the box.
Welcome back, indeed.
In the second game against Mexico, her first start for the U.S. since Nov. 20, 2020, Heath scored a goal, smacked a shot off the crossbar that Christen Press (with a little help from Mexico) put away off the rebound, drew what I think should have been a penalty, had another assist to Press that was incorrectly called offside, and created chance after chance in her 45 minutes in the first half.
And yes, Mexico is not the caliber of team the U.S. will be facing at the Olympics, but the movement, sharpness and confidence you saw in Heath over two games left you wondering how one could be so sharp having not played in six months. Well, national team coach Vlatko Andonovski and Alex Morgan both summed it up perfectly: that is just Tobin being Tobin.
My other pleasant surprise? The roster being increased from 18 to 22 players (each team can dress only 18 players per match). I thought the International Olympic Committee would not do that, even given a pandemic, the short schedule of the Olympics -- six games in 17 days to win it all -- and the heat and humidity of Tokyo. I didn't think they would budge off the 18-player roster.
Why? My guess is they didn't want to (1) spend more money; and (2) give the more developed women's soccer nations an advantage (to which I say, why should countries who invest in the women's game be held back, as deeper rosters are something everyone should be aiming for?).
In the end, the right decision was made.
Of course, it was going to be the U.S. and Sweden, a matchup seemingly written in the stars. The U.S. has faced Sweden 41 times, but they've been drawn in the group stage at six major World Championships, five of those coming at the World Cup. And if the historical significance is not enough, Sweden knocked the U.S. out of the 2016 Rio Olympics at the quarterfinals stage, marking the first time they'd ever been eliminated before the final four.
Of course, it was going to be New Zealand. Tom Sermanni, head coach of New Zealand, was a former head coach of the USWNT, for a short stint in 2013-2014. He also was the head coach of Australia's women's team in the late-1990s and again in the mid-2000s.
Of course, it was going to be Australia, whose head coach is now Tony Gustavsson, former longtime assistant coach with the U.S. women's team under both Pia Sundhage and Jill Ellis, winning two World Cups with Jill and an Olympics with Pia. Tony also hails from Sweden (of course he does). He even acknowledged to me recently that this was in fact the exact group he guessed as well.
So there you have it: the group that everyone guessed. Tony knows this U.S. team better than most, by the way, and we saw how that worked out at the last Olympics with Sundhage being at the helm for Sweden, fresh off her time with the U.S. team. This Australia game will be a difficult one.
In terms of group G, it's a tough one overall. I would argue that each team is the best team of their respective pots from the Olympic draw. The U.S. plays Sweden on July 21, New Zealand on July 24 and Australia on July 27, and I do like that the U.S. plays Sweden first.
The U.S. will be fresh, excited, and bursting at the seams to get out there and play. If the USWNT can get three points from that first game, I think for the second game against New Zealand, we'd see a similar rotation pattern as we've seen throughout Andonovski's tenure as coach. Carli Lloyd will start for Alex Morgan in that second game, with one of the midfielders in the Rose Lavelle/Lindsay Horan/Julie Ertz/Sam Mewis bucket slotting into the rotated midfield trifecta. Plus, to add to that midfield mix: Kristie Mewis and/or Catarina Macario.
This is indeed the superpower of the U.S. women at this Olympics: the ability to make 4-5 changes without losing much at all. And finally, for that third game vs. Australia, I think you'd see something similar to the first game in terms of starting lineups, if everyone is healthy. And then from there, the experience and depth of the U.S. really plays a role.
Knockout tournament soccer is something the U.S. knows better than anyone else. Of the initial 18 players named to the Olympic roster on June 23, they average 111 international caps per player and have a combined total of 77 Olympic appearances. They also have an average age of 30.8 years, though I think the U.S. women have been at the forefront of redefining how long a woman can play internationally and professionally.
And most, if not all, of that U.S. front six will not be playing three games of 90 minutes in the group stages.
That is where the full depth of squad will assist the USWNT. Fresh legs will be everything in that heat, as well as with the tight turn between games. Every team at the Olympics, unlike World Cups, has the exact same amount of rest (two days) between games, but not the same amount of fatigue if you are able to rotate your rosters. That is also why that first game against Sweden is so crucial, as three points there puts the U.S. in great shape to use that full rotation. And when you add in Heath and Julie Ertz close to returning from her knee injury, the U.S. roster shuffle just got immensely stronger.
So there you have it: an Olympics that will be like no other. No family members in the camp, limited local fans and strict protocols keeping teams inside their bubbles will define this Olympics, but it will also be the best chance the U.S. women have had to do what has never been done before by any other women's team: win the Olympics after winning the Women's World Cup.
No-one has done the back-to-back double, and this U.S. team has all the tools to do it. And after a week -- let's be honest, a whole year -- of surprises, this one would be no surprise at all.