With the Olympic rosters being announced this week for both the women’s basketball and soccer teams, our national writers in both sports sat down to discuss their thoughts on the rosters, how they came together and what comes next. For brevity, the soccer team will be referred to as the USWNT and the basketball team will be referred to as Team USA.

Chantel: OK, first things first… I think we can both agree that both Good Morning America reveals were a bit underwhelming, but at least the USWNT came in with the Ted Lasso tie-in. I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for Team USA (Space Jam? Air Bud?) but I really wish there would’ve been something like that for them.

Meg: I didn’t actually get a chance to watch the Ted Lasso video for a while since Steph Yang and I were trying to get the headline up and then finish off our discussion of the final roster, but I got notified by double digits of folks on Twitter that there was extensive riffing around Kelli O’Hara vs. Kelley O’Hara, which has been my brand for many years and used to be in my Twitter bio for a very long time — so yes, I enjoyed the Ted Lasso video tremendously.

This is awesome. I love these guys so much and raced through @TedLasso like a sustenance I didn’t know I needed until I did. Can’t wait for more. Thanks for the shout out around second 45;). pic.twitter.com/B4iMoXPfsP

— Kelli O’Hara (@kelliohara) June 23, 2021

Chantel: I THOUGHT OF YOU WHEN THAT LINE CAME OUT OF JASON SUDEIKIS’ MOUTH! Way to establish your brand, Meg. 

But, we can get to actual sports, I suppose. After going through Team USA’s reveal on Monday and then seeing the USWNT’s reveal on Wednesday, my first takeaway was ‘oh, wow, the reaction is pretty dang similar.’

Meg: I think we’ve been on a very long, slow journey to this exact reaction when it comes to the USWNT roster. So much of my approach has been that we won’t see surprises, that the roster would be conservative. That’s exactly how it panned out. But I think there’s some common ground across the basketball and soccer worlds that the actual reaction isn’t so much tied to players being left off these rosters or not (that’s more a symptom) but there’s perhaps more pushback about how the selection process works — especially on the basketball side — and the philosophy of how these teams should be built. And a lot of that revolves around age.

Chantel: The silver lining to this all is that this exact debate speaks to the depth of talent in the U.S. in both sports. Frankly, the third-choice U.S. teams in both sports would be the best national team in most countries, so no matter who is on the roster, the truth is that a lot of talent is always left off. But in terms of the process itself — that’s where the frustration has definitely been on the basketball side. For Team USA, there’s a committee involved (one that doesn’t include head coach Dawn Staley) that picks the 12-person team. And thus far, the head of that committee has yet to publicly comment on the decision process behind the roster and specifically why a player like Nneka Ogwumike — who, at this point, is the only WNBA MVP to not make an Olympic roster — isn’t there. I was struck by seeing Vlatko Andonovski’s comments on Wednesday regarding the roster and him essentially saying that the buck stops with him. 

One team. One reason. 🥇🇺🇸

🗣️ @dawnstaley @TeamUSA x #Tokyo2020 pic.twitter.com/8xZ6cZW2Br

— USA Basketball (@usabasketball) June 21, 2021

Meg: I definitely think that makes it easier on the soccer side. Andonovski gets the final call, even as there’s an entire technical staff around him, youth national team coaches such as Laura Harvey, who have been working with the senior team, plus general manager Kate Markgraf — they are all part of the process. But as someone covering the team, there’s certainly something to getting the roster and, within three hours, being able to hop on Zoom to ask direct questions about the players selected, the factors used in making the final decisions and how that might have worked for the players who missed out. 

The thing that has really struck me this week for both teams is that there is one player people are focused on in terms of being overlooked. For Team USA, it’s Nneka Ogwumike; for the USWNT, it’s Midge Purce. 

Chantel: Right. From the basketball perspective, I’ve got to say I was shocked. Ogwumike was basically told in 2016 — her WNBA MVP season — to wait her turn for the Olympic roster. And so I thought she was a shoe-in for this Olympics considering she was named the 2020 FIBA Olympic Qualifying Tournament MVP, was second on Team USA in scoring from 2019-20 and attended every single Team USA training camp over the past five years. When you think about players in the U.S. who’ve had a major impact on the game and its growth, Ogwumike — who’s the WNBPA president and led the negotiations for the most recent CBA — is that player. 

✔️WNBA MVP & Champion in 2016 (last Olympic year)
✔️6x All-Star
✔️4x All-WNBA
✔️4x WNBA All-Defensive Team
✔️2x FIBA World Cup Gold Medalist
✔️ No. 1 pick & ROY
✔️Euroleague Champion
✔️WNBPA President
✔️oh, and she is one of few who went to every Team USA camp the last 5 years pic.twitter.com/iEzDduj4Kj

— Chiney Ogwumike (@chiney) June 21, 2021

Meg: The fact that she also stuck around for Team USA prep in 2020 and was essentially designated as a core player and then was left off — theoretically due to a knee injury that she should be back from before their camp starts — was also fascinating to me. 

Chantel: Especially when other players like Diana Taurasi, who has been out for weeks with a sternum fracture, was put on the roster.

Meg: The USWNT has taken a very different approach to injuries. Both midfielder Julie Ertz and forward Tobin Heath were named to the Olympic roster, despite both not being fully fit, though they are expected to be ready by the start of the tournament. This is a move the USWNT has tried before, with Megan Rapinoe in 2016 after she tore her ACL in December 2015, and the risk didn’t pay off.

Chantel: Obviously, there seems to be some politics at play here on the basketball side. You think back to 2016 when Candace Parker, who had won gold with Team USA in 2008 and 2012, was shockingly left off the Olympic roster (and the same could be said about Ogwumike in that season, too). But I do feel like this particular snub tapped into a frustration with a lot of fans regarding the UConn-ness of the Olympic rosters. UConn coach Geno Auriemma was the Olympic coach in the last two games, and now he’s a special advisor to the selection committee. There are five UConn players on the roster (Ogwumike went to Stanford). And, again, picking 12 players for this roster is challenging because so many are deserving. But at the same time, I think there’s an argument to be made for active college coaches not being a part of the decision-making process because, ultimately, it’s a huge recruiting tool. You go to UConn’s website right now and that’s the big headline: “Five UConn Alums Named to U.S. Olympic Women’s Basketball Team.” But what it fails to mention is: Auriemma was a part of the group choosing the roster. And former WNBA player Devereaux Peters had some thoughts about that, recently tweeting in a must-read thread that, “It’d be one thing if they were real about their intentions, real about their reasoning, and didn’t waste people’s very precious time.”

Current Team USA head coach Dawn Staley is also the head coach at South Carolina and is one of the most decorated women’s basketball players of all-time in the U.S., but the head coach isn’t a part of the official selection process. So, there are layers to this that make it complicated in terms of how this process could be better, but I do feel like that’s something that we can’t not talk about when looking at this Team USA roster, and something that makes Andonovski’s role (and potential snubs) feel a bit different to fans maybe? 

Meg: There’s certainly frustration on the USWNT side, but I think there is one fundamental difference here between Team USA and the USWNT — the USWNT spends a lot more time together as a team. It feels a lot easier on the soccer side to track minutes or goals or more tangible things and argue about NWSL form, than whatever it is that happens with a selection committee and Team USA. With how conservative the USWNT Olympic roster was, and the fact that there is so much talent waiting in the wings, I think the general sense is an impatience to basically move on from the previous generation, truly break down this team and rebuild it. 

Chantel: Do you think the USWNT could’ve gone with a younger roster (potentially a much younger roster) and still been as competitive in Tokyo? Because ultimately, there are a few different ways to think about these U.S. rosters: Are you building to win gold? Are you building to grow the foundation of the sport? Or can you do both at once? Because I do think there’s real value in some of the vets on both of these rosters. If it’s a close battle in a gold medal game, I’m not opposed to putting the ball in Sue Bird’s hands because nothing will rattle her. She has already been to four of these Games.

Meg: I think that is absolutely the same argument for the USWNT. Love her or hate her, Carli Lloyd can perform in big moments. Please see: the 2015 World Cup final. Megan Rapinoe was in a Twitter fight with Donald Trump in 2019, and still had the World Cup performance she did that year. I also find it very helpful to contrast the discussions I’m seeing online with the experiences I’m having at USWNT matches in the stadium. I don’t want to suggest this should be the only measure of if players should go, but I will tell you when Carli Lloyd scored that super early goal in Houston against Jamaica, I don’t think there were many people in the stadium thinking ‘She shouldn’t go to Tokyo.’ 

The structure of the four-year cycle in women’s soccer is built around World Cups, not the Olympics, and a small, 18-player roster is not one that favors development. I do really think that as soon as August hits, Andonovski will move on to a much, much larger project of completely reimagining this team for 2023.

Chantel: Yeah, that’s a huge difference here. There isn’t a stage for Team USA that’s larger than the Olympics. So, when you look at a player like Ogwumike who, on paper (and in games), has done everything right, has gone above and beyond to prove her value to the sport both on and off the court, you’ve just got to wonder: How does she not get a spot? And what does that tell other players coming up in the Team USA system? Because what makes this specific group unique is that, while it does have a lot of older players, it also has a lot of young players. This is the first time in the millennium that the team will have three players older than 35, as well as the first time that it’ll have three players who are 24 or younger. There are six first-time Olympians on this roster. So, the mix is there — it’s a group that’s both honoring (some of) the veterans while also building the future of this sport. But the Olympics, on the women’s basketball side, is truly the one time every four years to spotlight these players because there isn’t a World Cup or a national tour or anything like that. But, I guess it depends what the committee thinks the purpose is for this group, and if there would just be more transparency around that, it’d be helpful for everyone.

I do think — on the Team USA side — that the U.S. could’ve put together a much younger roster that still would’ve had an excellent shot to win gold. But, I don’t think that’s necessarily how the committee looks at these roster composition issues (but jeez, wouldn’t it be nice to get some of those questions answered?). 

Meg: The wild thing for the USWNT is that I think any player in the mix for a spot on the Olympic roster, like forward Lynn Williams or Catarina Macario — a player who already has the label of “generational talent” being put on her shoulders — or Midge Purce, who was asked to learn a new position for the national team, would have been an asset for the USWNT. Like you said, the depth here for both of these national teams is absurd. And all three basically got the “wait your turn” treatment for this roster. At least on the soccer side, we got some answers as to the selection process (from performance to versatility to NWSL form and many more factors), even if not everyone found those answers satisfying or consistent in how they were applied to certain players. 

Midge wasn’t missing 😤@ChristenPress with the assist, @100Purcent with the finish. Firing on all cylinders ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/6OOx2QCjAh

— U.S. Soccer WNT (@USWNT) June 14, 2021

Chantel: Yeah, and I guess the equivalent would be… if the next Olympics and World Cup rosters roll around and those players still aren’t on the roster, but Andonovski puts other first-time Olympians/World Cup players into one of the roster spots that some think should be reserved for, and well earned by, Macario or Williams or Purce.

The unique situation for this specific Olympics is that we actually might get a chance to see a bunch of these players who have been left off the roster go up against Team USA. In a typical Olympic year, there is no WNBA All-Star Game, but this year, select players from Team USA will go up against All-Stars (voted on by fans, coaches and media). I’d love to see Team USA against a starting lineup of: Ogwumike, Parker, Arike Ogunbowale and a few other young stars who have yet to even make it into the Team USA pool.

Meg: Don’t get me started on an NWSL all-star team going up against the USWNT. We just need a NWSL all-star game, period.

Chantel: Facts. 

Meg: Overall, the delay of the Olympics allowed a number of USWNT players — including Lloyd, Rapinoe and Alex Morgan — extra time to rest/prepare to make this roster. The year delay also felt like an extra year delay on the overall project many expected Andonovski to undertake: taking the No. 1 team in the world to a new level and, in the process, drastically reshaping the approach to the roster. I do still think that work is coming, and has been in the works, though it has had to take a backseat to the Olympics and winning a major tournament. 

It’s absolutely fair to disagree with the methods and the selections made and the overall philosophy of U.S. Soccer’s technical staff right now, but at the same time, I always think this was the road we were about to go down. While the 18-player roster is a conservative one, playing it safe with experienced players actually creates some risk for the USWNT. We’re not going to know ahead of time if these choices pay off or not, or if the USWNT succeeds despite them, or if they get another rude awakening like they did in Rio 2016 (which, to be fair, was a large factor in the 2019 World Cup win). But, as always, the pressure is on, and the expectation is gold.

Chantel: Same goes for Team USA, which is vying for its seventh consecutive Olympic gold. I think the thing to watch here is how the conversation plays out post-Olympics and if the absence of players like Ogwumike and Parker brings about a larger reckoning in terms of how these rosters are built and how much transparency there is in that process — that’s going to be a larger discussion, and one that I hope we have moving forward.

 

(Photos: Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images; Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)

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