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USWNT bets big on injured veterans with Tobin Heath, Julie Ertz on 2021 Tokyo Olympics roster

On the March evening more than 15 months ago when the sports world came to a crashing halt, Tobin Heath was in her customary position on the right side of attack for the U.S. women’s national team in the final game of the 2020 SheBelieves Cup. She has played nine soccer games since.

This is Tobin Heath we’re talking about, though, a player who has earned 169 caps for the and scored 33 international goals, who has two Olympic gold medals, two World Cup titles and two NWSL championships on her resume and the elite dribbling and playmaking skills that helped generate all that success.

You better believe Vlatko Andonovski is betting on Heath being healthy enough to continue wrecking opposing defenses at the Olympic Games in Tokyo next month. You talk about going for the gold: Everything about the 18-player USWNT roster chosen for his first major international tournament as head coach is about winning this tournament, reclaiming the gold medal that had been theirs in 2004, 2008 and 2012 but was lost to Sweden in the quarterfinals in 2016. The future will get here when it gets here.

MORE: Complete 2021 USWNT Olympic roster

The average of the USWNT for the Olympics is 30.5. Ten of the 18 players have passed their 30th birthday. Midfielder Kristie Mewis, sister of 2019 World Cup star Samantha Mewis, is one of them. She was called into camp in the fall of 2019 by Andonovski, ending a five-year absence from the national team, then excelled during the 2020 NWSL Challenge Cup and the Houston Dash to the title. That and her work in eight national team games this year helped Kristie to be chosen over promising 21-year-old Catarina Macario.

This is a departure from the 2016 Olympics, when coach Jill Ellis took 18-year-old attacker Mallory Pugh, 22-year-old Horan and 24-year-old Dunn to Rio de Janeiro, all of whom had made their first international appearances that year.

“We know there are some very players that won’t be in Japan, but these were the difficult decisions that we had to make,” Andonovski said in the U.S. Soccer release. “We have a very experienced roster that has been through adversity at the highest levels, so it’s no surprise those players have distinguished themselves. They’ve embraced the challenges and have shown tremendous flexibility and determination over the past 15 months to get us to where we are today.”

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Andonovski also had an injury concern involving midfielder Julie Ertz (above), but the decision to include her was less vexing. Ertz has played seven times for the USWNT this year, is dealing with a less severe injury – and the U.S. has no one else with significant international experience in the defensive midfield position Ertz has mastered.

Including Heath and Ertz on the roster is not the most outrageous gamble, even though Heath has been out with ankle and knee injuries since January and missed all of the USWNT’s public preparation to date.

There still are two friendlies against Mexico in the “Send-Off Series” July 1 and July 5, and if Heath were to prove unable to play in the tournament starting July 21, forward Lynn Williams and attacking midfielder Macario are available as alternates. The Olympics allows for a player to be substituted for injury reasons during the tournament, something not permitted during a World Cup, which provides even more flexibility.

Having players who could play multiple positions was important to Andonovski because of the 18-player limit. Tierna Davidson can play in central defense and at left back. Emily Sonnett can play right back, central defense and has gotten some playing time at Ertz’ defensive midfield spot.

But versatility did not help 25-year-old Midge Purce gain a place on the roster. She has experience at right back and has excelled as a forward in the NWSL but was not even included among the alternate list, which also contains goalkeeper Jane Campbell and defender Casey Krueger.

“We’ve got a balanced team with many players who can play several positions and that will be valuable as we try to play six games in 17 days in heat and humidity,” said Andonovski. “Our coaching staff has confidence that any player on the roster can perform when they get their chance. We have a few players coming back from injuries, but that gave some other players a chance to get some minutes, which was a positive, so now we have to focus on getting our entire roster ready to go and fine-tuning a few things during our Send-Off Series.”

Heath played 77 minutes in that 3-1 victory over Japan on Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the night when COVID-19 was declared to be a global pandemic, Utah Jazz player Rudy Gobert was announced as testing positive for the virus and the NBA declared it was suspending its season. That began a series of shutdowns that kept most of world sport inactive through the spring.

When the NWSL was among the first major leagues to return with the Challenge Cup, contested in a “bubble” in Utah, Heath was among several top USWNT players who opted out of the competition. She agreed in September to join England’s Manchester United for the 2020-21 season, played eight times in the Women’s Super League and scored four goals but was lost in January to a severe ankle injury. As she attempted to recover, she then injured her knee and chose to return to the U.S. for rehabilitation.

In her absence, the position on the right side of the USWNT’s three-player front line has been filled by Williams (to modest success) and Christen Press (who has been spectacular). In seven 2021 starts, Press has scored three goals and generated four assists. It will be difficult for Andonovski to move her out of the starting lineup even if Heath is completely healthy.

USWNT 2021 Olympic Roster

The USWNT roster by position, including the age of each player as of the first Olympic contest:

Goalkeepers (2): Adrianna Franch, 30; Alyssa Naeher, 33

Defenders (6): Abby Dahlkemper, 28; Tierna Davidson, 22; Crystal Dunn, 29; Kelley O’Hara, 32; Becky Sauerbrunn, 36; Emily Sonnett, 27

Midfielders (5): Julie Ertz, 29; Lindsey Horan, 27; Rose Lavelle, 26; Samantha Mewis, 28; Kristie Mewis, 30

Forwards (5): Tobin Heath, 33; Carli Lloyd, 39; Alex Morgan, 32; Christen Press, 32, Megan Rapinoe, 36.