It didn’t take long for United States Women’s National Team coach Jill Ellis to put an end to the celebration, hoopla and farewell games that defined 2015.
In fact, after just one match in 2016, Ellis sent a message to everyone that change is here. And now.
That change begins with an unpopular decision — leaving Heather O’Reilly off the United States’ 20-player roster as the Americans get ready for the Olympic qualifying in Texas.
Unless there is a drastic change, O’Reilly, the 31-year-old New Jersey native midfielder who has been with the US senior team since 2002, may have played her last game. But unlike Abby Wambach, Lauren Holiday and Shannon Boxx, there was no farewell match. No retirement story. O’Reilly was simply left off the list.
Sort of like Landon Donovan in 2014.
She wasn’t the only one left of Ellis’ list. Christie Rampone wasn’t invited, but she is still recovering from a knee surgery underwent in December. Megan Rapinoe is also rehabbing and may be brought into camp when she is closer to being fit. Whitney Engen was not invited but she was the only field player not to see the field in Canada. As for Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, they didn’t play much in Canada and both are pregnant.
But the omission of O’Reilly ignited a stir on social media, where many couldn’t believe that she was dismissed without ceremony. Her numbers alone are amazing: 227 caps and 46 international goals. Three Olympic gold medals. One World Cup title.
There was a big call amongst fans for her to have a chance to win a spot during training camp or at least have a farewell game like the other stars. And they have a point. Few have had the impact and career of a Heather O’Reilly. She’s been on the national team for 14 years. She was only 17 when she first was called up by then-coach April Heinrichs. She was once thought to be the heir apparent to Mia Hamm – both wearing the number 9 shirt – but really became her own player. Her career is defined by her high energy level, fanatical work rate and positive attitude. She never complained about her role – starter or substitute – and only wanted to win.
In short, she served to embody the USWNT program – and reminded everyone of her class shortly after her roster snub.
O’Reilly is still fit, still positive — and still a leader. She could be a game-changer coming off the bench, using her high energy to attack down the flank and send dangerous balls through the box.
But she won’t be.
Ellis is betting her career on Lindsey Horan, Crystal Dunn, Morgan Brian, Emily Sonnett and 17-year-old Mallory Pugh to provide the industry left behind by O’Reilly. Those are the young guns that could bring another Olympic gold medal to the United States. They hope to follow Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan and Hope Solo as the next great generation of great women’s soccer players.
In the end, Ellis may be right. Her picks all may work out.
But if this truly is her last hoorah, Ellis should have let O’Reilly go on her own terms. She deserved it.