Last Monday, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis announced the 20-player roster for February's CONCACAF Women’s Olympic Qualifying Championship. While FIFA Women's World Player of the Year Carli Lloyd and Morgan Brian will both represent the U.S. for Qualifying in Texas, their Houston Dash teammate Kealia Ohai's name was not among the selectees.
Neither were the names of Seattle Reign FC defender Lauren Barnes, her teammates Keelin Winters and Beverly Yanez, Washington Spirit midfielder Christine Nairn or even FC Kansas City midfielder Erika Tymrak. Similar to Ohai, their success in the NWSL has failed to translate into a spot in the American player pool.
At 17, Mallory Pugh stands out as the youngest player to be named to the U.S. Olympic Qualifying roster. She made headlines during the NWSL Draft with speculation she could forgo college for a professional career in the NWSL. However, the Denver Post confirmed she passed on a contract with Portland Thorns FC and will attend UCLA in the fall.
But why the sudden proclamation of Pugh? Could the Colorado teenager become a generational talent? And how has she leaped above current NWSL players in order to earn a spot on the Olympic Qualifying roster?
Retired Reign FC midfielder Mariah Bullock made an important tweet addressing the roster announcement.
Excited for young, new faces; but can't help but feel the door is closing/closed for most NWSL players.— Mariah Nogueira (@MariahNogy) January 26, 2016
It's hard not to share the same sentiment as Bullock.
Ohai still has yet to earn her first senior national team call-up.
Ohai being left off the Qualifying roster spells of another missed opportunity in the Dash forward's development, a player in need of international experience at the highest level. At 24, it's conceivable Ohai could join Barnes, Yanez and Winters in an unfortunate quartet of talented domestic players who have never been given a fair shot at international success.
With the wave of retirements at the end of Victory Tour, 2016 appeared to be a year for change in the senior national team. Prior to the roster announcement there was a sense of anticipation and hope in the idea the upcoming selections could result in a stroke of change and create new opportunities for existing NWSL players.
But now a month in it appears to be the same old from Ellis, a broken selection process that resembles the plot of "Groundhog Day."
A closer look at the Olympic Qualifying roster begs the question, has Ellis replaced the NWSL with college as the breeding ground for the USWNT? A clear reversal in stance from Tom Sermanni who utilized the domestic league in his brief tenure.
Ellis' selections feature a familiar crop of players, minus the subtractions of Whitney Engen and Heather O’Reilly, the latter of which will likely leverage her play in the NWSL to earn her way back onto the Olympic team in Rio.
To field a younger roster Ellis added, Boston Breakers forward Stephanie McCaffrey, Western New York Flash defender Jaelene Hinkle, her teammate Samantha Mewis, 2015 NWSL MVP Spirit forward Crystal Dunn, recent first-overall pick Emily Sonnett and Pugh. All of whom are under the age of 24 and previously received call-ups as part of the expanded 31-player Victory Tour roster in October. They have also been a part of the senior national team player pool since college with the exception of Hinkle and Pugh, a high school senior.
Interestingly enough Ohai played alongside roster members Julie Johnston, Dunn, Brian and Mewis in the 2012 FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup. Since then, she's won a national championship with Dunn, was selected second overall in the 2014 NWSL College Draft while Dunn went first, led the Dash in scoring in her rookie season while Johnston won Rookie of the Year and followed it up with a terrific sophomore campaign alongside Brian. Not only did she mature as a leader over the course of last season, but she brought the Dash one spot away from the club's first playoff appearance and made noticeable strides as a playmaker and facilitator.
The stunning lack of progression in Ohai's journey from the NWSL to USWNT creates the perception of a struggle which only feels right summed up by the iconic Tom Cruise "Jerry Maguire" quote, "Help me, help you."