Best of WoSo 2016: Hello Mallory Pugh, Goodbye Cap’n America and HAO; Rapinoe’s strange year

rapinoe knee

by TOM SLATER 

The year in women’s soccer was as diverse as the women playing the game. There were victories and defeats – and even a few draws in there. There were personality players galore, great moments and things that just made you shake your head.

In an effort to look back on 2016, Empire of Soccer lists the top 10 moments in women’s soccer. While only choosing 10, there are bound to be moments left out. Not everyone will agree with this list. In fact, many probably won’t. And that’s ok.

Today, we’ll look at soccer moments 5,6 and 7.

Number 7: Mallory Pugh’s breakout season

When 2016 dawned, there was no doubt the transition that was taking place with the United States Women’s National Team was well under way. With established but aging stars like Lauren Holiday and Abby Wambach already retired, Mallory Pugh, still a high school senior at the time, became the next big thing in women’s soccer.

Her pace, her speed, her quickness and her ability and willingness to take on defenders one-on-one made her a crowd pleaser and gave the United States a different look after years of watching the Americans play balls over the top or to Wambach’s head.

With the national team in camp to prepare for the upcoming Olympic Qualifying tournament, Pugh  was one of the youngest field players to be called up to the team in 15 years. On January 23, 2016, Pugh earned her first cap for the team during the match against Ireland coming in for Alex Morgan in the 58th minute. She was the youngest player to debut for the national team since Heather O’Reilly‘s debut in 2002. She then became the 19th United States player to score in her debut when she scored her first international goal in the 83rd minute to secure the United States’ 5–0 win.

Pugh played well in the Olympic Qualifying Tournament and again in the inaugural SheBelieves Tournament. She played in three of four Olympic matches, starting two of them and scoring a goal against Colombia in the final group match.

Pugh delayed starting her collegiate career at UCLA until January as she played with the U20 National Team through December, helping the team finish fourth.

 Number 6: Goodbye Christie and Heather

For years, Heather O’Reilly and Christie Rampone were more than just constant starters on the national team. They were two Jersey girls who have developed strong followings for several generations of soccer fans.

Both were dropped from the national team without much fanfare from the US Federation but the treatment caused a lot of uproar from their fans, especially from the O’Reilly corner.

Rampone – a medical wonder at 41-year-old — had seen the writing on the wall and was given time by Ellis to recover from a knee injury suffered at the end of 2015.  She came out of a small college – Monmouth – to become an iron woman of soccer known as Captain America. Rampone decided not to compete for a spot and bowed out of the national team pool, stating she was not fit to compete on that level. Rampone never asked for a testimonial farewell game and it’s not clear if Ellis ever offered one.

One thing is for certain. Anyone who has spent any time with Rampone knows she doesn’t need a testimonial game to know what she’s worth. But she delivered a subtle message with her play on her club team. Surrounded by rookies and second-year players, Rampone played every minute of every game for Sky Blue FC and kept them in playoff contention right up  to the last weeks of the NWSL season.

Rampone said she will retire from her club team when wakes up and doesn’t feel it anymore. So far, that hasn’t happened.

O’Reilly’s departure, meanwhile, had more moving parts.

After 15 years on the senior national side, O’Reilly’s role was diminished during the 2015 World Cup. She played more and well during the ensuring victory tour but was left out of camp for Olympic Qualifying. The rise of Mallory Pugh, Crystal D and Lindsey Horan left O’Reilly out of the rotation.

The social media furor was extensive as her fans were directly miffed in what they considered to be shabby treatment for someone who gave so much to the team.

The East Brunswick, NJ, product eventually got back in camp for the SheBelieves Cup in February and was in camp in the lead-up to the Olympics. Hoever, O’Reilly was named as an alternate and although she travelled to Brazil, she never got the chance to even sit on the bench.

hao goodbye

The federation did give her own farewell match on September 16, a 9-0 rout of Thailand. O’Reilly set up Carli Lloyd with the first goal and minutes later scored her first international goal in nearly a year with Lloyd returning the earlier favor with an assist.

Jill Ellis gave her special sendoff in the 87th minute. Ellis already made her allotted sixth sub but asked the officials for permission to take O’Reilly off without subbing – giving the crowd the chance to give her the standing ovation.

And proving that no one can replace Heather O’Reilly.

Number 5: Megan Rapinoe’s very strange 2016.

Rapinoe left 2015 as a colorful but entertaining outside midfielder who could serve the ball on a dime to a teammate’s head.

Her 2016, however, was more about what was going on off the field and right before the game.

Rapinoe was injured in Hawaii during the 2015 World Cup victory tour, tearing her ACL and leaving her availability for the Rio Games questionable at best. She did rehab with passion and dedication, enough so Jill Ellis kept her on the Olympic roster, leaving a healthy Heather O’Reilly off the squad. While it didn’t backfire, Rapinoe didn’t add anything to the United States’ quest for a gold medal.

But she kept drawing negative attention by refusing to stand for the national anthem before games for club and country in September.  She first kneeled in support of San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick to protest racial injustice and minority oppression during a Sept. 4 NWSL match between Seattle and Chicago. Rapinoe said she would continue this show of support three days later, when the Washington Spirit played the national anthem while both teams were in their locker rooms, saying they did not want to subject their fans to the “disrespect we feel such an act would represent.”

That led to social media exchanges with Rapinoe and the Spirit management both standing strong on their decisions.

She continued the protest on Sept. 15 in a friendly against Thailand — also Heather O’Reilly’s farewell match.

US Soccer issued the following statement:

“Representing your country is a privilege and honor for any player or coach that is associated with U.S. Soccer’s National Teams. Therefore, our national anthem has particular significance for U.S. Soccer. In front of national and often global audiences, the playing of our national anthem is an opportunity for our Men’s and Women’s National Team players and coaches to reflect upon the liberties and freedom we all appreciate in this country. As part of the privilege to represent your country, we have an expectation that our players and coaches will stand and honor our flag while the national anthem is played.”