- Image 1 of 2
- Image 2 of 2
Winnipeg, Canada – Sometime during his 8-year reign as U.S. men's national team coach Bruce Arena came to this revelation: The World Cup is for the young.
The modern World Cup, with its unique demands on body and mind, places unexpected amounts of pressure on the players.
The same is true about the Women's World Cup, which kicked off June 6 and goes on for a full month.
The American women, who continue their quest for an elusive third world championship against Sweden in Winnipeg in Canada on Friday night, aren't exactly a bunch of spring chickens in soccer terms.
USA head coach Jill Ellis could be taking a huge gamble by carrying nine players over the age of 30 on her roster – and that doesn't include midfielder Megan Rapinoe, who turns 30 on July 5, the day the Cup final will be played.
Moreover, the average age of the American team is 29.37, the oldest of the 24 teams in the competition.
The oldest, in fact, of any World Cup team – men’s or women’s – ever.
The over-30 set includes goalkeeper Hope Solo (33), defenders Christie Rampone (40 on June 24), Becky Sauerbrunn (30), Ali Krieger (30), Lori Chalupny (31), midfielders Shannon Boxx (38 on June 29), Heather O'Reilly (30), Carli Lloyd (32) and striker Abby Wambach (35).
"I think it's a wonderful blend of veteran and young players," O'Reilly told Fox News Latino. "Experience does say a lot in big tournaments like this. A lot of players have been there before in these high-octane games. I'm confident in [our] spread of age and experience."
In contrast, the USA's Group D opponents are younger. Sweden’s average age is 26.52. The average age of Australia, which the U.S. defeated 3-1 on Monday, is 24.55. Nigeria is the youngest with an average age of 23.59.
Experience obviously is good -- there is little doubt the players on the U.S. roster have faced many situations and faced a myriad challenges – both separately and together – which certainly helps the players' decision-making process.
But when does enough experience become too much? Does Team USA have enough young legs on its roster to make a difference when it matters most?
Crunch time for the U.S. won’t necessarily come during the group stage, more likely in the later knockout rounds when it will likely face the other powers in the women’s game: Brazil, Germany, defending champion Japan and host Canada.
A harsh lesson was learned at the 2003 World Women's Cup, which the United States was made 11th-hour host for after a SARS outbreak in China, four months before the opening match.
Team USA coach April Heinrichs decided to take seven players over 30, and the result was a disappointing third-place finish after a 3-0 loss to eventual champion Germany in Portland. (In six Women’s World Cups, the U.S. has never finished worse than third.)
Two other factors have been thrown into the mix this time around – more teams, and therefore, more games and the playing surface.
With the expansion of the tournament to 24 teams, the squads that reach the semifinals will wind up playing seven matches in a month, one more than in previous editions. (If the U.S. makes it to the final, it will play seven games over 28 days.)
And, despite the vehement protests of the players themselves, this is the first world championship that will not be played on natural grass as dictated by FIFA.
"You're playing seven international games in less than 30 days," said ESPN announcer Tony DiCicco, who directed the USA to its last Cup championship in 1999. “That's a lot. It's a lot for any team."
"How is the synthetic surface going to impact players?” DiCicco asked. “Players like Abby Wambach and Christie Rampone, players that are older, playing games on synthetic surfaces is a bigger wear and tear. You need more time to recover."
But perhaps Ellis's gambit will pay off.
Maybe Rampone, who is one of the fastest players on the team, will play an important role in the defense when push comes to shove.
Maybe Boxx, when she comes off the bench, can be a true stopper in the midfield, which has been one of the weaknesses for the Americans heading into the Cup.
Maybe, just maybe, Wambach will score a dramatic goal late in a crucial elimination game. At 35, Wambach, as good as she can be, is considered ancient for an international striker.
"She's a finisher. She finishes in big moments in big games," former U.S. international midfielder and current ESPN broadcaster, Julie Foudy, told FNL. "You do want her on that field in the dying moments of the game, absolutely.”
Will Wambach be in at the end of U.S. games if she’s in the Starting XI?
“That's what [Ellis] has got to figure out," Foudy says. "'How in the dying moments in the biggest game can I make sure that Abby is healthy and fresh and can be finishing for us in front of goal instead of tracking back into the midfield and play-making?'"
In just a few weeks, we will know if this U.S. team goes down in history as a team for the ages, or a team for the aged.