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What does the call back to USWNT camp mean for Christie Rampone?

The Sky Blue FC defender’s return to the national team could mean a shot at Rio or an imminent retirement from international play.

Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

For the first time since undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery back in December, Sky Blue FC captain and defender Christie Rampone was called into camp for the United States Women’s National Team (USWNT).

The May national team camp is to prepare for a pair of international friendlies against Japan on June 2nd and 5th. The last time the two countries met was in the 2015 Women’s World Cup Final, which the USWNT won 5-2 to clinch its third World Cup title.

Rampone last took the field for the USWNT back in September in a Victory Tour match against Haiti in Birmingham, Alabama. She traveled with the team to Seattle, Orlando and Hawaii for following Victory Tour matches but did not dress as she was sidelined with a severe bone bruise. She last appeared with the team on the sidelines of Abby Wambach’s farewell game in New Orleans in December. It was announced shortly thereafter that she had undergone knee surgery around Christmas.

Rampone, who was first capped with the USWNT back in 1997, is the most-capped active player in the world and second-most capped player for the USWNT (behind only Kristine Lilly) with 311 caps. She played in the 1999 Women's World Cup, which the USWNT won, and is the last of the "99ers" still playing professionally. She also has three Olympic gold medals with the team and could possibly be adding another medal to her collection if she competes in Rio with the team this summer.

Although she will be 41 by the time the Olympics roll around, The Equalizer reported that Rampone stated as far back as July 2015, just days after the World Cup win, that she planned to compete in the Rio games if she was physically able.

"If my body holds up, I’ll be there," she said.

That statement was made months before her knee surgery, but even so, Rampone seems to be fully recovered. She has started every match for Sky Blue FC this season, and her time away with the national team will mark the first time this season that Rampone will miss even a minute of playing time for her club, barring anything unusual this weekend in Sky Blue’s rematch against the Western New York Flash. Because of the timing of the camp, Rampone and fellow USWNT defender Kelley O'Hara will be absent from Sky Blue's road match against the Chicago Red Stars on May 29.

The Equalizer also reported back in April that Ellis has been in communication with Rampone throughout her recovery and fully intended to give her a call up to the May camp if she was healthy. However, her comments suggested that the call up was more out of respect for Rampone’s history with the team than out of the likelihood of Rampone making the roster for the upcoming Olympics.

"I spoke to her the other they day and I said at this point I’m pleased with what I have, but there is always the case for injuries and things like that. Out of respect for Christie and what she has done, my intent is to bring her back to the next camp," Ellis said following the USWNT match against Colombia in East Hartford, Connecticut in April.

Rampone lost her spot in the starting XI to Julie Johnston prior to the World Cup and played only 14 minutes over two matches during the tournament. In her absence from the January national team camp, her captaincy, which she had held since 2008, was passed down to Becky Sauerbrunn and Carli Lloyd.

To many fans, Ellis’s statements and these demotions all point more toward an imminent, and somewhat forced, retirement from the national team than to a spot on the Rio roster for Rampone, especially considering the competition at her position.

For the May camp, Ellis has also called up fellow center backs Whitney Engen, Julie Johnston, Becky Sauerbrunn and Emily Sonnett. With only 18 spots on the Rio roster, Ellis will be taking no more than four center backs to the Summer Games, one of whom would be an alternate. Two of those spots will go to Sauerbrunn and Johnston, two members of the "Department of Defense" back line that held opponents to only three goals total during last summer’s World Cup.

The third center back roster spot is the one that is open for debate. However, with Ellis’s new penchant for youth (for example, teenagers Mallory Pugh’s and Ashley Sanchez’s previous call ups), Emily Sonnett seems to be the likely candidate for that third and final CB spot.

So what does that mean for Rampone?

As Ellis said, anything can happen. If another center back has to miss the Olympics for injury or other extenuating circumstances, then the odds of Rampone making the roster increase exponentially.

Even without injuries, though, there is still time for Rampone to prove to Ellis that she is strong and capable enough to compete again players half her age. With the way Rampone has been playing for Sky Blue, she has proven she is just as strong and fast, if not more so, than her competition. There is no doubt that she remains one of the best players in her position; it is just a matter of whether Jill Ellis agrees.

Ellis does seem to be favoring more of an attacking-back style of play from her outside back, which Rampone is used to with Sky Blue. As OB's Kelley O’Hara and Erin Simon push forward in the attack, Rampone is occasionally left to cover both their positions and her own until they can move back into defensive positioning. She has done just that, nearly flawlessly, in each of Sky Blue’s matches so far this season. She is the most consistent player on their back line, and she is a major reason why it has been Sky Blue’s strongest third all season.

Unfortunately for fans of Rampone, it seems as though Ellis has all but moved on. With the retirements of Shannon Boxx and Abby Wambach during the Victory Tour, the USWNT has undergone a passing of the torch of sorts. The turn of the year marked a new style of play for the USWNT, and Rampone may not fit in with the new team dynamic that Ellis is creating for the Olympics, especially since Ellis is reported to have said she is looking to fill the Rio roster with players who will be around for the 2019 Women’s World Cup.

Ellis might not be the only one who has moved on. Rampone recently edited her Twitter biography to remove all mention of the USWNT from it. Previously her bio listed the many accolades she had achieved with the team, but now it only lists her positions with Sky Blue FC. That noticeable change has many fans wondering if Rampone is retired from the national team in everything but name.

Taking all of these factors into consideration, it seems more and more like Christie Rampone's time with the USWNT is coming to an end. It is very unlikely that she will make the 18-player roster for Rio or even one of the few alternate spots. Although her contributions on and off the field would be invaluable to the USWNT, it seems as though Ellis will go with more youthful players over Rampone's experience for the Summer Games.

Which begs the question, if Rampone is done with the national team, whether by mutual agreement with Jill Ellis or by failing to make the Rio roster, what’s next? Will she get a retirement ceremony like Boxx, Wambach, Lori Chalupny and Lauren Holiday all did during the Victory Tour, or will she just fade off into the sunset as she returns to Sky Blue to continue her NWSL career?

The answer remains to be seen, but if one thing is certain, it is that Christie Rampone will not be going out without a fight. She will work as hard as she can and play to the best of her ability while in camp next week. She will give advice and feedback and support to the younger players competing with her for a roster spot, just as always. She is a player who has too much integrity and respect for the game not to.

Whether this camp and pair of friendlies will be her last with the USWNT or not, whenever Rampone does leave the team, she will do so as a legend.