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After being sidelined with an injury for nearly two years, U.S. women's national team attacker Catarina Macario is finally nearing a return to the pitch and could be in the mix for a roster spot at this summer's Olympics.

Emma Hayes, Macario's current manager at Chelsea and incoming USWNT head coach, did not rule her out of making an appearance on Sunday against Crystal Palace but said that a return after the February international window seems more likely. The break runs from Feb. 19-28, and Chelsea's first game afterward is at Leicester City on March 3.

"Do I think she could make the bench for Crystal Palace?" Hayes said on Monday, per The Athletic. "She has to feel confident. She's been out a long time. So on one level, I could say yes, she will. But the reality is just psychologically, she just feels she needs a little bit more time in training with the team. She's training with the team in all aspects, but she just doesn't feel quite ready yet. So I'd say slim chance before international break. High chance directly after it."

Macario has not played since June 2022 when she tore her ACL while playing for then-club Lyon. The American made the move to Chelsea last summer but has yet to feature for the Londoners because of the injury, which also kept her out of last year's Women's World Cup.

Her return will offer a boost for Chelsea, who are building their attacking identity without forward Sam Kerr, who tore her ACL last month. The Blues' deep attack means the group has so far successfully split goalscoring responsibilities, with the likes of Lauren James and Fran Kirby pitching in as well as emerging USWNT talent Mia Fishel.

Macario's return comes a few short months before Hayes has to name a roster for the Olympics, though, which could make the race to Paris more competitive than it already was.

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The USWNT picture

The 24-year-old's eligibility for the Olympics will almost certainly depend on her own fitness first. It can be difficult to predict how quickly a player will return to form after injury, let alone one that kept Macario out for almost two years. Should the player hit a good run of form with Chelsea before the season's up, though, an invitation to national team training camps -- especially with Hayes in charge -- is not out of the question.

Since the Olympics roster is limited to just 18 players and four alternates, Macario has an upper hand in the fact that she's versatile enough to play as an attacking midfielder and a center forward. The main question facing Hayes, though, is if there's enough room for Macario to make the trip to Paris in either position.

Both the midfield and forward lines could be poised for full rethinks as a youth-inspired rebuild beckons for the USWNT, which bodes well for Macario in the long term. For the advanced modified positions, Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle feel like locks and there might be a spot for one more player to back them up. Macario's name could be on that list, but she might face competition from World Cup participant Savannah DeMelo and rising talent Olivia Moultrie.

As for the front line, the main contenders at center forward are Alex Morgan and Sophia Smith. While Smith is versatile enough to play in multiple positions and is positioning herself as the new face of the USWNT's attack, Morgan is coming off an unexciting 2023 in which she scored just nine goals for club and country. There's no shortage of names that could make a case for themselves come July, though -- Macario's club and country teammate Fishel is one of them, while the youngest player on last year's World Cup team, Alyssa Thompson, is another.

Macario's availability is a sign that the "good" problem USWNT head coaches have historically faced will continue in the Hayes era, which leaves her with many questions to answer in the quick buildup to the Olympics.