A lot of buzzwords have been thrown around the USWNT over the last year, all referring to a plan that was intended to culminate in the Tournament of Nations: that the US was going through a transitional phase, and performance mattered more than results as head coach Jill Ellis attempted to find the players who would fulfill her vision for 2019.
Well, it’s 2017, exactly halfway through a World Cup cycle, and more teams than not are going through a transition. It’s what any good coach does at this point, because being stagnant means being left behind. Ellis has received a lot of criticism for her choices over the last year and has repeatedly, and passionately, defended herself. Unlike some, I do believe she has a vision and a plan. The problem here is that I don’t believe she is any closer to executing it than she was a year ago, and more importantly, the players don’t know how to execute it either.
For comparison, let’s look at the other three teams in the Tournament of Nations. Japan, after being shocked by not qualifying for last year’s Olympics, is undergoing an extreme youth movement, to the point that veterans like Nahomi Kawasumi are no longer called in despite excellent club form. They finished third after tying Brazil with one point and winning the tiebreaker on goal differential. They were outplayed and occasionally lost on both ends of the field but showed signs of promise at times with both their passing and organization. Brazil took last place and was the most disappointing team, appearing to have regressed after the World Cup and Olympics with terrible defense. They had every chance to defeat the US but rolled over for dead in the last ten minutes of that match.
Australia, the only team in attendance never to have reached the semifinals of a major tournament, won the entire thing in fine fashion, defeating the US for the first time ever and racking up goal after goal against Japan and Brazil. Head coach Alen Stajcic employed many similar tactics as Ellis, calling in young or bubble players and trying both them and veterans out in unfamiliar positions.
WHO WORE IT BETTER?
Out of 23 players on Australia’s tournament roster, ten had less than 50 caps, and only one had more than 100 (Lisa De Vanna). Four were teenagers. Only eight were age 25 and older, and only one was above 30 (also De Vanna). All but one saw the field – UCLA goalkeeper Teagan Micah, called in as an emergency backup for the last match due to an injury to Lydia Williams. 14 were on the 2015 World Cup roster, and 15 were on the 2016 Olympics roster.
Australia is currently reaping the benefits of what Tom Sermanni started during his long tenure as head coach, and kudos to Stajcic for continuing the process. Players are identified and vetted early, so much so that we’re often surprised to remember that stalwarts like Caitlin Foord, Sam Kerr, and Alanna Kennedy aren’t any older than 23. Ellie Carpenter, the youngest ever female soccer player to compete at the Olympics and Australia’s first international soccer player of either gender to be born in this century, is only 17. She was the team’s starter at right back for the tournament and after having her head spun early on by Megan Rapinoe, grew into the game and kept her contained, no small feat as Rapinoe was by and large the best US player at the tournament. Despite playing different positions, it’s hard not to contrast that with American teenage wunderkind Mallory Pugh, who brought lots of speed and little substance to what was an awful tournament for her.
Left back Steph Catley saw significant minutes at centerback despite being known for her attacking prowess. She was calm and composed, using her attacking skills to play out of the back without getting caught out too often. US left back Casey Short also saw time at centerback again but never settled in and probably shouldn’t be counted as legitimate depth at the position.
Midfielder Elise Kellond-Knight took Catley’s place at outside back, helping to hold down a makeshift defense that only gave up three goals in three games, the least of the tournament. Though not in this tournament, midfielder Allie Long recently spent a six-month stretch as part of the US defense in what was an unequivocal mess.
De Vanna was used in a variety of ways this tournament, both as a sub and a starter, and although she’s clearly adapting to a different role on this team as she nears the end of her career, she’s still a menace, still effective, netting a brace against Brazil to move her into Australia’s top female goalscorer. Carli Lloyd, who has done quite well for the Houston Dash as the number 10 in a diamond midfield, hasn’t really found her rhythm on the field with the national team this year.
IT’S STILL SOCCER
It would be easy to view this tournament for the US via the scorelines – one narrow defeat, one amazing comeback, and one dominant performance. Not an altogether poor showing, and they took second place. However, the games themselves say a lot more. They say the US came out strong for the first 15 minutes or so of each game before slacking off, allowing each team to find its way back in. They also say the US came to life again in the last 20 minutes of each, snatching victory from Brazil and solidly defeating Japan.
Even further, the tournament served as a microcosm of the USWNT as a whole. This is a team that has struggled to simply play soccer. No matter the formation or personnel changes, it’s still soccer, and anyone playing at this level ought to be able to make simple passes and put shots on target. For instance, in the first game, neither Long nor Sam Mewis could figure out their roles, yet both play in the same fluid, dual pivot type of midfield for their clubs. Alyssa Naeher received so many bad back passes she likely needs blood pressure medication. And anyone not named Rapinoe or Christen Press needs a reset button for their finishing. To return to the Australia comparison, even the new players and those out of position figured it out.
If this sounds harsh, it’s intended to be. Too long has this team relied on a fitness and mental edge that’s disappearing (see: France and Australia) and moments of individual brilliance (see: Brazil and Norway). While it’s good for the game as a whole, it’s painting a tough picture for the reigning World Champions. These are all great individual players who regress as a unit. That’s a problem.
Ellis wants her team to play out of the back with heavy attack from the flanks and an emphasis on possession. This is neither unusual nor groundbreaking for soccer in general and American soccer specifically. The Portland Thorns like to possess the ball, North Carolina often attacks through the flanks, and the Washington Spirit try to build from the back. So why are these players struggling so much when it comes to the National Team?
For one answer, you have to go back to the youth ranks. American soccer ethos is not built around technicality or possession. Athleticism has always risen above, and last year’s U-17 and U-20 World Cups proved that hasn’t changed. That’s what makes players like Tobin Heath and Rose Lavelle so special because their skills on the ball are unique for American products. If Ellis truly wants to change the team’s style, they’re going to have to start producing players who can do that, and that starts long before they’re on the national team radar. Perhaps because of a dearth of technical players, players selected are generally far more athletic than technically sound. For a recent example, look at Taylor Smith, whose defensive positioning, decision making, and ball skills could all use work, but who uses her amazing speed to get out of holes.
At the end of the day, the US wins when they go back to what has served them so well in the past – blazing fast counters often started with a long ball. And while that definitely won’t work forever or against every team (see: Sweden in the Olympics), that’s the team Ellis currently has. She either accepts that identity and works with it, or she does like Japan and starts fresh, finding players who suit her vision rather than imposing her vision on an existing group that isn’t made for it. For any coach to succeed, players must understand the endgame and buy in. I’m not in the locker room so I can’t say how they feel, but they look lost when they’re on the field too often to sell themselves as a unified, confident group.
The experimental period is over. So what came out of it? Casey Short, who has probably (and deservedly) jumped Meghan Klingenberg on the depth chart at left back. Lavelle, the most technically gifted young American to emerge in years. Hopefully Julie Ertz at holding mid, as the difference between her in the position versus anyone else was astonishing. And subsequently, likely Abby Dahlkemper, as an Ertz move to midfield leaves a vacancy and reveals a lack of centerback depth without Whitney Engen or Emily Sonnett in the picture.
Other than that … not much. Six months were wasted on the Long at centerback project, and the three-back, which can work with the right personnel, hasn’t been seen since. The Becky Sauerbrunn at midfield project thankfully lasted less than one game so far. Both experiments were so egregious their failure was called from the start by many. Going forward, Ellis needs to work on establishing defensive depth, picking her center midfield, and, oddly enough, looking at center strikers. While there is a glut of forwards in the pool, most are used as wingers, and a conversation with my colleague Dan Lauletta led us to realize that there’s quite the dropoff after Christen Press and Alex Morgan, both of whom will be in their 30s after this cycle.
After so much talk of transition, this team is not all that much different from the Rio squad. Unfortunately the problems that existed then – a lack of defensive cohesion, an inability to play up the spine – haven’t been solved by any experiments.
A few more minor points …
THE ALI KRIEGER QUESTION
— brandi (@brandiortega) August 4, 2017
Three truths: 1) Ali Krieger is not as good as she was from 2011-2015; 2) Ali Krieger is at an age where her legs will give out at some point; 3) Ali Krieger is still probably the best right back in the pool. The team is certainly in need of outside back depth with or without Krieger. Kelley O’Hara has been the recent starter but is best used higher up the pitch. Smith needs more seasoning, and like O’Hara isn’t the most defensive stalwart anyway. Players like Arin Gilliland and Caprice Dydasco need to get looks. But it seems wasteful to write Krieger off based on what might happen rather than what she can do now (especially when players of similar ages don’t get the same scrutiny).
Regardless of her future, pulling her away from her club team for two weeks without giving her field time is ridiculous. Ellis’s long non-answer above doesn’t help. A two-year trend of diminishing playing time but regular call ups doesn’t suggest she’s not showing up in practice. The argument that Ellis knows what she brings is equally nonsensical as Ellis knows what every other veteran has to offer, and they all play regularly. It’s time to make up her mind: Krieger is either in the mix or she’s not.
THE GOALKEEPER CONDUNDRUM
What was fairly clear from the moment Hope Solo was terminated was recently all but flat out stated: Alyssa Naeher is the new number one goalkeeper. Ellis said she just needs games at this point, and that’s certainly true, given not only her low number of international games but also some shaky performances (see: France and Brazil). However, they’re in danger of recreating the same situation in which they find themselves now: scrambling to get a keeper games because a backup wasn’t developed.
In a three-game tournament, there is no reason one of those matches couldn’t have gone to Jane Campbell or Abby Smith. As John Herdman, Mark Sampson, and Stajcic can all attest, you never know when your starter will get injured. If that happened now, with Ashlyn Harris still out, the US net would rest in the gloves of Campbell’s 17 minutes against Russia. Naeher is fully capable of holding down the net for the next cycle or two, but that doesn’t mean she has to be the only one capable.
Also, give Sauerbrunn a rest.