The U.S. Women’s National Team (USWNT) has been struggling since their 2015 World Cup victory. Of course, not many people noticed or read into it very far, that was until the team’s early exit from the Rio Olympics. From start to disappointing end the 2016 Olympics was a mess for the reigning World Cup winners. Some fans point fingers at Hope Solo, but problems for the team began with the 18 woman roster selection. After taking Megan Rapinoe, not fully healed from her ACL injury, over the reliable, dominant, and healthy Heather O’Reilly for a spot on the roster, things went downhill. Rapinoe was not all healthy enough to play in the Olympics and it showed.
Anyone who knows anything about sports knows that you don’t play players out of their position. What does USWNT coach Jill Ellis love to do, play players out of their position. I can see it now, Jill on the sidelines, diary in hand thinking “I wonder what would happen if I tried Alex Morgan at outside back?” That scenario is a stretch, but it was also a stretch to think Allie Long would be playing center back in a 3-5-2 formation, yet here we are.
We already know Ellis is a bad tactician and the second match of the SheBelieves Cup was no exception. Ellis is committed to the new three back formation which caused fans to hold their breath Wednesday night against Germany. However, tonight Ali Krieger, Julie Johnston, and Becky Sauerbrunn looked solid and comfortable, which is part because all three are natural defenders. I give major credit to Allie Long for holding it down back there, but why use her in the back when the roster is stacked with defenders and Long has proven herself as a valuable midfielder. What we can take from this is that a three back can work if there are three natural defenders back there.
Perhaps Ellis’ worst tactical mistake is her firmness in never making early substitutions. Tonight was no exception when the first subs did not come on until the 63rd minute. After a scoreless first half with limited shots on goal, most would think changes would be made at the half, Ellis thought it was best to bring in two new forwards, Christen Press and Lynn Williams almost half way through a still scoreless second half. Five minutes later three more subs were made as Tobin Heath, Allie Long, and Morgan Brian came in. The five sets of fresh legs sparked some opportunities, but there is nothing to show for it. If the subs were brought in to start the second half, maybe the end result of the game would have been different.
One thing that became clear in the USWNT’s two games this tournament is that the USWNT needs major set piece practice. They cannot defend them or score goals off them. For a team that is now committed, thanks to Ellis, to playing balls out of the back through the midfield it did not look they had any real plan of attack. The USWNT normally dominate corner kicks, having Tobin Heath send them in. Against England, they only drew two corner kicks, neither taken by Heath, neither capitalized on. If the team wants to score on opportunities awarded like corner kicks and free kicks then they need to be improved.
Ellis is going to continue experimenting with players and formations, for better or for worse. If trouble is sensed in the first half substitutions are unlikely until at the start of the second half or well into the second half. The USWNT cannot rely on getting into the box and shooting for their next cycle, they need to practice set pieces until they get them down.