Coming into 2017, USWNT head coach Jill Ellis alluded to a year of experimentation with the formation, lineup, players' positions, and bringing in numerous players (30 players played for the U.S. in 2017).
She did just that, creating a year with a mix of success and disappointments, i.e., the good and the ugly from a year of experimentation.
Perhaps the greatest result of experimentation came when Julie Ertz switched to the defensive midfield position during the Tournament of Nations last summer.
As the USWNT battled and struggled against rival Brazil, Ellis had no other choice but to switch from Plan A, a 4-3-3 formation with veteran centerback Becky Sauerbrunn at holding midfield position and Abby Dahlkemper, who got her sixth cap and third start, leading the backline, to Plan B where Sauerbrunn dropped back to her natural position in the backline, allowing Ertz to enter the game in the 57th minute in that number six position. Ertz had been playing at the number six spot with the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL, a return to her collegiate position during her time at Santa Clara University.
The U.S. would fall behind 3-1 by the 78th-minute, but they would put together an incredible comeback in the final 10 minutes with Ertz scoring the game-winning goal in the 89th minute when she blasted a loose ball in the box into the back of the net. Ertz’s impact in the game was more than the game-winning goal as she helped create six chances for the USWNT.
From that moment forth, Ertz was the new defensive midfielder for the USWNT. The USWNT went 7-0-1 with Ertz in her new position. She dominated the midfield, scoring five more goals, including a brace against New Zealand. The 2017 campaign saw Ertz finish second on the team in scoring with six goals, and she was voted the 2017 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year.
Three ranked opponents exposed the weaknesses of Ellis' experimentation, beginning at the SheBelieves Cup in March where the U.S. finished last, and culminating at the Tournament of Nations where Australia beat the U.S. for the first time ever.
Yes, the United States lost to three quality teams this year (France, England, Australia), but those losses showed that Ellis' experimentation, including a failed three-back system with Allie Long converting to defensive back to anchor that system and Sauerbrunn as a defensive midfielder in a 4-3-3, failed to produce significant results and created more frustration than anything. In these games, the U.S. was often fighting with their backs against the wall as these three teams took advantage in counter attacks and broke down the U.S. defense, especially against France in a 3-0 loss.
As the U.S. fell to Brazil 3-1 at the Tournament of Nations, it was starting to look all too familiar. Ellis was then left scrambling for a solution. Miraculously, Megan Rapinoe's playmaking and Ertz at her new position saved the day and set the course for the USWNT to finish 2017 strong.
Still, those three losses in one year, and three home losses at that in tournaments that the U.S. created, will remain as salt to a wound for U.S. fans.
Other Notable Mentions
- The U.S. maintained their #1 status in the FIFA rankings at the end of the year. They dropped to #2 in March following a disappointing performance at the SheBelieves Cup.
- Kelley O'Hara had her night of recognition in September, earning her 100th cap with the USWNT.
- Ali Krieger, however, remained with 98 caps when she could have easily reached 100 caps before O'Hara in various opportunities, especially as the USWNT veteran was a major playmaker for her club, the Orlando Pride. Why she remains with 98 caps is something Ellis has some explaining to do.
- Rose Lavelle had a breakthrough year after debuting for the USWNT on March 4 against England. Lavelle impressed many with her playmaking on that frigid night in New Jersey and again a month later in the friendlies in Texas against Russia. In early June, she scored the only goal in a 1-0 victory against Sweden.
- On the final game of the year, Carli Lloyd scored her 98th goal of her international career against Canada.
- Sofia Huerta proved that following a dream is feasible. After spending her international career at the youth and senior level with Mexico, FIFA approved a change of national association in September, making Huerta eligible to represent the United States at the international level.
- Allie Long, despite losing her starting position with the Portland Thorns and a failed conversion into a defender with the USWNT, continued to earn call-ups to training camps.
- Alex Morgan appeared to have returned to her days of glory: scoring goals, and pretty ones, too. She scored seven goals, the most for the USWNT in 2017.
The USWNT finished 2017 with a 12-3-1 record and now sets their sights on 2018, a year where qualifying for the 2019 FIFA Women's World Cup begins.
2017 was indeed a wild rollercoaster for the USWNT. Here's to high hopes that Ellis is truly done with the experimentation phase for the upcoming year.