On Tuesday night at RFK Stadium, the U.S. Women’s National Team lost 3-0 to France, its worst defeat since a 4-0 semifinal capitulation to Brazil at the 2007 World Cup in China. The match was the finale of the SheBelieves Cup, a tournament over which the USWNT lost two of three games and scored just a single goal. Coach Jill Ellis is credited with winning the 2015 World Cup, the first for the U.S. since 1999, but when combining the results during the SheBelieves Cup with crashing out of the 2016 Olympics in the quarterfinal round, and the myriad personnel and tactical errors along the way, it’s clear that Ellis should no longer coach this team.
2015 World Cup
That a Jill Ellis-coached team won the 2015 World Cup is not debatable, but how much Ellis actually had to do with that is up for discussion. The United States won their group with 7 points, scoring just four goals (three in one game) and amassing a +3 goal differential, numbers which are hardly convincing for an eventual World Cup winner.
In the first four games of the tournament, Ellis played a 4-4-2 with a two-woman midfield of Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday, a setup which asks too much of both from a defensive perspective, as Lloyd is far better going forward, and neither was particularly adept at shielding the back four. Blessed with a group (Australia, Sweden and Nigeria) that was not offensively explosive, and then a round-of-16 opponent (Colombia) that finished third in their group, the U.S. advanced to the quarterfinals while scoring six goals over four games while employing that same two-woman midfield.
In the 17th minute of the match against Colombia, Holiday was issued her second yellow card of the tournament, which meant that she would be suspended for the quarterfinal match against China. In Holiday’s stead, Jill Ellis was forced to turn to natural central midfielder Morgan Brian, who had one start at right midfield and had played a total of 83 minutes in the tournament to that point. Brian partnered with Lloyd in another two-woman midfield in the 1-0 U.S. win, and her performance earned her a start in the semifinals against Germany, prompting Ellis to change the formation to play Brian alongside Holiday with Lloyd playing underneath forward Alex Morgan. The change gave Lloyd the freedom to go forward and it gave the backline more cover from the midfield. The Americans beat Germany 2-0 to advance to the final, where they dispatched Japan 5-2 with help from a Lloyd hat trick.
The change Ellis made to the lineup and formation was not done of her own volition. Her only central midfield options to replace the suspended Lauren Holiday were Brian and Shannon Boxx, the latter of whom made one 16-minute substitute appearance during the whole tournament. Ellis had no other true option but to turn to Brian, and she discovered that Brian was such a good fit in the midfield that she started the final two games. It’s not possible to know for certain what would have happened if Holiday had not been suspended, but on the evidence of the solidified midfield and offensive threat shown by the team after Jill Ellis was forced to play Brian in the midfield, it looks like Ellis stumbled into success.
2016 Summer Olympics: Megan Rapinoe
After suffering a torn ACL in December of 2015, Megan Rapinoe fought a seven month battle to return to the national team, culminating in her selection to the Olympic roster. Rapinoe would make two appearances in the four U.S. games. She started the third group stage game against Colombia, playing just 33 minutes before being substituted, and she came off the bench in the 72nd minute of the quarterfinal loss to Sweden before being substituted nine minutes into the first half of extra time. All told, Rapinoe played 60 minutes in those two games, and Jill Ellis used a total of three substitutions on her.
The talent of a healthy Megan Rapinoe is undeniable; she’s one of the best American wide midfielders, and few in the world can equal her foot skills. After playing in zero matches between her injury and her first Olympic appearance, she looked rusty in action, and how fit she actually was deserved questioning. Starting Rapinoe in one game and using one sub to remove her after 33 minutes, and in a later game using a sub to put her on the field, only to use yet another to take her off shows poor game management and poor personnel decision making by Jill Ellis. If Rapinoe could not play more than 33 minutes, she should not have been on the trimmed down 18-woman roster to begin with.
Allie Long as a Defensive Midfielder, and then a Center Back
Allie Long is a good central midfielder. Among NWSL players, she is one of the most active and accurate passers, and she is above average when it comes to winning possession by tackles and interceptions, as well as attempting and completing through balls. She has a well-rounded game, and she earned a spot on the national team after amassing ten goals and four assists over the 2015 NWSL season, followed by six goals and two assists in 15 NWSL games in 2016, her season interrupted by the Olympics. Allie Long is good going forward, but she is not a good defensive midfielder, and she is a worse center back.
Successful positional conversions are not unheard of. The best examples are probably Lauren Holiday and Christie Rampone. Holiday was a center forward who, with work, became a very good central midfielder, while Rampone was a forward that converted to one of the best American center backs ever. The difference between Holiday and Long is that, while roughly the same age, Holiday underwent that conversion as a 24-year-old, and Long is undergoing her conversion as a 29-year-old. It’s no grand assumption to say that a 29-year-old player is the finished article, and Long lacks some of the positional awareness and sense of danger that is required right now.
This is an example of Long’s lack of awareness when playing defensive midfielder, in this case against the Netherlands on September 18, 2016. Here, Lieke Martens of the Netherlands takes control of the ball and begins dribbling infield, chased by Brian, with help coming from Julie Johnston. Long is in space:
In the second panel, Johnston and Brian converge on Martens, while Long is watching, not noticing the nearby Oranje player. Martens makes the pass in frame three, the ball bypasses Long, and the result is a give-and-go with Martens receiving a return ball from Long’s mark and shooting over Alyssa Naeher’s net. There was no reason for Long to be ball watching there, and had she been aware of the danger, Martens would have had no easy passing option and faced a double team.
In this next case, Long is a center back, flanked by Becky Sauerbrunn on the right and Casey Short on the left. In the first frame, Romania’s Stefania Vatafu receives a ball out of the defensive third, with Sauerbrunn closing but not close enough to contest. Near midfield, Romania’s Laura Rus is between Long and Short, with plenty of space between them:
In the 2nd frame, Vatafu has turned, and Rus is gaining momentum but staying onside. Long has inexplicably shaded toward Vatafu, while Short hasn’t moved much. Note the circled player near Short, who may have caught her eye. At this moment, this is all over. Vatafu plays the ball over the top to a sprinting Rus as a flat-footed and unaware Long and Short are beaten, and chasing into the fourth frame as Ashlyn Harris rushes out to meet Rus. Rus rounds Harris and scores.
The last instance is from Tuesday night’s game. Long was a center back, again with Sauerbrunn and Short. This is the third France goal, and I’ll touch on the buildup shortly. In the first frame, France’s Eve Perisset has been played in behind the defense. Short is chasing, and Long is appealing for offside while dropping back. France’s Camille Abily is between Sauerbrunn and Long. Off screen, to Sauerbrunn’s left, is another French player:
The second frame is from a lower angle. Long is still watching Perisset while Short closes quickly. In the third frame, Perisset’s ball comes in as Short tries in vain to make a tackle. The ball bypasses the watching long, while Abily, the player Long should have been marking, finishes first time. Sauerbrunn had sensed the danger and left her mark to try to get goal side of Abily, but it was too late.
These are just some of the situations in which Long has faltered. At this point in her career, it is hard for me to expect that this is going to improve. Jill Ellis, however, is intent on trying to make it work. That makes me believe that she is either unwilling to admit that her experiment has failed, or is unaware that it’s failing. Both of those things are bad qualities to have for a national team head coach.
These decisions are compounded by the fact that center back and defensive midfielder are not places where the American talent pool is particularly shallow. Central defenders such as Abby Dahlkemper, Megan Oyster, and Emily Menges are better center backs than Long, while current national teamers Julie Johnston and Emily Sonnett have seen their play all but evaporate while the Long experiment goes on. Meanwhile, holding midfielders like Danielle Colaprico, Sarah Killion, and Tori Huster can barely get call ups, and they are the cream of the American crop at the position. Not only is the current national team suffering, but the future of the team is also damaged as long as players like these are kept out.
Other Unnecessary Conversions
Long’s ongoing conversion is not the only one on Jill Ellis’s record that doesn’t make sense. Since shifting the team to a 3-5-2, Ellis has tried to shoehorn players into positions that they haven’t played or don’t play, and it’s causing problems. Chief among them is Casey Short, who plays as a fullback for the Chicago Red Stars, and has been a left-center back in the current alignment. Alongside that change is the forcing of skilled attacking players like Mallory Pugh, Crystal Dunn, Tobin Heath, and Rose Lavelle to play wingback at different times. Speaking specifically to Tobin Heath, she and Short combined to allow France’s Eve Perisset to run unmarked down the line to set up France’s aforementioned third goal:
Here, France’s Elodie Thomis receives the ball, and Short steps to her as she should. Meanwhile, Perisset is running down the line and Heath, instead of tracking Perisset, steps to Thomis as well. Samantha Mewis is not blameless here, as she left Le Sommer to triple team Thomis, allowing Thomis to drop it to Eugenie Le Sommer, who played it over the top to Perisset. This is highly undisciplined defending, and really it’s Heath that should have had Perisset from the beginning. That’s a mistake that I don’t believe a true wide defender would have made.
Rose Lavelle is a particularly puzzling example of conversion because Ellis appears to not believe her own assessment. When deploying Lavelle on the left during the SheBelieves game against England, Ellis said:
“[Lavelle] was fantastic. I thought she did great. I think it's her first cap and five minutes of nerves and then she settled into that game and she was one of the best players in the park. So that was fantastic. What's her best role? I mean she's still kind of new with us so I think tonight in a game where I thought she did very well wide - and she's a natural lefty so we like her out there…”
On Tuesday night against France, lefty Lavelle lined up on the right flank.
These changes are coming with Kelley O’Hara, an attacking player that has defensive experience, sitting on the bench for much of the tournament, and also with an attacking fullback like Chicago’s Arin Gilliland waiting for more than just a call-up.
The Same Old Camps
Lastly, with players like Abby Wambach, Heather O’Reilly, Lauren Holiday, Whitney Engen, and Christie Rampone no longer in the national team picture, it would make sense for Jill Ellis to call in a raft of new players to see against international competition. In October of 2016, it looked like that might be happening, as Ellis called into camp a slew of uncapped or lightly-capped players like Danielle Colaprico, Kealia Ohai, Lynn Williams, Ashley Hatch (who, at the time, was still in college), Casey Short, Shea Groom, and Andi Sullivan.
That apparent new wave lasted all of one camp, as just Williams and Short caught on and were included in the 25-player SheBelieves camp for an eventual 23-player roster. There was no evident point to calling in 25 players for a 23-woman roster. What would have been the harm in looking at more players for what amounts to a friendly tournament? This team cannot plan for the future if potential replacements for veterans can’t get more than one camp to prove their worth.
Over the past 20 months, the U.S. has gone from winning the World Cup, to crashing out of the Olympics in the quarterfinals and failing to medal, to losing two games and scoring just one goal at home in their own tournament. The blame for this falls on the shoulders of Jill Ellis. She has displayed poor judgement in her tactics, player selection, and forcing players into important and unfamiliar roles, and it’s time for U.S. Soccer to fire her and find someone who can move the team forward.