MONTREAL — When the U.S. faces Germany in the Women’s World Cup semifinals on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET, FOX), it won’t just be the only time in this tournament that the U.S. will be an underdog (even if the U.S. reaches the final). It will also be the biggest test of coach Jill Ellis’s career from a personnel perspective.
Facing China in the quarterfinals without midfielders Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday (both suspended on yellow cards), Ellis pushed the right buttons. To replace Holiday, she inserted Morgan Brian, who played well beyond her 22 years and demonstrated an advanced soccer IQ, filling in the right spaces at the right times. Using Brian as a more traditional defensive midfielder allowed Carli Lloyd to play in a more advanced role and have her best game of the tournament.
Meanwhile, Ellis also deployed Kelley O’Hara in Rapinoe’s wide midfield spot and saw O’Hara fit in well with a more dynamic U.S. operation, both defensively and offensively. The same could be said for Amy Rodriguez, whose movement was helpful with the U.S. high-press and with creating more space for the attack by checking back and making runs of her own.
The U.S. doesn’t have that kind of movement when Abby Wambach starts up top, which is why Ellis will need to think long and hard if she’s considering removing Rodriguez from the starting lineup against Germany.
If you saw Germany being outplayed by France in their epic quarterfinal, you witnessed a German outfit that had trouble coping with France’s speed and dynamism.
What Ellis has to weigh is this: How much of the U.S. improved play against China was the result of the new tactics and personnel? And how much was the result of China just not being that good? After all, there’s a big gap between the Chinese and the Germans.
Let’s break down Ellis’s options by position:
Hope Solo has gone 423 minutes without conceding a goal and hasn’t even been challenged much in recent games thanks to an amazing …
Don’t mess with success. If I were to make a Best XI for the entire tournament, both U.S. center backs, Julie Johnston and Becky Sauerbrunn, would be on it at this point. Right back Ali Krieger has been solid, and the same can be said for left back Meghan Klingenberg.
Rapinoe is basically a lock to return to the starting lineup out wide. The question is whether she replaces O’Hara or Tobin Heath. I’d lean toward keeping O’Hara on the field based on her movement and pressure on both sides of the ball.
If Ellis decided to stay with the 4-4-2, as I’d expect, then Holiday may well return to the central midfield and pair up with Lloyd. When Ellis was asked on Monday if there was a way to get both Holiday and Lloyd higher up the field, she said:
“Let’s hope so. We’ll figure that out.” (She added a wink.)
Or Holiday may not end up returning to the starting lineup. Holiday is a natural attacking midfielder or withdrawn forward, and the U.S. really could use a player like Brian to play as a defensive midfielder. That frees up Lloyd to get into more advanced positions.
If anything, the choice in a 4-4-2 should probably be between starting Lloyd or Holiday, but it seems unlikely that Ellis would sit Lloyd after she just had her best game of the tournament.
Another option for Ellis? Going with the 4-2-3-1 formation that she used in the latter stages of the Colombia game, with Brian and Lloyd as the line of two and Holiday playing as an attacking central midfielder. Yet while that formation might provide more of a spine against the German attack, it seems unlikely Ellis would start the game that way, not least because Brian said that the team hadn’t worked on it before they used it against Colombia.
Alex Morgan is a guaranteed starter at this point and will have pressure on her to score after being less influential against China than in the Colombia game. The choice for her partner is likely to come down to one between Rodriguez and Wambach (though Sydney Leroux could also be in contention). If Ellis thinks set-pieces are the key to scoring against Germany, then look for Wambach. But if Ellis goes with movement, speed and pressure, then Rodriguez would likely get the call.
When asked on Monday about what was going into her decision-making on a lineup and gameplan, Ellis said this:
“We’ve got a lot of tools. It’s looking at what we need. Winning the aerial battle, winning the ball in the middle of the park is going to be important for us. Our ability to win the ball centrally. And it’s almost the same for [Germany]. They want to win the ball and then they want to transition quickly. So that’s the thought into that.”
You’re just reading into the tea leaves on these things, but that wasn’t the only time that Ellis emphasized the strength and aerial ability of the German players. Earlier in the press conference, she responded this way when I asked about her main takeaways on Germany from its quarterfinal against France:
“It’s a team that’s powerful. They’re competitive, they’re combative. They play a lot of longer balls and like to pick up second balls. We have to be very strong in the air.”
On Tuesday, in the biggest game of Ellis’s coaching career, we’ll see how she puts out a team to beat the Germans in a World Cup semifinal.