The U.S. women's national team returns to action this week when it hosts the third annual SheBelieves Cup. The tournament features four of the top six teams on the planet, based on the most recent FIFA rankings, and it's a true litmus test event ahead of next summer's Women's World Cup.
No. 2 Germany, No. 3 England and No. 6 France all hit U.S. soil for the week-long competition, and during a long span on the calendar without any competitive games, this is as tough a warm-up the U.S. women will have entering CONCACAF World Cup qualifying.
Amid a bunch of player turnover and after the disappointment of the 2016 Olympics, the U.S. women haven't fared so well in faux-tournament settings. They finished last in the 2017 SheBelieves Cup that featured the same four teams as the upcoming competition, and they finished second to Australia in the four-team 2017 Tournament of Nations. Making matters worse, both competitions took place on U.S. soil. Would another poor showing on a tournament stage at home force U.S. Soccer to consider making a change at the top and seek another manager prior to World Cup qualifying?
We discussed head coach Jill Ellis and her USWNT status on the most recent Planet Fútbol Podcast. You can listen to the whole show below–USWNT talk begins at the 35:51 mark–and you can subscribe to and download the podcast on iTunes here.
WAHL: There are two tournaments in women's soccer national team-wise that really matter, that's the World Cup and the Olympics, and there's a big gap between those tournaments and any of the others, but that said, we're in a situation here now, Brian, where since Women's World Cup of 2015, the U.S. women have been in three tournaments, and they have not won any of those tournaments. Didn't win in the Olympics in 2016, last year's SheBelieves Cup did not win, got destroyed actually, four nations tournament, did not win. 'Is Jill Ellis's job in any danger?' I ask myself, and I think maybe it should be if they have a bad tournament here. I know she's had the opportunity to do some experimentation, more so last year, but I know for a fact that there's some folks inside that team that are really concerned about the direction of the U.S. women's national team. What's your sense of the U.S. women's national team these days?
STRAUS: I always think they're better than everyone else does. We had this argument during the Women's World Cup in 2015. Yes, they didn't win and got knocked out early in the Olympics, but it was on penalties, they didn't get beat, outscored. This team is so good and so consistent and so dominant that people look for trouble. They look for drama. They look for signs of weakness or fault. And I think Jill, whether or not people think it was genius or accident or something in between, she pulled the right strings at the end of the Women's World Cup in 2015. She led the U.S. to the title. And then she had, because of the way women's soccer is structured, because of the unequal kind of time, she took a very similar team to the Olympics. They lost on penalties, and then she had a couple of years to retool the team. So that's what we're in the middle of right now.
There will be Women's World Cup qualifying this fall, whether or not she wins an exhibition tournament–I think the U.S. women have lost three games in the past year. They had the two defeats back to back to England and France at the very beginning of 2017 and they lost to Australia over the summer. They've been rolling teams since then. I think this is the tempest in a teapot. When the U.S. women fail to get out of their group at the Women's World Cup, then we panic. But this team is too good and too consistent and loses far too infrequently on the big stage I think for there to be too much concern.
GW: So here's what I would say. If the U.S. doesn't win this tournament, should there be people questioning whether Jill Ellis should continue? Yes, I think there should be.
BS: Is her mandate to win this tournament?
GW: No, but I'm just saying, if you're having tournament after tournament that you're not winning and you have done what the U.S. has done before–remember, Tom Sermanni got fired based on the Algarve Cup. So, that actually turned out to be a pretty good decision, considering the U.S. won the Women's World Cup a year later, but Ellis came in a year before. This is basically the same equivalent tournament as the Algarve Cup was for Tom Sermanni.
BS: Did he get fired because he didn't win that tournament? Or because he lost the support and faith of the real power brokers in that locker room?
GW: Both. It's a complex story. I guess what I would say is, even if they fall flat on their face in this tournament, I don't think Jill Ellis is going anywhere. I think you have a new president, Carlos Cordeiro, who is already trying to fill the U.S. men's national team job, who is already trying to fill this open GM job for both the men and the women, and I don't think he wants to have a vacancy that he has to fill for his other senior national team coach on the women's side, so I just don't see that sort of thing happening even if they're terrible.
BS: Again, you could call it a tournament, I mean SheBelieves is a cool initiative by U.S. Soccer, and it's about more things than just the collection of games, but it's still not an official competition. These are friendlies that we're talking about. And we can say that women's soccer has too many friendlies and that the structure of the official competitions doesn't put the team in position to play enough competitive matches and face the scrutiny and pressure that those matches would bring, but this is the structure of the sport right now. She won the Women's World Cup title, she won what, 5-2 in the final ... and she's been coaching friendlies for the past couple years.
It seems a like a lot of the power brokers that were there on that team and that perhaps were itching for Sermanni's ouster, they're not so much around anymore. So the team has gotten much younger, and there's a lot of players in there who owe their chances to Jill Ellis, and who weren't part of the team that had the big, big personalities of the cycle that concluded in 2015 and 2016. So you would think there would have to be an open revolt in that locker room for her to lose her job over the result of a few friendlies. There'd have to be an open revolt.