LE HAVRE, France — The real Women's World Cup starts Thursday for the U.S. when it meets Sweden in its group-stage finale, needing just a tie to win Group F (3 p.m. ET, FOX, Telemundo), and while the games that people will remember lie ahead, U.S. coach Jill Ellis is deserving of some praise.
It’s not ecstatic praise, mind you, but it is an acknowledgement that Ellis and her staff have made some wise decisions, large and small, over the past three years and during this tournament itself.
Ellis hasn’t always gotten a lot of credit over the years, whether it has been from sections of U.S. fans, media and even her own players. Not even winning the 2015 Women's World Cup just a year after taking over was enough for some, who argued that Ellis only made her Cup-defining tactical switch—moving Carli Lloyd higher up the field—because she was forced to by the quarterfinal yellow-card suspensions to Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday.
Going out to Sweden in the 2016 Olympic quarterfinals was seen as a failure by everyone, not least because the U.S. lacked the ability to unlock a defense that sat deep and hit the Americans on the counter. Then, in July 2017, after a 1-0 home loss to Australia in the Tournament of Nations, several U.S. veterans approached then federation president Sunil Gulati and said they had deep concerns about the direction of the USWNT—and that if those concerns weren’t addressed they wanted a new coach.
Player-powered revolts have happened several times over the years with the USWNT, some of them successful in removing a coach (Greg Ryan, Tom Sermanni, April Heinrichs in 2004), some unsuccessful (Heinrichs in 2003). Ellis fell into the latter category. In December 2017, Gulati told the players in a meeting (with Ellis present) that Ellis wasn’t going anywhere before the Women's World Cup, and Gulati’s replacement, Carlos Cordeiro, has kept Ellis in charge.
Since then, I’m told the relationship between the veterans and Ellis has improved—winning will help that, and the U.S. was unbeaten in 2018—but player concerns still remain about what they feel is a lack of communication from Ellis.
Yet Ellis has done some specific things that deserve credit. For one, she recognized after the 2016 Olympics defeat that the team’s conservative 4-4-2 approach needed to change. After experimenting with a back three, that eventually meant shifting to a 4-3-3 with marauding fullbacks that represented a major shift from what won World Cup 2015.
“If you were to compare us to 2015, I think we were more of a defensive team [then[,” says U.S. center back Becky Sauerbrunn. “The formation that we played, the way that we attacked, it was a bit more counterattacking. And then I think you see these last two games [against Thailand and Chile] that we’re very much an attacking group now, and everyone’s contributing on the attacking side. We’re trying to defend higher up so we put ourselves in better positions. We’re a more attacking side.”
Yes, there are questions about whether the U.S. will have enough balance and leave itself exposed against stronger opponents in this tournament, but the addition of attacking players who can spread the field should help the U.S. break down defensive-minded teams. So should the characteristics of 2019 players like Rose Lavelle, whose creativity on the ball in tight spaces will be an asset (to say nothing of an in-form Rapinoe and Tobin Heath out wide).
What remains to be seen, as Rapinoe has pointed out, is whether the U.S. will face a parked bus with poise and thought or whether it will simply try to attack as quickly as possible all the time (which Rapinoe sees as a less optimal option).
During this tournament itself, Ellis was smart to find playing time for all 20 field players during the first two games, even if it meant that Alex Morgan, Rapinoe and Heath didn’t play at all against Chile. The result was a happy camp and less wear on the legs of the U.S.’s most important attackers as they navigate what they hope will be seven games this month.
“It’s for morale purposes and cohesion and team and all that,” Ellis said after the Chile game. “It’s fantastic. You see the players celebrating each other again tonight. So in that purpose it’s a happy camp. In regards to load, there’s a lot of games in this tournament if you want to go far in it. … I don’t have any concerns in terms of losing any rhythm or having those players that didn’t play today prepared and hungry and ready to go.”
If Morgan was upset over not getting the chance to add to her tournament-leading five goals in the game against Chile—she’s now tied at five with Australia’s Sam Kerr—she didn’t show it.
“There was really no explaining to do [from Ellis on not playing at all],” Morgan said after the Chile game. “I feel like this team has incredible depth, and when she chooses who goes on during the game and who starts, there’s no explanation needed. We trust in her. It was pretty incredible that we were able to get all 20 field players on the pitch in the first two games.”
There are always going to be debates over whether a prominent national team coach is making the right moves, and the jury is still out on some of Ellis’s choices for this World Cup. Was it really smart to not take defensive midfielder McCall Zerboni, especially if Julie Ertz (arguably the U.S.’s most indispensable player) gets an injury or a card suspension? Is there enough depth at the fullback spots? And why did Ellis leave Ali Krieger out in the cold for two years, only to bring her back in just before the World Cup?
But overall, a lot of the important moves that Ellis has made deserve some praise. Back in January, Fox Sports analyst Aly Wagner came on SI TV's Planet Fútbol TV show and was asked if she thought Ellis had been treated fairly by U.S. players and fans. And here’s what Wagner said (granted, this was right before the U.S.’s 3-1 friendly loss to France):
“No, I don’t. I think that this is the world we live in, that it’s immediate gratification. And that with this team in particular, everyone has been so used to success. And if there’s any shortcomings, any hashes in the L column or in the tie column, for that matter, people are judged harshly. But the patience that Jill Ellis and her staff showed in building this team up to where they are now—this team is playing the best they’ve ever played in my opinion.
“We had coaches before like Tom Sermanni who wanted to do the same thing, and they weren’t given that same length of rope,” Wagner continued. “I think Jill Ellis, having won the 2015 World Cup allowed her to have more time. And you can look back and say she was right, and the argument she was making was that we are building toward this next level. We’re not going to be able to win the same way we’ve been playing in the past. There’s too many difficult opponents now. They’re all tactically more nuanced, they have a great understanding, they’re more athletic.”
“We’re going to have variation in the way we set up, the way we play, the way we break down opponents, and it’s going to pay off. So no, I don’t think they were judged fairly. And ultimately, if they can get the result in the World Cup, it’s all going to be sweet for Jill Ellis and her staff. And the team, for that matter, because they have stuck through the more difficult period, and they’ve grown from it.”
Getting that result in the World Cup? That process starts in earnest on Thursday.