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U.S. Women's Team

Midfield Madness: Will Jill Ellis Get it Right vs. Brazil?

Inconsistent performances have plagued Jill Ellis' nine-month run as coach of the United States women's national team, but ASN's John Halloran believes there's a simple solution to the problem.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
December 19, 2014
9:43 AM
UNDER THE MOST improbable of circumstances—which included the U.S. winning over Argentina, Brazil defeating China, and the U.S. making up a minus-seven goal differential—the United States women’s national team advanced to the final of the International Tournament of Brasilia on Thursday.

The bizarre ending to the final day of group play followed what, up until now, had been a disappointing tournament for head coach Jill Ellis’ side. In the opening match of the tournament, the U.S. could only manage a 1-1 tie against a youth-filled China side and despite the fact that the U.S. had already beaten China on two separate occasions this year.

In the second game of group play the U.S. lost 3-2 to host Brazil as Marta ran rampant over the American defense.

On Thursday, in the final match of group play, the U.S. finally turned things around with a 7-0 win against an overmatched Argentina squad. However, many questions will remain for Ellis and her team.

For starters, why isn't Ellis inspiring better, more consistent performances?

She is coaching the No. 1 team in the world, has a cadre of world-class attackers at her disposal, and came into the job having already established relationships with most of the players from her years as a U.S. youth coach and her years as Pia Sundhage’s assistant on the senior team.

Despite all of this, the recent performances of the U.S. women have been far from ideal, especially with the team only six months out from the World Cup.

Since taking over the team, Ellis has spent the last nine months attempting to implement a 4-3-3 formation and a more possession-oriented system—an admirable goal. But the transition has not always been smooth—even the U.S. players have called their performances “disjointed”—and Ellis’ lineup decisions have, at times, confounded.

Blessed with two gifted No. 10’s, Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd, and no true No. 6 since the departure of Shannon Boxx, Ellis has struggled to figure out her midfield triangle. Most often she has played Megan Rapinoe or Abby Wambach in the No. 10 role, with Holiday staying home as the No. 6 and Lloyd taking up the team’s box-to-box role as the No. 8.

The problem with those selections is that they have shoehorned players into positions they are obviously ill-suited to play. Against Brazil, the deficiencies of Ellis’ selections were obvious as each time Lloyd attempted to get forward, Holiday was left on her own and overwhelmed by the Brazilian midfield. Holiday struggled to pick up the Brazilian attackers as they streamed through the U.S. midfield and, when the U.S. was in possession, she had few options and gave away possession time and time again.

But the problems the U.S. midfield has been dealing with over the past year don’t originate with Lloyd. The problem is the No. 10 role and, more specifically, who Ellis is choosing to play it.

While Rapinoe is capable of producing jaw-dropping moments—as she demonstrated again against Brazil with a wonder goal—she lacks the simple possession needed to succeed as a central player. This is a lesson Sundhage learned when she tried to turn Rapinoe into the team’s No. 10 between the 2011 World Cup and the 2012 Olympics—before finally abandoning the idea and putting her back out wide.

When Wambach plays as the team’s attacking midfielder, the U.S. essentially morphs into a 4-4-2, which would be fine if the two players up top were a healthy Alex Morgan and a 2011-version of Wambach (or Morgan and an in-form Sydney Leroux).

Unfortunately for the U.S. women, Morgan has spent much of the last two years injured, Leroux has been in a scoring funk since Tom Sermanni was fired, and Wambach, 34, has lost a step or two.

Ardent U.S. supporters are clamoring for a return of the 4-4-2. And while that might work under ideal conditions (such as a healthy Morgan, an in-form Leroux, and/or a younger Wambach), there is already a solution under Ellis’ nose—if she can see it.

Since Ellis took over for Sermanni back in April, the U.S. has not started the same lineup in two consecutive games. Unlike Sundhage—who almost never rotated the lineup—Ellis has taken the idea of squad rotation to an unprecedented level. (Not coincidentally, she frequently says the U.S. needs to work on its “relationships on the field.”)

But those constant squad rotations—besides making it more difficult for the players to develop those relationships—may have caused Ellis to overlook the best midfield option in the American player pool.

Since taking over as coach, Ellis has started Morgan Brian in four games. And the results in those games have been among the most impressive in Ellis’ tenure, including a 3-0 win over China, a 1-1 draw to Canada in Winnipeg, the 6-0 win over Costa Rica in the CONCACAF Final—in which Brian picked up the game-winning assist—and Thursday's 7-0 win over Argentina—in which Brian assisted on two goals, including the gamewinner.

While no one would call China, Costa Rica, or Argentina world-class teams, it is in those games, especially Brian’s last two starts against Costa Rica and Argentina, that the U.S. has seen its most free-flowing play under Ellis. For that matter, the U.S. also looked significantly better against Brazil once Brian was introduced off the bench.

In CONCACAF qualifying, the U.S. attack was stagnant for long periods of time and it wasn’t until the final, with Brian in the starting XI, that the U.S. finally found its groove. The same was true on Thursday with Brian sitting deeper in the U.S. midfield. On both occasions, the introduction of Brian allowed Lloyd—a potent attacking force—to push higher up the field without exposing the team defensively. Against Costa Rica, that allowed Lloyd to pick up a goal and two assists. Against Argentina, that allowed Lloyd to pick up a hat trick.

It's also interesting to note that in the U.S.’s draw and win against France—the U.S.’s highest-ranked opponent in Ellis’ tenure—the U.S. also found success playing with three “natural” center midfielders in Holiday, Lloyd and, at that time, Allie Long.

In retrospect—assuming Ellis has finally seen the writing on the wall—the loss to Brazil may end up being the best thing that could have happened to the U.S. Despite the widespread criticism of the U.S. following the game, the match was fairly even. After the U.S. went up two goals very early in the match, Marta scored a series of brilliant goals in earning her hat trick and the win for Brazil.

But had the U.S. come back to tie, or even win the match, the narrative would have been much different.

Against Brazil, Marta’s first goal should have been ruled offside, Rapinoe kissed a shot off the crossbar, Leroux missed a breakaway, and Christen Press (who has had a brilliant tournament) smacked a rocket off the post with only seconds remaining. If any of those plays had gone differently, pundits would have been praising the U.S.’s competitiveness and fitness, and the problems with the U.S. midfield may have continued to go unnoticed.

Assuming that Thursday's wacky results don’t provide another convenient mask for the U.S.’s midfield issues, Ellis may finally be on the right track in using the Holiday/Lloyd/Brian combination. It has shown more promise than any other combination thus far and has the added benefit of pushing Rapinoe out wide and Wambach up top—right where they belong.

John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

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