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Talking Tactics

Should the U.S. Women Switch to a 4-3-3?

After a poor showing at the 2014 Algarve Cup, John D. Halloran wonders if it's time for Tom Sermanni and the United States women's national team to adjust its 4-4-2 formation.
BY John D. Halloran Posted
March 31, 2014
11:13 AM
Heading into the 2014 Algarve Cup, United States women’s national team head coach Tom Sermanni had experienced nothing but success with the squad. Since taking over for Pia Sundhage at the end of 2012, the U.S. had racked up an impressive 16-0-3 record under Sermanni and outscored its opponents in those games by a margin of 72-11.

But the U.S.’s poor showing in Portugal—which featured a 0-2-1 record in group play, including a 5-3 loss to Denmark that represented the most goals the team had conceded in a single match in the program’s 29-year history—has raised some serious questions. With 2014 World Cup qualification on the horizon, those questions deserve some serious consideration.

In recent years, including the 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympics, the U.S. has stuck primarily to a 4-4-2 formation. In 2011, that often meant a forward line of Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez with Alex Morgan coming off the bench.

After the 2011 World Cup, Sundhage tried to switch the U.S. into a 4-2-3-1, but the emergence of Morgan as a world-class striker made it difficult to stick with the single-striker set. Finally, in the U.S.’s last game of Olympic qualification early in 2012, Sundhage went back to a 4-4-2, featuring Wambach and Morgan as the starters up top.

Even with the change back to two forwards, however, some fans thought Sundhage should have gone further and moved the U.S. into a 4-3-3. Those calls originated because Sydney Leroux was herself emerging as a contender for a starting position.

Nevertheless, Sundhage stuck with the 4-4-2—except in situations when the U.S. was chasing the game, such as in the Olympic semifinals against Canada—and the U.S. went on to win Olympic gold in 2012.

When Sermanni took over at the beginning of 2013, fans again wondered if the team might move to a three-front, as the coach had seen some success using a 4-3-3 in his time with the Australian national team. It also seemed a natural move because of the emergence of Christen Press as a legitimate fourth option at striker (she has 11 international goals for the U.S. since her debut last February).

But Sermanni, like Sundhage, has resisted the move to a 4-3-3, saying, “I don’t think that the balance of our strikers, in general, is a three up top scenario…we tend to have strikers who are more comfortable in central roles.”

For a number of reasons, the time may have come for the move to three forwards.

The two biggest reasons are the U.S.’s preponderance of world-class attackers and the need to get both Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday onto the field in attacking midfield roles at the same time.

In the U.S.’s current 4-4-2, when Lloyd and Holiday play together, one of two things happens. Either both get caught forward, leaving the U.S.’s back line exposed with no cover, or one of the premier attacking midfielders in the world, usually Lloyd, is forced to sit back and play in a position not suited to her particular skill set.

In a 4-3-3, both Lloyd and Holiday would be able to get forward as often as they pleased because the team would have a dedicated holding midfielder behind them to protect the back line. It would also help the U.S. unlock defenses that seem content to sit back and counter against the Americans.

That said, there are questions as to who would play the position. Morgan Brian may be able to do, but she is primarily known for her attacking prowess (although certainly not yet at the level of Lloyd or Holiday). Amber Brooks showed well in the role against Brazil last November but has not been called into the U.S. squad since. Yael Averbuch has also missed call-ups for the last three camps.

The tactical advantage of having a dedicated holding midfielder is something the U.S. has missed in the absence of Shannon Boxx over the past year. For years, Boxx protected the back line, sitting in front of the center backs, breaking up counter-attacks, playing simple possession, switching the point of attack, providing aerial ability, and allowing Lloyd to get forward where she could do the most damage. Without Boxx, the back line has been exposed, especially against more talented opposition.

This is especially worrisome considering the U.S. appears to be in a transition between the Sundhage combination of Christie Rampone and Rachel Van Hollebeke at center-back to more opportunities for Becky Sauerbrunn and Whitney Engen under Sermanni. A dedicated holding midfielder would not only help protect the center backs, but it also free up the outside backs to be more aggressive going forward. That type of system is especially well-suited for U.S. backs Ali Krieger, Kelley O’Hara (when healthy), and newcomer Crystal Dunn, who won the Hermann Trophy as an attacking midfielder.

The other obvious advantage of a 4-3-3 is the ability to get a combination of Wambach, Morgan, Leroux, and Press onto the field at the same time. All four are strong and technical. Morgan and Leroux have world-class speed. Wambach, who some have begun to doubt because of her age, is still a powerhouse in the air (and if you think this is only on set pieces, you need to check out her goal against North Korea from the Algarve Cup). And finally, Press is exceptionally technical, a great finisher, and might be the most tactically aware of the four. Of course, as with any change, there is a downside. The one reason that sticking with a 4-4-2 for so many years made sense was the outstanding play on the flanks of Heather O’Reilly, Megan Rapinoe, and Tobin Heath. But the Algarve Cup revealed, once again, that O’Reilly’s unmatched work rate simply does not make up for her lack of creativity against top teams. Rapinoe and Heath were also both clearly out of form in Portugal. (Heath had just recovered from a long injury spell). Assuming Rapinoe and Heath return to form and fitness, they could both be rotated in as either center midfielders or outside forwards in a 4-3-3.

The U.S.’s performance in the Algarve Cup is nothing to panic about, especially considering that Morgan and Holiday missed the tournament and that the U.S. faced top-class teams in Japan and Sweden. The tournament did reveal some weaknesses of the U.S.’s current set-up that aren't exposed in seven or eight-goal wins over teams like Russia. When Sermanni took over the U.S. squad, he explained that one of his hopes was to take the team forward tactically—something that does not seem to have yet happened. Hopefully, the 4-3-3 is something he’ll take a look at in the months to come as the U.S. prepares for World Cup qualification this October.

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

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