2015 Women's World Cup
Who's Really in Charge of the U.S. Women's Team?
June 30, 2015
ONE OF THE BRIGHT SPOTS for the United States women's national team in its 1-0 victory over China in Friday night's World Cup quarterfinal match was the play of winger Kelley O'Hara.
O'Hara, along with outside back Ali Krieger, dominated the right flank for the United States against the Steel Roses. The pair showcased deft combination play for an American team that had, in its previous four matches, been largely bereft of attacking creativity.
But the most surprising aspect of O'Hara's play on Friday wasn't her quality, it was the fact that these were her first minutes of the tournament for the Americans. And it's not as if O'Hara's quality was an unknown, as many fans of the U.S. women will remember that O'Hara helped the team to a gold medal in the 2012 Olympics starring as the team's left back.
O'Hara's performance against China once again raised a troubling aspect about this team: the perception that playing time is not something that is earned, but is something doled out to, and perhaps even by, the veteran players.
Coach Wambach barking expletives and orders, and you all still think Jill Ellis is in charge.— baelinda bencic (@roobynVC) June 27, 2015
I'm reminded very vividly why I've watched very little of Coach Wambach's... I mean Ellis' #USWNT.— Aaron Stollar (@aaronstol) June 9, 2015
@duresport Good question. I've always said Hope and Abby run the women's national team. It's why/how Sermanni got fired and Ellis hired.— Mark Zeigler (@sdutzeigler) September 24, 2014
For fans who believe this theory, the No. 1 example is striker Abby Wambach. While Wambach is the world's all-time leading scorer in international play, her performances over the past two years for the U.S. have lacked their usual dominance. That has led many to believe the only reason Wambach wasn't being dropped from the starting XI, or the squad altogether, was that she had gained huge influence over the entire U.S. women's program.
When former head coach Tom Sermanni was dismissed last April, many believed it was Wambach who had gotten him fired—a line of thinking that only gained steam when U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati admitted that players had been consulted in the decision to fire Sermanni.
"We had discussions with players, with staff, with people around the team and observed ourselves," said Gulati.
The next day, reporter Charles Boehm quoted an anonymous source saying that Wambach had been at the forefront of the decision to drop Sermanni—an accusation Wambach herself denied.
Most revealing quote (albeit anonymous) I've gotten from a source so far: "There are many levels to it...but yes, this is on Abby."— Charles Boehm (@cboehm) April 8, 2014
Looking at offensive statistics from the past 16 months, the theory that Wambach's playing time has not been earned seems to hold some water. While Wambach has remained one of the most prolific offensive contributors for the U.S. under head coach Jill Ellis, Wambach's numbers drop quite a bit once the "cupcake" teams are taken out of the equation.
U.S. points' leaders in the Ellis era—two points for a goal, one point for an assist (31 games in sample).
U.S. points' leaders in the Ellis era against opponents that qualified for the 2015 World Cup knockout round (18 games in sample).
Would any U.S. player other than Wambach be able to get away with pulling this kind of move?— fitzcamel (@fitzcamel) March 18, 2015
However, by the time the U.S. went on to play in the Algarve Cup the folllowing month, Engen had picked up an injury as well and Johnston was dragooned into the first XI. Ellis herself later commented that injuries had "forced" her to make changes.
Johnston shined in the Algarve Cup as the U.S. defense only allowed one goal in her three starts and the Americans won the tournament by beating France 2-0 in the final—just one month after losing to the French by the same score line. Johnston also scored in the final against France and has since picked up two more goals. In this summer's World Cup, Johnston has helped lead the U.S. back line to four shutouts and a remarkable 0.2 goals against average over five games.
The troubling question remains: Would Johnston have even been given a chance if not for the injuries to Rampone and Engen?
Turning back to O'Hara, her two big opportunities for the U.S. were also the result of starters being forced out of the lineup. The reason she became a starter in the 2012 Olympics was because of an ACL injury that Krieger suffered during qualifying. That injury forced former head coach Pia Sundhage to convert O'Hara into a defender to replace Krieger.
And O'Hara's surprise start against China this past Friday only came because usual starter Megan Rapinoe was out with a yellow-card suspension. While there is certainly something to be said for Johnston and O'Hara seizing their opportunities, it is disconcerting they had to wait until blind luck intervened on their behalf.
But conspiracy theorists are also experts at discounting any evidence that doesn't fit into their worldview and there is plenty of evidence to back up Ellis' roster decisions.
Wambach, while not the tour de force she once was, can still make an impact on a game as she did scoring the game-winning goal against Nigeria. And the U.S.' worst offensive performance through their first four games, against Sweden, was also the only game Wambach didn't start.
When potential replacements Rodriguez, Press, and Leroux did receive starts at forward over the past year, they have not proven they are worthwhile replacements for the aging Wambach. It's also worth noting that all three have started one game at forward during this World Cup and none have looked particularly impressive.
Rodriguez, for all her work on and off the ball against China on Friday night, wasted her best chances to score—a habit die-hard U.S. fans would have to admit is an all-too-common theme. She was also wasteful in possession, particularly in the final third. Leroux, for her part, has been in a goal-scoring funk going all the way back to last summer. Press, for all the talk about her being a true No. 9, has actually played better when deployed on the wing.
As for O'Hara, as good as she was against China, no one would have called for Rapinoe to be replaced in the lineup if not for her yellow card suspension. She is one of the team's best offensive threats. And Tobin Heath, who has started on the other wing for the last three games, has also been a solid, if slightly underperforming, asset.
Ellis' critics also ignore several other pieces of evidence discounting the "old-girls club" conjecture. The coach dropped 2011 World Cup and 2012 Olympic starter Rachel Buehler off the roster entirely (as well as veterans Stephanie Cox and Nicole Barnhart, who did get looks under Ellis) and has relegated former stalwart Heather O'Reilly to the bench.
While some critics may argue that O'Reilly should be getting more minutes—her stellar work rate aside—those fans are also ignoring the fact that O'Reilly's attacking play is wholly predictable and full of as many, if not more, technical deficiencies than those who are getting to play.
It's also easy for fans to forget that they are not privy to what is happening in practices day-in and day-out. When Rapinoe earned her second yellow card against Colombia, most pundits thought that Press would get the start out wide and considered O'Reilly to be the second most-likely choice.
Instead, Ellis went with O'Hara, saying after the match against China, "Kelley has been phenomenal in practice and I felt that her energy and her willingness to take on [players] and her engine was something that we needed out there."
As for many of the other veterans, they continue to earn their playing time with their performances in matches. Ellis has stuck with Hope Solo through her off the field issues and Solo has been solid when called upon this tournament. Veteran defenders Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger have been fantastic in the back and the team looked much better on the attack once the still-recovering Alex Morgan finally returned to the starting lineup against Nigeria.
In the case of Johnston, she admitted in an interview with American Soccer Now in March that getting cut from the World Cup qualifying roster is what gave her the motivation to kick up her training saying, "Not making the qualifying [roster] was hard, but at the same time it was a wake-up call that I needed to see how much I needed to improve and see how much I wanted to be a part of this team. I really kicked it into gear and trained harder than I ever trained before."
Isn't that how it's supposed to work with players and motivation?
None of this isn't to say there aren't valid criticisms of Ellis—there are. It's hard to believe that Shannon Boxx is really one of the 23 best Americans out there right now, but it's also believable that Ellis took Boxx to Canada because she knew she'd be a great locker room presence and that players on the bottom of the roster (who aren't going to have a realistic chance at playing) need to have a good attitude above all else.
It's also a little odd that O'Hara was never given the chance, in a game situation at least, to win back the job at left back, especially after Meghan Klingenberg looked vulnerable there this spring. But to Ellis' credit, Klingenberg has looked great in the World Cup and it must also be noted that Sermanni never gave O'Hara a chance (in games) to win back her spot either.
Ellis can rightly be criticized for leaving Crystal Dunn off the roster. Since the snub, Dunn has been on a tear and leads the NWSL with seven goals in 10 games (including this stunner from Saturday night).
Also ICYMI: Crystal Dunn did this last night. https://t.co/bKaLosbGNa— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) June 28, 2015
But Ellis has also led her team to the semifinals of a World Cup, while former coach Sundhage—beloved by so many U.S. fans—has crashed out of this summer's tournament in the Round of 16. Sundhage, coaching her native Sweden, finished third in the same group the U.S. won despite her team being ranked fifth in the world.
One final criticism of Ellis—perhaps justifiable—is the lack of minutes for Morgan Brian. Just like O'Hara, Brian looked good against China in her first start of the tournament while fellow center midfielders Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd have struggled. Admittedly, Holiday is playing out of position and Lloyd did score the game-winner against China, but both have been far from impressive in this tournament.
Perhaps Brian has been kept out of the lineup because of her youth, but it's also understandable considering the fact that Lloyd and Holiday are normally two of the team's most consistent players. Part of coaching is the trust developed between a player and the coach. While that trust can sometimes prove to be an Achilles' heel—with some coaches holding onto players beyond their serviceable years—considering the totality of the evidence, Ellis is far from the player pawn that many have accused her of being.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.