By CAITLIN MURRAY
When Tom Sermanni was fired as head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, it was clear U.S. Soccer didn’t have much confidence in his vision.
But when Jill Ellis took over last week – quite possibly as an audition for the permanent job – she saw something in his approach worth keeping: the 4-3-3 formation.
The USWNT has typically preferred the 4-4-2 with a diamond midfield, a popular formation featuring a crowded midfield that can be difficult for opponents to penetrate. But could the 4-3-3 become a new staple for the team?
The 4-3-3 is a more attack-focused formation, giving the USWNT extra options up the field. That seems to mesh with the style the players are looking for – both Abby Wambach and Heather O’Reilly cited a move away from “aggressive” attacking soccer as possible reasons why Sermanni was ousted.
But it will ultimately be up to whoever is the next head coach – and that person will have a real conundrum at hand. Since the USWNT has so much attacking prowess, how can it be used at once without going to waste?
The 4-3-3 may be the answer, allowing players like Sydney Leroux and Christen Press to be closer to goal at the same time as staples like Wambach or Alex Morgan.
The formation may also address something even Wambach acknowledges – when the next World Cup rolls around, she will be 35, hardly in her prime as an attacking forward. But in a 4-3-3, the USWNT may not need to forfeit speed by playing her as a center forward, all while still taking advantage of her ability in the air.
On Sunday, Ellis started Lauren Holiday as the target forward to keep possession through the box with Sydney Leroux and Heather O’Reilly working the flanks. In the 4-3-3, those outside forwards will be counted on to do extra work, tracking back to help the defensive line.
The opposite is also true – the defensive line will hang back more in a 4-3-3. Under the 4-4-2 of Sermanni’s predecessor, Pia Sundhage, the emphasis was on having the outside backs race up the flanks for overlapping runs with the midfield. It worked to great effect, with starters Kelley O’Hara and Amy LePeilbet providing service into the box and becoming key figures in the attack.
But the next coach will need to look at who is in those outside spots, as the back line has been something of a revolving door under Sermanni.
When the USWNT used the 4-3-3 in the past, it has typically been late in games as a surge when their opposition was tired and slow. Under Sundhage, that had been when Leroux was unleashed as a “super sub,” using her fearless physical play and speed to batter defenses.
In Ellis’ 4-3-3, many of the USWNT best chances on goal started from long balls, which was a style of play Sermanni had seemed determined to phase out. But with the pace of the USWNT’s forwards, the long and direct ball continues to work, which the 4-3-3 will only help.
Sundhage had strongly favored the 4-4-2 and it worked incredibly well for her: silver at the World Cup and gold at the Olympics. But she did attempt to switch the team to a 4-2-3-1 in the lead-up the Olympics, putting Wambach alone up top.
Wambach didn’t quite have the speed to make the lone-striker formation work, despite the other assets she brought to the field. With a fast young up-and-comer like Morgan rising through the ranks, Sundhage thought better of it. She made Morgan a starter under a 4-4-2 with Wambach and never looked back.
But even with more attacking options on the field at once, the 4-3-3 can make it more difficult to play the ball wide as the midfield line will want to stay compact and work together in numbers. That was exactly the problem when Sermanni tried his first 4-3-3 experiment against New Zealand in October – the USWNT lines struggled to connect and got few shots on goal, resulting in a frustrating draw.
Morgan Brian didn’t play in that game and she may be part of the reason the 4-3-3 worked better in the last two attempts. The USWNT has been on the hunt for a holding midfielder ever since losing Shannon Boxx, who played defensive mid so well. After earning her first cap last June, Brian quietly asserted herself as someone more than capable of playing a more defensive role while midfielders like Carli Lloyd can roam free and focus on attacking.
Sermanni clearly saw Brian as a starter and World Cup material. But now, anything can happen.
Ellis said the 4-3-3 was a formation the USWNT should have in their arsenal, and a look at the strengths and weaknesses of the player pool suggest that to be very true. Just how important a role the formation plays in the next World Cup cycle will come down to the coach U.S. Soccer ultimately hires as Sermanni’s replacement.
But it is a good bet that whoever is hired will see the value of the 4-3-3 and keep it in rotation, potentially as the formation of choice.