By CAITLIN MURRAY
When Jill Ellis was appointed to replace fired coach Tom Sermanni as head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Team, reporters had plenty of questions. Chief among them: What style of soccer is Ellis going to have the U.S. women play?
Would the Ellis era feature direct play, a style considered by many to be outdated and ugly, even as it remains an effective tactic for the top national team in women’s soccer? Or would she push for possession-style soccer, an approach that rewards technical skill and is popular with fans, but offers a slow route against many lesser teams the USWNT could simply bombard their way past?
In her response, Ellis talked at length about honoring the game. Using the team’s assets. Adapting to the opposition. But now it seems the answer was simple: Both styles – at the same time.
It played out in the U.S.’s most recent pair of friendlies against France in late June. The Americans controlled the pace of the game by knocking the ball around and goals came from passing in tight spaces up the field. But when it looked like France might be caught flat-footed in transition, the U.S. sent sailing long balls to find speedy forwards Alex Morgan or Sydney Leroux behind the French defensive line.
“We need to be a team that can impose our style and how we want to play,” Ellis told SBI from the USWNT training camp as she prepared for those matches, which ended in a win and draw. “That means at times we should be able to build and play through lines, and then at times we’ll have to create space behind teams.”
Ellis has seemed sure of the system that will help her do that. When Ellis took over as interim coach, she started with the 4-3-3 and, now as the permanent coach, she hasn’t looked back.
But in the Sermanni and Pia Sundhage eras of the team, the 4-3-3 was really only used late in games when the Americans wanted more feet in front of goal to take advantage of tired defenders.
“It is a system that I think suits us,” Ellis said. “But this is how I feel about systems: I really think it’s just an alignment of players. Where they actually go on the field, it really is about finding spaces. Any system, if it’s played well, morphs.”
In other words, it’s not where players start; it’s where they go.
Ellis points to the USWNT’s long-favored 4-4-2 formation that thrived under Sundhage, the coach during the previous World Cup cycle when the USWNT placed as runners-up. It started with a flat defensive line of four – but on the counter, outside backs pushed up along the flanks to attack. Suddenly that 4-4-2 looked more much aggressive in transition than it did on paper.
The 4-3-3 that Ellis has favored in her few first matches places the onus the other way – forwards need to track back on defense. But it also gives players like Morgan, Leroux, Abby Wambach, Amy Rodriguez and Christen Press the chance to play on the field at the same time and collaborate.
The ability of Wambach and Morgan to make each other play better shows a true pairing – the kind where the players seem to read each other’s minds – can make all the difference. If an in-sync squad can execute Ellis’ vision, it should create a free-flowing system that is unpredictable and hard to contain.
“You could play with three forwards and keep them outside and separate. You could play with three forwards and look to have them interchange positions,” Ellis said. “For me, it really isn’t about their starting positions. It’s about them reading the game. It’s the decision-making that I’m most interested in.”
That interchange that Ellis wants is only possible with stability. The prevailing criticism of Sermanni’s approach – including from both Morgan and Wambach – was that he changed lineups too much. The team wasn’t cohesive, they said. Chemistry wasn’t there.
Perhaps U.S. Soccer saw that, too. Their reason for Sermanni’s dismissal was never made very specific. But all signs point to a different approach coming from Ellis – an approach that will see a core group of players locked into place.
The line where Sermanni was least settled was clearly the defensive four. He told SBI as much and the back four had become a revolving door of players. But it’s where Ellis plans to target first.
“I think the most important relationships to build will be our back four and our goalkeeper,” she said. “So, fairly soon we’ll be starting to firm up those players that we’re looking at in those roles.”
And she may need to settle on that group quickly. World Cup qualifiers are two months away and they will be Ellis’ first non-friendly matches. In truth, they’ll likely be nothing more than a perfunctory step as this cycle brings perhaps the easiest qualifying circumstances to date for the U.S.
But it was all too apparent during the 2014 Algarve Cup, where the USWNT suffered their worst-ever loss to lightweight Denmark: games with consequences are different. Ellis’ late arrival to the reins means a short timeline to establish an approach – and how the U.S. plays in October’s qualifiers will likely be how the team will play come next summer.
Ellis is up to the challenge. She has a plan, she told SBI.
“For me, it will be about establishing relationships and looking at partnerships on the field and going from there,” Ellis said. “Certainly, we’ve got the pieces.”