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Ellis focuses on USWNT chemistry by mixing new with old

Morgan Brian, Jill Ellis


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Would the Ellis era feature direct play, a style considered by many to be outdated and ugly, even as it remains an effective tactic for the top national team in women’s soccer?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.”


  1. As a one legged traveling hobo and soccer buff, I think that ellis 4-3-3 is suspect, but what do I know I’m a one legged hobo.
    But this I do know, it all starts from the back and the back line has to be Krieger, Sauerbrunn, Engen (Rampone) and O’Hara. With Dunn, Johnston as super subs and maybe Klingenburg if she turns it up a notch.
    Middies group has got to include Rapinoe, HAO, Heath, Lloyd, Brian, Holiday, maybe Tymrack and Boxx if she’s at her top form, becuz they need that DM (If Boxx was 5 yrs younger…).
    Forwards will need to be Morgan, Leroux, Press, maybe wambach, maybe… Might as well give ARod a look perhaps that big young girl Horan she’s a baller?
    Keepers, Solo and Harris that’s all we need really but if they make us take another put Naehr, Loyden in a cage match and let them fight it out for that 3 spot.
    Anyhoot they are still going to have to drop a few from this list, but it’s a start.

  2. Wnt list : defenders( cox, Dunn, brunn, rampone, O’Hara, krieger, engen, Johnston, ) midfielders ( Lloyd, rapinoe, Brian, holiday, boxx , tymrak, Heath, o’ Reilly, mewis ) forwards (wambach , Morgan, Sydney, press, Hagen, Rodríguez ) goalkeeper ( hope, Harris, neiher)

    Very good players in the nwsl: GK: henninger , Barny . Molly pachman, Fletcher, Barnes, lepeilbet , kallman, mewis , dibernardo, hoy, winters, Reeve , friels Nick, Hayes, Edwards, ohai, bev.

  3. “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.” As long as those pieces are from UCLA first, other Cali schools second. East coasters need not apply

  4. Even when the US women team wins , they still play dull, primitive soccer . their salvation is their athleticism and that advantage will diminish with time.The US Under 20 team is the canary in the coalmine. the coaches are suspect, from college on up.

  5. Caitlin – this is an excellent piece. Just throwing it out there that your stuff on SBI is tops. Will be interesting to see how this ambition of interchangeable play translates on the field. Ultimately our athleticism and pace will always be strengths so keeping decisive, quick direct play in the US Ladies arsenal makes sense (as a weapon but not the primary style).

  6. Hopefully favoritism and politics will not determine the squad. I like O’hara , Rampone, Sauerbrunn and Krieger, with Dunn, Egen and Johnson as subs. Abbey has to take a part-time position. She is too slow and flops and complains all the time. And don’t get me started on Allie Long she is not NT material. She had a few good games in the NWSL then disappeared. She gives up the ball too much. We need a DM like Winters or Edwards even Brooks. Also its time to give Harris a chance, she has more than proven herself in NWSL and Europe. She always tries to improve. Loyden (love her as a person) but is barely surviving in the NWSL. Like Barnhardt to but she has been injured a lot.

    • Good Points. Additionally I am also curious to see how Ellis rates players who have done very well in NWSL but may not be regular members of the national team vs. players who are regulars for the national team but may not have done much in the NWSL.

  7. I love that picture of Ellis and Brian. Morgan Brian’s game seems tailored to the 4-3-3 yet she seems to have no roll in it under Ellis. Kealia Ohai, while not at the same level as the other forwards currently on the NT offensively, is also much more suited to the role of outside forward in a 4-3-3 than any of the players currently on the NT. So my concern is why is Ellis trying to shoehorn players into a formation they arent very good at when it seems easier to either play a formation that suits the current players or bring in players who fit the formation she wants to play? Considering the contract situation I would think the former is the most feasible.

  8. Ellis certainly talks a great game. If I could ask Ellis three questions they would be:

    Since Morgan and Wambach exclusively center forwards, does ur 4-3-3 make it almost impossible to play the two together?

    Press and Leroux seem to be showing progresses in defending the sidelines as required by by the outside forwards in the 4-3-3 but r u worried that these two high octane forwards essentially stop scoring when playing out there?

    While the 4-3-3 does help u get another talented forward on the field, it also seems to throw Rapinoe and O’Reilly into the mix competing for the same two spots. If it’s say Leroux or Rapinoe how has the formation change upgraded anything?

  9. Sermanni loved that he interjected new blood into the system & didn’t shy away from letting them prove their worth vs. relying on the mainstays. Sadly, it was at a cost at chemistry. Under Sermanni’s helm, players essentially performed in a manner to prove their individual excellence (in respective to their peers) vs. a collective unit becoming better as a group. As you noted, backline was a major example of the lack of cohesion.

    I’d also like to point out forward/attacking pairings. Yes, pairings might not be instantaneous and it takes time, but I can only think of one game (the first) that a Press & Leroux on top playing like a pair vs. 2 individuals. Leroux & Wambach has been promising as well as the burgeoning chemistry between Leroux & Morgan, which isn’t surprising since they played together on the winning U20 WWC team. I’m interested in what a Press & Morgan tandem would be like. Before the NWSL season started, I thought A-Rods time has passed, but it’s without a doubt that she is the most in form forward of the group. And she could be utilized as a winger.

    I’m curious of Ellis’ of who she uses as wingers. HAO is a great winger, but her presence on top in the 4-3-3 is underwhelming. And Ellis – you’d know what would help with your back 4 if you had a true enforcer, defensive midfielder on the pitch! Telling an attacking midfielder to play a holding position doesn’t make them a good DM. In a half-time interview, she mentioned she didn’t want a conventional DM, but one that can move forward and an attack… well.. you have plenty of those in the NWSL: Becky Edwards, Keelin Winters… in your disposal… yet you think.. Allie Long is best suited for that? Sigh. Allie Long is serviceable at attacking MF on the NT.. it’s a whole ‘nother ball game as a DM. Last year and the times she had to this year on the Thorns demonstrates that’s not a position to play toward her strengths.

  10. I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes but in fairness to Sermanni he was experimenting with different players during non-meaningful games. You would think he would’ve settled on a set lineup, especially in defense, by now had he stayed.

    • Why would you expect that. All of the games were meaningless and the Algarve cup was a perfect place to assess what was what. Either there was some player revolt for something not made public or the federation panicked. Neither BTW is good for team chemistry.

  11. You heard it here first – Jill Ellis is a total mistake and in the end, will be fired before the WC. She it too biased and is clueless

  12. A consistent back four… for me, it has to be O’Hara, Sauerbrunn, Rampone and Krieger as the starters. Engen/Cox/Dunn as the back-ups. Klingenberg has shown she can’t hack it at the international level, and RVH is heading that way too. Just a thought.. how would Dunn fair as a CB? She’s sure got the pace.. might be a good way to get her and O’Hara on the field at the same time.

    • Dunn is way too short and petite to be a CB, she’d be muscled out far too easily when marking players on set pieces. Krieger on the other hand has been filling in at CB for the Spirit and has every quality needed to be great there. Rampone started out as a WB to be shifted centrally later in her career, why not Krieger?

      I think Klingenberg is much better than Cox. She’s much faster and better on the ball than Cox. Cox, while looking great for the all-star Reign, has been horrible in the many chances that she’s had for the USWNT.

      • I think Ali will move inside with Becky sooner than later in particular if dunn can remain healthy. They have teamed likr this in recent weeks and show great promise.

      • While I wouldn’t be opposed to that happening, I don’t see it being tried this cycle (if at all) unless injuries force it in a tournament. And frankly, Rampone is still faster than most and reads the game as well as pretty much anybody and I think Engen is pretty good, albeit not very fast. I’d also like to see Julie Johnston get more of a chance in the back line; she’s been excellent in her first year with the Red Stars.

        That said, given the high defensive line that the USWNT prefers to play (under all coaches that I’ve seen), they could really use another lightning fast defender to come along that’s at least 5′-6″. I had hopes for Kasey Kallman or Cari Roccaro, but I’m starting to think they’re not as fast as I originally thought.

  13. Team chemistry is best served when the coach clearly lays out expectations and is scrupulous in upholding them without bias or favoritism. Anything else is politics and that will destroy team chemistry faster than anything.

  14. As long As Abby is the old I’m sure Ellis will keep her job. For some reason our female legend gets guaranteed a spot on the next WC roster while the best ever male player gets dropped as if he is some type of journeyman hack. Sunil apparently hasn’t got a clue


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