U.S. Women's National Team
Yanks Fall to Matildas in Tournament of Nations Tilt
July 27, 2017
THE UNITED STATES WOMEN'S NATIONAL TEAM opened the 2017 Tournament of Nations in ignominious fashion on Thursday night, losing 1-0 to Australia in Seattle.
The lone goal in the contest came in the 67th minute when Australia’s Tameka Butt ran in behind the U.S. defense to latch onto a ball lifted into the area. She touched her shot past American goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to give the Matildas the advantage—one they never relinquished.
Despite a few late attacks, the Americans could not find an equalizer and the Australians earned their first-ever victory over the U.S.
Here’s what we learned from the loss.
A TOOTHLESS ATTACK
While the Americans did manage to create a handful of chances—with Megan Rapinoe, Christen Press, Crystal Dunn, and Alex Morgan getting decent looks—the U.S. struggled to play with any consistent flow or sense of purpose for most of the night.
After the disastrous SheBelieves Cup, in which the Americans lost two out of three matches and were pasted 3-0 by France in the final game, head coach Jill Ellis abandoned the three-back system she had worked on since the fall of 2016 and moved the team into a 4-2-2-2 with two holding midfielders, two wide attacking players, and two forwards.
The system managed to produce results in two wins against an overmatched Russia side in April and back-to-back 1-0 road wins against No. 9 Sweden and No. 11 Norway in June.
On Thursday, however, the formation—absent the bright play of Megan Rapinoe on the wing—seemed to leave the two center midfielders disconnected from the wide players, who were themselves disconnected from the forwards, leaving wide swaths of pitch between the American attackers. This, not surprisingly, made it nearly impossible to connect passes, resulted in a lot of inconsistent and direct play, and made it difficult to produce consistent scoring chances.
One difference in the play between the June friendlies and Thursday’s match appeared to be the use of Lindsey Horan starting in the forward position. While Horan came up in the American youth system as a forward, Ellis spent the last year-and-a-half converting her into a solid option at center mid. Inexplicably, however, the coach has chosen in recent games to “reconvert” Horan back into a forward, stating she wants someone up top who can play with her back to goal.
For her part, Horan does provide a more physical presence, but it still seems an odd decision considering Press’ usual adeptness at playing with her back to pressure and Morgan’s underrated holdup play.
Nevertheless, Ellis gave Horan the start on Thursday, and while the Americans’ poor attacking night certainly cannot be laid solely at Horan’s feet, the U.S. attack struggled for most of the evening with her at forward.
WHAT IS THE PLAN?
Since taking over the U.S. squad in 2014, Ellis has employed a number of different formations and ideas. She moved the team to a 4-3-3 when she first took the job, then a 4-1-3-2, and finally to a 4-5-1 during the middle of the 2015 World Cup—a move that obviously paid off handsomely with the Americans taking home the title.
Then, the 4-5-1 went through an evolution leading into 2016, until it proved incapable of breaking down Sweden during last summer’s Olympics. Following Rio, Ellis moved to a 3-4-3 and then a 3-5-2, before finally switching to the 4-2-2-2.
On the one hand, Ellis can’t win. If she moves slowly to make adjustments and bleed new talent into the squad, she gets accused of being beholden to the veterans and sacrificing future development for winning now. On the other hand, if she makes frequent changes to the lineup and formations, she risks losses and shaking the one foundation the U.S. women’s program has been built on—winning.
Since last summer, Ellis has gone the second route. Her choice to try out a three-back was brave, and prepped over several months. Her choice in backline personnel during the experiment was suspect, but she chose to make the change, stick with it, and see how it did against three of the best teams in the world this spring at the SheBelieves Cup.
It failed, Ellis made adjustments, and the team moved on. However, the memory of those losses is still fresh and on the minds of both the players and the fans. And now a loss in a more traditional system—to a team the U.S. had never lost to before—while still making wholesale chances to the roster and lineups, is beginning to raise doubts about Ellis’ ability to move the team forward.
In the last year, the U.S. is 3-3-1 against teams in the top 10 and all three loses came at home. At the same time, if Rapinoe, Press, Dunn, and/or Morgan had finished their chances on Thursday night, the Americans come out with a draw and no one makes much of a fuss.
With two more games left in this tournament—against the No. 6-ranked Japanese and the No. 8-ranked Brazilians—the U.S. will need to put forth a markedly improved performance to make fans believe Ellis has the vision needed to take the team forward into preparations for the 2019 World Cup.
John D. Halloran is an American Soccer Now columnist. Follow him on Twitter.