Coming out of the 2017 SheBelieves Cup, and in advance of the next set of matches for the U.S. Women’s National Team against Russia in April, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis shares her thoughts on the team’s evolution, giving chances to young players, formations, and keeping focused on the big picture.
ussoccer.com: Looking back at the SheBelieves Cup, what were the big picture points of emphasis in terms of what you and your staff wanted to see on the field?
Jill Ellis: The priority in every game plan was having the confidence to trust our passing game, to play out of tight spaces with numbers, to show patience and try to control the game with the ball. Of course, coaches and fans know that on a certain day ball possession does not always translate to a win, but long term we will give ourselves a higher chance to get a positive result if we can control the ball. In the 2015 Women’s World Cup we found ways to win, but in almost every game except the Final our opponent was often in the driver’s seat for long periods of time. We want to change that, and I believe we have the players and the vision to evolve our style of play. Does change sometimes come at a cost? At times, it does. Losing for us can be an unfamiliar experience, but internally we know we are not close to being a finished product and these growing pains will pay off.
ussoccer.com: The roster for the SheBelieves Cup was one of the youngest you have selected for a competitive event and one of the most inexperienced in terms of caps. Why was it so important to field such a young squad in a big tournament?
JE: In 90% of our matches, we won’t experience the pressure on the field that these three opponents can generate. Going back 10 to 12 years, our matches against the top three teams in the world have been extraordinarily tight. That is exactly the pressure cooker you want a young player to feel, and to experience that two and a half years away from a World Cup is fantastic for us. The European teams get to go through another major event by having the European Championships. By hosting SheBelieves Cup, we give ourselves a big, but important, challenge. For players like Rose Lavelle, Lynn Williams or Sam Mewis to play in front of 25,000 people against Germany or France is vital on so many levels. The playing time gained, the evaluation opportunity, the test of character, we only get these experiences in a format like this event. So yes, I prioritized looking at players that I am not as familiar with in these types of situations, and although they are not young players, Alyssa (Naeher) and Ashlyn (Harris) are also players that needed to get experience against top teams outside of a “friendly” type atmosphere.
ussoccer.com: You have been playing a three-back formation in recent months, and stuck with it against three very attacking-minded teams. Is this something we can continue to see out of the U.S. side?
JE: We’ve played in a 4-4-2 for about eight to ten years, so it was important, on both sides of the ball, to evaluate our flexibility and get answers against top teams in a different shape. When we looked at our personnel, we felt it was important to look at more numbers in midfield and a shape that we can aggressively press out of, but every system has strengths and weaknesses and you only find those out against the best teams in the world. France looked at our build-up shape and matched up to try and nullify what we have been working on. Couple that with the fact that they played as direct as they have ever played against us, and it became an excellent challenge for us. A shape doesn’t win or lose games – if it did everyone would play the same – but it’s about figuring out what gives you the best chance to have your individual players in the best position for them to be successful and help the team. The reality is the first two goals came off a tough turnover in our own end and a long ball in behind, scenarios we have dealt with before and been punished by before. So, in short, am I married to a system? No, but I am committed to finding out more about our players and then building a framework in which we can be successful against every team in the world.
ussoccer.com: After the France game, what were your messages to the players moving forward?
JE: These are extremely competitive and prideful women, so nothing you can say in the moment numbs the sting of losing, but they are also professionals and they know where we are in our cycle and that we are a work in progress. At the end of last year, we let them know that evaluation and deepening the roster is the priority. Right now, it’s not as much about building chemistry between the same two players on the pitch, it’s about getting answers about them and challenging ourselves to get better. Consistency in good performances is what we seek, and that’s tough for even a seasoned player and team to pull off, so I reminded them to keep perspective in the big picture and stay focused on what our end game is: 2019. I think in 80-90% of our matches, the WNT makes it look easy, and that’s a credit to all who have worn the jersey, but in reality it is very hard work to win as consistently as this team has over the years. In the World Cup Final in ‘91, we beat Norway 2-1 and in the ‘99 Final we tied China 0-0 before winning in penalty kicks. Games at the highest level have always been very close, and now with global investment in our game the landscape has changed dramatically. It would be naïve to think results are going to be easy or guaranteed. Winning consistently at the highest level takes investment and commitment. It must be built, and that is the process we are in right now.
ussoccer.com: The next two games coming up are against Russia in April in Texas. What would be the main areas of focus for the team as you head into the next FIFA window?
JE: The Russia games will be a combination of player evaluation and post-assessment from SheBelieves Cup. For sure our focus will again be on ourselves and the areas we want to see continued growth; some areas being our decision making and execution close to goal, outplaying pressure, and individual defending. We learned a lot from seeing what our opponents would try to “take away” from us, so problem-solving within the game and reliance on our core principles to do so will be ongoing. In terms of personnel, once the NWSL league play begins, we will have a chance to evaluate the players in another environment, but until then looking at a player’s performance and positional options in international competition is a critical component of the friendlies.