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.
The U.S. Women’s National Team did not ease into its 2017 schedule, taking on No. 2-ranked and Olympic champion Germany at Talen Energy Stadium in Chester, Penn. on Wednesday, March 1, during the first night of the SheBelieves Cup.
Alyssa Naeher started in goal for the USA and made her 11th appearance and eighth start. With her 10 previous caps coming against Argentina, China PR, Colombia, Costa Rica, Haiti, the Netherlands and Puerto Rico, the game against Germany was first time Naeher was facing a team ranked in the top-10 in the world.
In front of Naeher was the three-player back line of Becky Sauerbrunn, Allie Long and Casey Short. Those three were playing in their fifth game together in a formation that head coach Jill Ellis first rolled out on Oct. 19, 2016 against Switzerland, and one that she wanted and needed to see in a highly competitive environment against a team like Germany. The four previous occasions in which the three-back was deployed had been in friendly matches.
The trio of Long, who played in the middle of Sauerbrunn on the right and the left-footed Short on the left, were organized, composed and aggressive over the entire 90 minutes, as was the entire U.S. defense, which put pressure on the Germans from the forwards all the way to the back. The USA did the work to win numerous balls in the midfield and earned a shutout against a supremely talented German side.
“I think this was obviously our biggest test playing in that three-back and there was a lot of energy on the field,” Naeher said after the match. “I thought we had a lot of good communication and a lot of good moving parts and I’m very happy about how it worked out against a top team.”
As Ellis resumes her evaluation of the goalkeepers, Naeher’s performance was a solid line on her resume as she continues to compete with Ashlyn Harris, as well as a slew of younger goalkeepers – led by Jane Campbell – for playing time in the U.S. net.
While the USA kept Germany out of dangerous areas for most of the game, Naeher needed to come up big in the 12th minute when she was tested on a rocket from one of Germany’s youngest and most promising stars in Sara Däbrmtz.
“From looking at Germany, we knew they like to hit shots from distance and we put focus into that this week in training,” Naeher said. “So, any time they were anywhere in their shooting range I just tried to keep my feet balanced and ready to react to a shot, which helped me get a good read and my feet underneath me enough to get a good push on the ball.”
Däbritz received a pass from the left side and had time to turn towards goal before ripping a shot from about 18 yards that seemed headed into the upper right corner. Naeher was well-positioned and flew to her left to push the ball out for a Germany corner. Josephine Henning's cross was then easily controlled by Naeher to maintain the scoreless draw.
The diving save was timely, sharp and it allowed the USA to maintain the 0-0 score line early in a hotly contested match. The U.S. went on get a game-winner in the 56th minute from Lynn Williams to win the opening match of the SheBelieves Cup. With three points in hand, the USA heads to New Jersey next to face England on March 4 (5 p.m.; FOX) at Red Bull Arena in Harrison.Read more
Photos from the U.S. Women's National Team's opening match of the 2017 SheBelieves Cup in Chester, Pa. The WNT defeated Germany 1-0 with a goal from forward Lynn Williams in the 56th minute. The team will now travel to Harrison, N.J. to take on England on March 4 in the second fixture of the tournament.Read more