A layman’s way to describe an experiment would probably be something like this: let’s try some things, and some more things, in a detailed and conscientious way, until we can find out some answers to our questions that are based on facts.
Following the cycle of the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, U.S. WNT head coach Jill Ellis knew that for this team to be successful in 2019 and 2020, the team would need to grow and evolve. How and in what way? That would involve looking at numerous players in difficult environments against quality opponents, and at times in some different formations. In effect, she would have to do some experimenting.
It has been clear for more than a few years that the world is catching up in women’s soccer. The Netherlands are the 2017 Women’s EURO champions, dethroning perennial title holder Germany and defeating Denmark in the final. Spain, one of the most exciting of the up-and-coming teams, won its first Algarve Cup earlier this year. It’s no longer David vs. Goliath. There are more Goliaths out there and many of the Davids are getting quite good as well.
With the playing field continuing to level, it of course follows that the USA needs to continue to evolve to remain at the top of the mountain. Because of this, the focus naturally shifted from what this team was, to what it could be in 2019 and 2020. It is actually a golden opportunity.
When Ellis took the head coaching job in May of 2014, she had just a short time to prepare for qualifying and then just eight months before the start of the Women’s World Cup. The run to the Olympics was similarly accelerated. Now, she’s had the chance to take the time to do the work in building and finding answers as an important 2018 draws closer.
That process has been built on the evaluation of players – veterans, less experienced players and newcomers, and Ellis has certainly shown she is willing to give players’ chances.
Five players earned a first cap on Oct. 19, 2016. Since then, Ellis has given a first cap to eight more players.
Here are some facts and figures since October of 2016 regarding call-ups by Ellis and her staff.
- Total number of players called in for at least one training camp: 55
- Total number of new players called-up for the first time: 24
- Players that have seen game action over the past 13 months: 34
- Number of players to earn first caps: 13 – Abby Dahlkemper, Ashley Hatch, Andi Sullivan, Casey Short, Jane Campbell, Jessica McDonald, Kealia Ohai, Lynn Williams, Megan Oyster, Rose Lavelle, Sofia Huerta, Taylor Smith and McCall Zerboni.
“Those numbers are reflective of the process that we committed to,” Ellis said of the deep dive into personnel over the last year or so, which is even more extensive when one considers the dozens of NWSL games she and her staff took in this season. “Even when you are a team that is always expected to win every game, sometimes you have to set a goal and you have to experiment and try new things. We put these players into tough positions early on. We had them playing with different people alongside them and that was going to be challenging. But if you believe in the process it will pay off, and it already has paid off from the emergence of some of these players."
Those include Samantha Mewis, Andi Sullivan, Rose Lavelle, Abby Dahlkemper, Lynn Williams, Taylor Smith to name a few, all talented players under the age of 25 working hard for a place on the new look WNT. The period of experimentation has also provided positive results among more experienced players who are finding success in different positions, as Julie Ertz performed very well in the central midfield, as has Lindsey Horan, while the USA’s plethora of attacking talent continues to battle for playing time.
Rose Lavelle shined in her U.S. WNT debut earlier this year on March 4, 2017 against England.
“This time has given us an opportunity to look at players in different spots, look at different systems and see a player’s role and see how it might change and shift,” Ellis said. “We want to be a naturally, aggressive pressing team and if those are the things that we want, now we look at our personnel, and through this year we feel very confident that we have a tactically flexible team that also plays incredibly well out of the 4-3-3.”
When there are new and youngers players inserted into one of the most competitive teams in the world, the transition will not always be smooth or easy. Early in 2017, the USA lost back-to-back games against France and England during the SheBelieves Cup. It also lost to Australia at the Tournament of Nations. But the WNT also defeated Sweden (1-0) and Norway (1-0) this past June with low-scoring but gritty performances abroad after long travel and little rest, and won six straight games while scoring three or more goals in all of them. It then concluded 2017 with a 1-1 draw in Vancouver and a 3-1 win in San Jose, both against Canada, the fifth-ranked team in the world. It’s been a difficult year, but also a positive one filled with learning and growth, and to Ellis that is a lot more valuable right now.
“When you take over a team, you take some time to assess and evaluate, to know what the strengths are and build from those,” Ellis said. “Going into 2015, we had very limited time and the team was pretty much set, but [after 2016] I’ve been really pleased that this window of time has enabled us to examine everything about this team and how to build on the strengths of our players. Occasionally you learn more from failing, but this is the process we decided to go through. We knew it would be challenging, but it’s certainly paid off so far and we still have a long way to go.”
New pairings have beginning to take shape in the last 13 months, one is the one of Becky Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper in the back line.
If the central midfield is the engine of your soccer team, you’ll want one that is powerful. At the same time, you want it to be versatile, able to accelerate and decelerate on a dime when necessary, and work at a high level of RPMs over a 90-minute game. You always need it to be reliable, able to take a beating and of course, the more cylinders the better to power that machine.
The USA’s central midfield players at the 2015 Women’s World Cup and 2016 Olympics put in excellent shifts on the biggest of stages.
In Canada, with Carli Lloyd playing as more of a withdrawn forward, and Lauren Holiday and Morgan Brian (who entered the USA lineup beginning in the quarterfinal when Holiday was suspended due to yellow cards) playing the lion’s share of minutes behind the soon-to-be FIFA Player of the Year, the USA memorably knocked off some extremely talented teams to win its third Women’s World Cup title.
Morgan Brian and Carli Lloyd at the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup
The following year at the Olympics in Brazil, Allie Long was added to the central midfield mix, while Lindsey Horan also saw some minutes in central midfield, along with Brian and Lloyd.
Over those two tournaments there was definite quality in those positions and some world class performances. What wasn’t there was depth, especially at the Olympics where the roster size allows for just 16 field players.
Fast forward to the end of 2017. U.S. head coach Jill Ellis has used this year to experiment and give numerous players chances to prove themselves all with a goal of expanding the player pool, and the World Cup winning coach is certainly pleased about how that depth has evolved, especially in the center of the park.
“Back in 2015, we played out of a 4-4-2, mainly because we didn’t have a lot of depth in there,” said Ellis. “Bringing younger players in and giving them these kinds of opportunities has given us a very diverse group of central players, and like any team, we lean on that very heavily in terms what they can bring to the table. It’s a very exciting problem to have.”
While Holiday retired after the World Cup, Lloyd and Brian and Long are veterans with invaluable experience playing centrally at the highest levels. Additionally, Horan – in her fifth season as a pro despite being only 23-years-old – blossomed in a midfield role after an excellent season for the Portland Thorns. She played all 24 regular season games and scored four goals with two assists while helping her club to a NWSL title. She scored the game-winner in the championship game, a 1-0 victory against the North Carolina Courage.
Lindsey Horan has had a terrific season both for club and country in 2017.
In the latter stages of 2017, the emergence of Julie Ertz as a defensive midfielder has added a tremendous boost to the U.S. team. With thunderous ball-winning talents and a goal-scoring knack that has seen her up her career total to 14, Ertz has looked extremely comfortable playing in midfield after seeing almost all her minutes in central defense for the first four years of her WNT career. She played almost exclusively at the defensive midfield spot during the NWSL season for the Chicago Red Stars and her success there provided a clearer picture for her transition to the midfield at the international level, albeit in a position that has many similar characteristics to a center back.
Then you add to the mix the six-foot Samantha Mewis, who has had a breakout year for club and country while starting every match and playing the most minutes on the U.S. team besides Becky Sauerbrunn. In the “up-and-coming” category is 21-year-old Andi Sullivan, who has recovered from an ACL injury after a bright debut for the National Team at the end of 2016, and 22-year-old Rose Lavelle, who in between some injuries has shown flashes of brilliance and some qualities that could make her a legitimate number 10.
Over the span of 13 months, Ellis has analyzed what she values as an “exciting problem;” eight players currently in the mix and battling for playing time in what is usually a three-player central midfield.
Samantha Mewis has blossomed into a strong figure in the center of the field.
In the middle, Ellis now has connecters and distributors, ball-winners, goal-scorers, dribblers, and players who can shoot and score from distance, or on set plays. It’s an exciting mix of talents and skillsets to draw from. Over the next handful of months, one goal will be to find the best combination(s) of players and qualities.
“We’ve had some injuries, so we haven’t fixated yet on a set three,” said Ellis. “But over time, over the next months, we’ll be looking at their qualities and how the players play off each other. It’s about finding the right combination of those three and ball-winners and distributors and goal scorers. That’s going to be imperative in terms of starting to look at connections on the field. We’ve got a skeleton and now we’re working on the nervous system. That’s going to be the chemistry and interplay between these players and we’ll see how they complement each other and bring out the best in each other.”Read more
Photos from the U.S. Women’s National Team's dominant 3-1 win against Canada in front of 17,960 fans at Avaya Stadium on Sunday night. The win closed out the WNT's 2017 schedule, with goals from Julie Ertz, Alex Morgan, and Carli Lloyd.