CHESTER, Pa. — Finding the right role for Christen Press has proved tricky to Jill Ellis.
There may not be a more lethal finisher in the U.S. national team pool, but Press doesn't necessarily fit the traditional lone striker mold. As a winger, she can produce eye-popping runs but also drifts in and out of matches.
Whether it was the 4-1-4-1 the U.S. won the 2015 Women's World Cup in or the 4-3-3 deployed at the 2016 Olympics, Press hasn't been able to land a regular place in the starting lineup. But she certainly looked at home Wednesday, thriving in a two-forward setup as the U.S. claimed a 1-0 win over Germany to open the SheBelieves Cup.
As the U.S. generated several chances by pressing high and winning the ball in Germany's third, it seemed fitting that Press orchestrated the goal by stripping a defender. Although the 28-year-old struck woodwork after cutting inside on a marauding run, Lynn Williams converted in the aftermath for the 56th-minute winner.
"We wanted to press, and we need a forward that makes sure they can physically commit to the game on both sides of the ball," Ellis said. "So Christen committed to that, and I think her work rate has been tremendous. Now couple that with I think she's a natural goal-scorer, she's always getting behind, she's always off the shoulder. She's just done well in training, and you've got to reward that."
Playing off Williams up top, with Carli Lloyd underneath in the 3-4-1-2 formation, Press found space to make dangerous runs while also wreaking havoc on the defensive side.
It's a performance that came after Ellis pulled Press aside to discuss her role going into the 2019 World Cup in France. While more than two years separate the U.S. from its next major tournament, this lull presents an opportunity for players to evolve and establish themselves as key figures later in the cycle.
"It was just about prepping for 2019," Press said of the conversation. "She wants me to be there and dream big and expand my capacity a little bit so that when we're in this year that seems like an off-year, it's actually the most important time to grow. We talked about the areas where she wants to see me develop, which are being a better physical presence holding up the ball and being a little bit more aggressive and confident in my play."
Here are two more thoughts on the Americans' 1-0 win over Olympic champion Germany:
THE 3-4-1-2 IS A PROMISING WORK IN PROGRESS
Press may have thrived in the 3-4-1-2, but the formation still has some kinks to work out. After trotting out the alignment for four friendlies last fall — two matches apiece against Switzerland and Romania — Ellis turned to it against elite opposition for the first time Wednesday, and the U.S. did get a bit stagnant in possession.
Makeshift center back Allie Long can thread the needle, but her options were often limited. The wide players also found themselves isolated, struggling to combine. Defensively, though, the U.S. used those numbers in attack to disrupt Germany's buildup while also prompting dangerous turnovers.
"Every formation has its pros and cons," winger Crystal Dunn said. "I'd be lying if I was like, 'Oh, everything's great.' I think with the three back it definitely makes us on our front foot at all times because all of our numbers are high, so we have to do the work early or else we'll get punished in the end."
Lloyd added: "I think there was some good stuff. We've been working on our final play and building out of the back, and I think we did fairly well for not having played in three, four months. ... I think the formation suits us. At the end of the day, it's soccer. We've got to just move the ball and see what's on, and we did that tonight."
Worth noting: Ellis clarified postgame that the wide players in this formation — Dunn, Tobin Heath and substitute Mallory Pugh on Wednesday — are not "wing backs." As far as Ellis is concerned, their main priority is to push forward and create chances.
"These guys were not to drop into our back line unless they absolutely had to," Ellis said. "If you watch when they drop in, they actually drop into a midfield line, so it's three and then four. Are there times where we have to drop in and cover? For sure. So I don't call them a wing back — they're full-steam attacking players."
MIXED AUDITIONS FOR WILLIAMS, SHORT
Ellis named six players with fewer than five caps to the SheBelieves Cup squad, and two of them started at Talen Energy Stadium: Williams and Casey Short.
Williams, the reigning NWSL MVP, claimed the game-winner with her second international goal. While she relished the experience of going toe to toe with a world-class national team for the first time, it also was evident she's still getting on the same page with her U.S. teammates.
"It allows me to know, 'Lynn, you belong here and you can do this, and just keep going and keep learning,'" Williams said. "We still have so far to go. This was our first game of the year and I'm still new to the system, and we still need to learn how to play with each other."
There also were a couple opportunities Williams will want back. A poor first touch squandered one chance after Lloyd slipped in the striker. Later, Williams put herself in on goal with a brilliant turn — but blew her shot well over the crossbar after choosing not to pick out an open Press.
"I saw the goal," Williams said with a laugh, "and got a little excited."
Short, meanwhile, turned in an up-and-down performance in an unfamiliar role at left center back. A fullback by trade, Short was somewhat hesitant in distribution and seemed to get caught between two minds on a couple failed clearances.
But she improved on the ball as the match went on, and also used her pace to make some key last-ditch tackles to preserve the shutout.
"I thought her defending was very, very good," Ellis said. "We're trying to pass our way out [of the back], and I thought she contributed to that tonight."