Two years ago, U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis took her entire roster and plotted each player on a grid, placing them in the position on the field where she felt they were at their best.
When she backed away from the grid and saw the whole picture, suddenly the answer to her formation conundrum became clear.
“When I stood back and looked at that, it became very clear that the best shape, putting the players in the best spots on the field, was a 4-3-3,” Ellis said at the USWNT’s media day on Friday.
The USWNT won the 2015 World Cup playing a standard 4-4-2 formation. It wasn’t always eye-catching but it was effective, with Ellis’s side inching its way through the knockout stage before overwhelming Japan 5-2 in the title game.
After flying high in Canada, though, the USWNT crashed hard in the Olympics the following year. Sweden bunkered its way to a shocking quarterfinal upset and the U.S. went home from Rio with no medal.
Ellis recognized the Sweden game was a turning point for her team.
“That was the initial moment for me where I was like, ‘Huh, this is different’ and I remember talking to my staff coming out of the Olympics and [saying], ‘We’ve got to make sure we are prepared for this piece of the evolution.’”
That preparation meant several different formation experiments, with Ellis eventually settling on a 4-3-3 in 2017. The aim of the new approach was clear: attack, attack, and then attack some more.
“It’s a much more aggressive style,” Megan Rapinoe said. “I think it suits us, we want to get out and run and be very attacking-minded.”
Rapinoe and Tobin Heath played as wingers in the team’s 4-4-2 formation, balancing defensive and attacking responsibilities. But the pair have mostly shed their defensive duties while playing the wide attacking forward spots in the 4-3-3, and the results have been explosive.
Rapinoe has continued to be one of the team’s most reliable scorers but now Heath has joined her in that role, adding more end product to her already robust attacking skillset.
“I think us three up front, especially for Tobin and I, we’re happy to be off the wing and up a little bit higher with a little less defensive responsibilities,” Rapinoe said. “I think with the talent and our attributes going forward I think most of our efforts should be spent there.”
With Heath and Rapinoe on either side of striker Alex Morgan, there is no more dangerous trio in the world. But there is a flipside to the USWNT’s gung-ho setup.
Defensively, the team has appeared vulnerable against stronger opposition. Just this year, the U.S. has conceded three goals in games against France and Australia and two against both England and Japan.
The U.S. aims to press high but if teams can play through that high pressure – and bypass roving defensive midfielder Julie Ertz – all of a sudden there is very little resistance remaining.
“You’re changing from a defensive formation to an attacking formation,” center back Becky Sauerbrunn said.
“You’re trying to get more attacking players on the field. You’re also then now giving up spaces on the field that you don’t give up in a 4-4-2 so you’re learning basically how to defend in a different shape and attack in a different shape.”
The U.S. has been playing in the 4-3-3 for the better part of two years now so with less than a month to go before the team kicks off its World Cup defense, it is what it is: an exceptionally dangerous attacking side that can be breached defensively.
Will the U.S. be able to outscore teams en route to a fourth World Cup? For better or worse, that will be the aim in France.
"I’m quite grateful we’re in a 4-3-3, it’s a lot more fluid, fun attacking style to play," Christen Press said. "I think the 4-4-2, how we played it and how it always is is a little rigid, so I think [the 4-3-3] is lot more fun."