U.S. women’s national team head coach Jill Ellis struck an optimistic tone despite conceding late in a 2-2 tie with Japan in their SheBelieves Cup opener last Wednesday.
Though defensive lapses led to both Japanese goals, Ellis insisted she was pleased with her team’s performance, even suggesting the USWNT played better than it had in a 4-2 win over Japan last year.
After the U.S. tied England 2-2 on Saturday, a game that featured more defensive errors from her team that led to goals, Ellis was in a decidedly less sunny mood.
“We recognize right now we’ve got to shore things up," Ellis said in her post-game press conference.
“Ultimately, we’ve got to make sure our players understand that the margin for error is very small against these top teams in the world, and we’ve been punished several times for that.”
The U.S. had won 16 of its last 17 games heading into January’s friendly against France. Since then, Ellis’ side has just one win in four.
It’s not time to panic yet – after all, France, Japan and England are three of the best sides in the world and the U.S. has only lost one of those games.
But recent games have featured a U.S. team that has looked more vulnerable than it has in some time, and part of that is down to some unsuccessful experimentation from Ellis.
Heading into Tuesday’s SheBelieves Cup finale against Brazil in Tampa, the U.S. will be desperate for a solid, mistake-free performance against the weakest side in the four-team tournament.
“The players understand, this is the last five percent we need to do to get things completely right,” Ellis said in her pre-game press conference on Monday. “We’ve got to be 100 percent for 90-plus minutes in games and I think this is another opportunity to test ourselves to be ready for the summer.”
Most distressing in the USWNT’s opening two SheBelieves Cup games has been a complete lack of cohesion in the midfield and the back line.
Some of that can be explained by key absences. Do-everything midfielder Lindsey Horan is out for the tournament with a quad injury, while backline anchor Becky Sauerbrunn has played just 30 minutes in the opening two games due to a knee injury.
But the USWNT’s struggles can’t simply be explained away by the two missing pieces.
Ellis has made the questionable decision to replace Horan, a true box-to-box central midfielder, with Mallory Pugh, an attack-minded winger playing out of position.
In the team’s three-player midfield, having Pugh playing alongside Rose Lavelle, who normally functions as a creative playmaker, has often led to breakdowns in possession and left holding midfielder Julie Ertz on an island.
“I think it’s imperative for the midfield in general to control the game, both offensively and defensively, set tempo and really set the tone for the team and I think we’re still working on nailing that down,” Megan Rapinoe admitted after the team’s draw with Japan.
Ellis finally introduced Sam Mewis in the 64th minute against England, and the NC Courage midfielder provided the team with a closer approximation to Horan’s two-way play than it had before.
“Sam came in and was an impact player for us for sure,” Ellis said. “So it’s looking at different pieces in terms of what’s a good blend in that midfield.”
Mewis seems a much better fit than Pugh as Horan’s replacement, as does McCall Zerboni, who did not play against Japan or England.
Ellis has also experimented at times with dropping Ertz deep to create a five-player back line instead of the usual four-player setup.
The problem with this approach was best exemplified by England’s second goal on Saturday. With Ertz in the back line, England playmaker Fran Kirby found plenty of space in front of the U.S. defense to receive a pass and play a dinked ball over the U.S. defense for Nikita Parris to finish.
“There are definite areas where we’ve got to improve in terms of just the details of a back line,” Ellis said after the England match. “You can’t be off a yard against these teams.”
Sauerbrunn did play the final half-hour against England, and her steadying presence was a welcome sight for the USWNT.
“Anytime you have a veteran and a leader like Becky, obviously, she just brings a great lift to the group in general, she’s invaluable, her leadership and her calmness and understanding of what a game needs is important to this team,” Tobin Heath told reporters after the game.
Having Sauerbrunn back will certainly help, but it won’t completely fix the disjointedness the U.S. has displayed in the SheBelieves Cup. The team can only hope they get it right by the time their next tournament comes around in June.
“I think these games are really big learning points for us and being able to review the film from this and fine-tune even the smallest of details is quite important,” defender Tierna Davidson told reporters on Monday.
“It's good to play these kinds of teams and get exposed in the way that we do so we can fix these details before the World Cup.”