In defense of Jill Ellis (and Abby Wambach)

On Monday night, the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team registered it’s 3rd successive clean sheet en route to defeating Colombia 2-0 in the first knock-out round of the 2015 Women’s World Cup.  Despite the relatively comfortable victory against a Colombian side who were reduced to 10 players following a red card shortly after the half-time restart, manager Jill Ellis has come under intense criticism for a performance that many an arm-chair analyst and beat-blogger  have deemed “not convincing”.  Former USWNT star Michelle Akers may have delivered the most scathing criticism:

“If she [Ellis] is pleased with the way we played tonight then what the hell is she doing coaching our U.S. team.”

Ouch.  I’ve heard various points of criticism from all around, among them that our 4-4-2 formation is outdated and stale, that we are over-reliant on playing long-balls up to our forwards, that we lack creativity in attacking, and that Ellis needs to drop aging star Abby Wambach.  I will readily concede that the team hasn’t exactly been dominant thus far in the tournament, but to me the negativity seems horribly misplaced.

Playing Style

The supposed “lack-of-diversity” in our attacking approach is as good a place to start as any.  I keep hearing that our attack is one-dimensional, that all we do boot long balls up to our forwards – a hit-and-hope mentality.

First of all, when you have players like break-out star Julie Johnston who can drop the ball right on a player’s forehead from across the field, hoofing it forward isn’t the worst thing in the world:

Second, the way Colombia set up encouraged us to play it long.  When our defenders were in possession of the ball, Colombian players surrounded the center circle to clog up midfield.  This didn’t stop us from trying to play it out from the back anyways, we actually tried it quite often. Usually something like this happened:

or this

 

Notice the number of yellow shirts in that area of the pitch.  A lot of our attempts to pass it out from the back worked out better than these two examples, they often lead to throw-ins that gave us a good platform to build an attack.  But the last two gifs demonstrate the danger in our defenders losing possession there.  Plus, Colombia’s approach left holes between their midfield and back 4, so why wouldn’t we send some balls over-the-top to take advantage of it?

Third, we actually showed a ton of diversity in our approach and creativity once we had the ball in the final third.  Yes, I know more than a few diagonal balls were floated toward Morgan/Wambach without great effect, but that was far from our only threat. We worked the ball cleverly to set up Heath’s early shot that nearly put us ahead:

 

Here we tried to pass it through their defense in the final third, a failed effort but definitely the right intent:

The team showed ingenuity and precision to get players in behind the defense down the right flank:

and the left:

Check out the patient build-up, passing, and movement that takes place here before Meghan Klingenberg receives the ball on the overlap down the left:

and here’s Klingenberg’s subsequent shot that nearly put the US ahead:

By the way, those attacking examples were all from the first half, and no I didn’t gif every single one, nor did I gif any of the numerous corners we earned. The team took a very balanced approach to attacking, varied its cadence to catch Colombia out, and showed good coordination punctuated by moments of individual skill.

Do I believe that Jill Ellis’s plan was perfect? No, and truthfully I would have done a lot of things differently.  Maybe the 4-4-2 formation is a little bit stale, and maybe it is risky to start two attack-minded players in Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday in central midfield.  But would replacing one of them with a defense-minded sitting midfielder, or even adding one in as a 3rd central midfielder, really have made a difference against Colombia’s effectively 6-player midfield?

The team set out very differently from what I would have pictured.  After the first game against Australia I had started brainstorming with friends about how we could change personnel to shore up midfield.  But against Colombia, the team created numerous chances without leaving itself exposed in the back, and these efforts were eventually rewarded with goals.

Abby Wambach

Prior to the 2014 World Cup, USMNT manager Jurgen Klinsmann came under fire for leaving out the Talismanic Landon Donovan from the squad.  He compared the situation to Kobe Bryant’s contract:

“This always happens in America. Kobe Bryant, for example — why does he get a two-year contract extension for $50 million? Because of what he is going to do in the next two years for the Lakers? Of course not. Of course not. He gets it because of what he has done before. It makes no sense.”

Jill Ellis finds herself the subject of criticism for the opposite reason – her reluctance to drop underperforming veteran Abby Wambach.

Has Wambach lived up to her own standards?  Absolutely not, and I’m sure she’d be the first to admit as much.  But to focus only on her shortcomings is to ignore her crucial contributions to the team.

Technique wise, she’s still got it.  This half-volley effort was only denied by goalkeeping heroics:


Now, check out Rapinoe’s ball to play in Alex Morgan and draw the first penalty / red card:

It’s a bit hard to make out, but when Wambach drops deep to support Rapinoe, Colombia’s #14 follows her, creating a huge pocket of space for Morgan to burst into and…well… you know the rest.

Now have a look at Morgan’s goal:

 

Wambach wins the initial header to keep the play alive. Then, as Morgan receives the ball, #14 on Colombia, who is initially goal-side of Johnston, glances toward Wambach, and her hesitation allows Johnston to gain a half-step on her.  Granted, Morgan took the selfish route and scored by herself, but she also had the easy option to play in Johnston, thanks to the space that Wambach helped create for her.  Even when Wambach is underperforming, she is always a goal threat.

I don’t think Wambach should get an indefinite pass.  I agreed with Klinsmann’s decision to drop Donovan.  But unlike Wambach, Donovan was never in the conversation of being the best striker in the world.  Sure, Wambach’s penalty miss was poor, but the fact that she chose not to take the second penalty – sacrificing her easy chance to tie Brazilian legend Marta’s record – shows her commitment to the cause.  I want to see Abby start knocking them in as much as anyone, but her role in the team goes well beyond poaching headers.  I don’t know if I would drop Wambach on current form, but I can completely understand why Ellis chooses not to.

“Win Convincingly”

So far, the US Women’s national team hasn’t conceded a goal since the 27th minute against Australia – over 333 minutes without conceding.  The team is consistently creating chances, and we haven’t really looked like losing… at all… this tournament.  Yet I keep hearing people saying that the way we’re winning isn’t “convincing”, implying that we’ll easily lose to a better team.  I think Abby Wambach’s words in the team huddle just before the second half against Colombia respond to this criticism as well as anything I could write:

“We all know we have another level right? It’s just a matter of time before we get that goal, stay patient!

Not a rallying cry to give 110% and push for the win, just a calm but emphatic reminder to stick the plan.  With or without the red card, Colombia were never going to be able to keep up the energetic high press for another 45 minutes, and the U.S. rightly trusted that if they continued to go about their business, quality would win out in the end.

En route to winning the 2014 men’s World Cup, Germany needed extra time to beat Algeria in the first knock-out round, and only avoided a penalty shootout by minutes.  They then went on to beat Brazil 7-1 in the semi-finals.  Runners-up Argentina also needed 118 minutes to find a breakthrough against Switzerland, and only found it through a moment of Messi-anic magnificence.

I’ll fully accept the ridicule coming my way if we get upset by China or trounced by Germany/France, but I really don’t see it.  At the highest level, you don’t set out to make statements with your performances.  That sort of conversation keeps the pundits in business, but it’s not the point.  Team USA is not in Canada right now to “convince” us of anything, they’re there to lift a trophy.  Stay. Patient.

 

(bonus gif of Klingenberg’s through-ball to Rapinoe with the outside of her foot to set up the second penalty… because damn it’s thing of beauty)

 

 

dkori