After an Overhaul, U.S. Women Shift to Sweating the Small Stuff
By Andrew Das
CHESTER, Pa. — Jill Ellis has had three years to tinker.
She knew better than anyone how quickly this summer’s Women’s World Cup would arrive, so Ellis, the United States women’s national team coach, got started remaking her squad almost as soon as it crashed out of the 2016 Rio Olympics.
She tinkered while her star forward signed a contract to play in France for half a season, and she tinkered when her captain signed a similar deal to join a club in England. She tinkered by bringing in new players and by dropping old ones. She tested new formations and tweaked more familiar ones, and engaged in experiments prompted by injuries, player availability and even curiosity.
But Ellis said Tuesday that she is done tinkering. The players — with at least one notable exception — who are in camp for the three-game She Believes Cup, which starts Wednesday, will form the core of the group Ellis will take to defend the United States’ world championship at the World Cup in France.
There are, of course, familiar names — Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe, Julie Ertz, Tobin Heath — in camp. But fans who haven’t followed the team since it won its World Cup title in Canada will soon come to know several new ones, too: Rose Lavelle, Jessica McDonald, Sam Mewis, Tierna Davidson. And for the first time since 2005, the United States will enter a major tournament without Hope Solo in goal.
But 100 days before the World Cup opens — a milestone that arrived on Wednesday — Ellis and her players said this week that their biggest questions already had been asked and answered.
“You’ve kind of built the skeleton,” Ellis said. “Now we’re working on the nervous system.”
The process has not always been pleasant. Lloyd, the star of the 2015 World Cup victory, has been eased into a supporting role, and players like Lindsey Horan and Crystal Dunn — who were not part of the 2015 team — have become nearly irreplaceable. Blessed with a wealth of speed and attacking options, Ellis toyed with a three-defender system early in the process to see if a relentless focus on getting forward would enjoy adequate cover if the ball was turned over. Spoiler: It didn’t, so she adjusted again.
“I would say that it was uncomfortable,” defender Becky Sauerbrunn said of working through the evolution in real time. “And she was very honest with us and was saying she wants it to be uncomfortable.”
“She said she was going to throw people into formations and into games that maybe they weren’t prepared for,” Sauerbrunn added. “And she wanted to see how they reacted, because in a World Cup you never know what you’re going to face, and you’re going to have to be able to take those challenges on and still perform well. And so I feel very strong having gone through that process.”
The focus now is on polishing partnerships and connections, the “nervous system” connecting players on the field that Ellis mentioned Tuesday.
“We definitely talk about relationships a lot — who you’re playing with on the sides of the field, who you’re playing with in the middle of the field, and your relationships with them,” Mewis said. “And the coaches have definitely mentioned to us that not only are they looking at individual players, they’re looking at how those players interact with the players around them.”
Health issues have complicated some of those decisions. Horan, a fixture in the American midfield, will miss the She Believes Cup with a quad injury. The 20-year-old Davidson (broken ankle) and the 30-year-old Kelley O’Hara (ankle surgery) are still working their way back into top form.
One of the players hoping to contend for a place in the midfield with Horan out, Danielle Colaprico, was ruled out herself this week because of a recurrence of a groin injury. Emily Fox, a young defender who had seemingly fallen out of the picture after a poor performance at left back against France in January, replaced Colaprico on the roster — but there are no guarantees Fox will go to the World Cup.
“The door’s not closed for anybody,” Ellis said, though she acknowledged the time had long passed when she could afford to give a player on the fringes of the team an extended look.
“It’s not just giving players time to give them time,” Ellis added. “It’s making sure we’re accomplishing something in that.”
The team’s next few opponents were chosen for specific challenges: The Americans play a technical team, Japan, on Wednesday, and then face more physical sides in England (Saturday) and Brazil (Tuesday). Ellis said she would not show all her cards in these matches, or the ones that follow, and she did not expect her opponents to reveal themselves, either.
“So for us, then, the focus is on ourselves,” she said. “What can we do? And how good can we get?”
In that mind-set, even setbacks, or mistakes, can be instructive, if a team is willing to acknowledge them.
“Any holes will get exposed now,” Mewis said. “And we’d rather solve any problems now.”