In the last 12 months, the US Women’s National Team has won the World Cup, qualified for the Olympics in dominant fashion, and swept a round robin tournament against the teams currently ranked #2, #3, and #4 in the world. Their record over that time is 24 wins, 3 draws, and one loss (with the single defeat being a friendly against China that was less a competitive game and more a team effort to get Abby Wambach a goal in her final appearance). It’s an astonishing run of results.
But for all that success, the fans remain doubtful. They’re frustrated by a lack of fluidity in the attack, the difficulties they have scoring goals, the tightness of play, the profligate way they seem to treat possession, the defensive blunders. And then there’s the tactical decisions. Thinkpieces lauding Jill Ellis for fixing her tactics (somewhat involuntarily, due to suspensions) during the World Cup are so much dust in the wind these days. You can pick your poison here; everyone has a favorite hobbyhorse. Why does she keep playing people out of position? What is she doing with Heather O’Reilly? What is going on with her substitutions? Is she even aware that the team is carrying backup keepers? How poorly would X have to play before getting dropped? What would it take to get Press and Dunn some minutes?!
So what gives? Is this just the normal griping that comes with every superteam? Have US fans grown so accustomed to winning that they've grown numb to its strengths and hypersensitive to its weaknesses? Maybe. But there's more to it than that.
The long and short of it is: the US remains tactically unsophisticated. They often find themselves stretched when playing good teams with the discipline to attack weak zones (something that was all-too-evident in the match against France at the She Believes Cup). Yes, they've won a series of tight victories, but those matches were often only kept tight based on individual excellence rather than collective defensive solidity. This is a team riddled with self-inflicted holes, danger-points that have been papered over by the extraordinary talents of four key players: Hope Solo, Becky Sauerbrunn, Julie Johnston, and Morgan Brian.
However, once you get beyond those four (who should be true automatic selections for any important game where they're healthy), the questions start to pile up pretty quickly.
Is Carli Lloyd undroppable? And if so, are they going to continue the pretense that she's a real #10, rather than simply a forward? Because one of the key weaknesses of the team right now is the gaping hole in central midfield between the defense and the attack. If Lloyd is an automatic starter, can they find a formation that will support her and another striker without sacrificing the central midfield? They've experimented with Lindsey Horan alongside Brian in the holding role, which has yet to yield much in the way of results. The simple reality is that the current squad simply doesn't have a true #10. Would it be worth calling up some new players to try them out in that slot?
Speaking of strikers, Christen Press and Crystal Dunn are probably among the 10 best forwards in the world, but they're both barely getting a look right now. And when they do play, it's usually out of position. Is that really the plan going forward? Yes, Alex Morgan seems to be pulling back into the sort of form that made her so dominant a few years ago. But it's hard to believe that a team who has such difficulties scoring can simply continue with the status quo, given the wealth of talent they have available.
And given how important the wings are to the US attack right now, there are plenty of questions there as well. Is it really sustainable to overload that space with attacking players, and rely on the central defensive core to clean up the problems that result? Ellis seems to prefer starting Klingenberg and O'Hara along with Pugh and Heath. All excellent players, but this might be playing with fire. Pugh has been a revelation, but serious questions remain about her positioning. Heath is the definition of a solid player, but has a terrible tendency to get caught in possession in dangerous areas. Klingenberg is a prototypical attacking fullback, but regularly finds herself far away from potential defensive responsibilities. And whither Ali Krieger in all this?
Don't get me wrong. There's a case to be made for each one of these choices. And, as I noted at the start, the results don't lie. For all the theoretical problems here, they've still managed to win and win. But in high-stakes games with more tactically astute teams the US may find itself struggling in many of these spots, and once again overly reliant on the individual brilliance of their core defenders. But even rock-solid players like Sauerbrunn, Solo, and Brian can make mistakes.
The talent is there, and I'd still make the US slight favorites for Olympic gold, but it's a tight call. In the meantime, there's still room for experimentation to fix some of these flaws. Here's hoping that the upcoming friendlies are treated as an opportunity to do precisely that.