If you happen to check Twitter right after the starting lineup is released for a US women’s game you’re likely to encounter a concentrated pocket of groans about the selection, the most common complaint being Jill Ellis’ insistence upon playing forwards out in wide positions. Ellis seems to prefer utilizing forwards out wide as a matter of tactical preference more so than a lack of options or pool depth. This is a noticeable tactical shift from the past two managers who preferred classic, chalk-on-the-boots style wingers like Megan Rapinoe and Heather O’Reilly, players who more or less will provide width and the technical ability to play in crosses and shots from the top of the box.
This shift in tactics isn’t necessarily aberrant considering the trends in world football. Prominent men’s teams like the German NT under Jogi Löw have been able to dominate using center forwards like Thomas Müller in wide positions, though in this instance the team generally plays without a true center forward, so in that way Ellis is unique. But is this paradigm shift necessarily a successful one?
Tactically there seems to be an advantage to lining up with multiple forwards in the attacking line. For one, it allows Ellis a little bit more flexibility in the composition of the forward line. For example: the South Africa match began with Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn out wide with Alex Morgan as the central forward. It ended with Pugh and Dunn on opposite flanks with Christen Press playing as center forward. This sort of interchanging and movement can confuse defenses if they’re not organized and losing Dunn on the back post cost South Africa their only conceded goal. You may not get that level of flexibility with a pure winger who isn’t comfortable rotating through centrally. But just because it makes sense tactically does not necessarily mean that forwards are more productive out wide.
Taking A Deeper Look
It doesn’t take an observer with too much soccer acumen to make the claim that someone like Christen Press is probably best utilized playing her preferred central forward role - her 20 goals in 31 appearances for the Chicago Red Stars seem to prove that. That’s an average of .64 goals per 90 minutes played for the Red Stars. It’s certainly reasonable to believe there’s no way she could be more efficient with the national team considering she’s been played out of position for the majority of her caps. The initial look seems to confirm the groans. With 33 goals in 69 appearances, Press averages .48 goals per 90 minutes with the national team.
What about another player with scintillating stats playing as a central forward in the NWSL? In 20 games as a central forward for the Washington Spirit, Crystal Dunn scored a league-high 15 goals in the 2015 NWSL season. That averages out to .75 goals per 90 minutes played. Although initially brought into the national team under Tom Sermanni as a defender, under Jill Ellis she’s been used as a wide attacking player. Still, in 34 appearances she’s managed 13 goals - including an impressive five goal game against Puerto Rico, even though her .38 goals per 90 minutes played is significantly less than what she’s proven to be capable of. These disparities in production between club and country for Press and Dunn could be attributed to the fact that for club they’re the focal point of their team's attack whereas for country they’re one of many.
Now before everyone takes to Twitter and demands that Ellis changes her ways immediately let’s take a look at how these two compare to the three most prominent wide attacking midfielders of this era. In 230 appearances Heather O’Reilly has scored 46 goals which comes to .20 goals per 90 minutes. Megan Rapinoe has scored 31 goals in 113 caps to average .27 goals per 90 minutes. Tobin Heath has played 118 times for the US and scored 15 goals, averaging .13 goals per 90 minutes.
Nobody is saying that the pure measure of a wide attacking player is goalscoring but for the purposes of this discussion it’s a useful tool of comparison. Looking at these numbers changes the initial reaction to the productivity of Dunn and Press. Whereas the argument is true that they are less effective out wide than they are centrally, it is also true that thus far in their careers they have proven to be more productive in some ways than traditional wingers.
The traditional target forwards for the US thrived on more traditional wingers, Abby Wambach made a living on balls pumped into the box. In the style that Ellis wants to play it is not enough as a wide attacker to effectively feed dangerous crosses to the head of a prominent striker. That’s now the role of the fullbacks to push forward and provide that type of service. The need to start and be able to finish attacks of their own as well as still providing crosses and dynamic service into the box makes these wide forwards a valuable commodity.
Considering the increasing nationalization and streamlining of the development system this could have far reaching consequences for the kind of wide players the US produces in the future. Pacey, technical wingers like Erika Tymrak might once have been seen as natural ascendants to the national team. Now with the Girls’ Development Academy starting in fall 2017, there is further opportunity to systematically mold elite forwards to play out wide and produce goals at Dunn or Press levels.
With Ellis signed on as manager until at least 2019, that’s almost half a decade where her tactics and selection will dictate demand on a developmental level. Keeping with trends, this could mean a wholesale shift towards utilizing forwards instead of midfielders in wide attacking areas in the youth teams. Or, at the very least, producing forwards that are also capable and willing to play out wide - Mallory Pugh is the prototype for this type of player. Keeping her early success in mind, this tactical shift might not be the worst thing that’s happened to the USWNT.