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Looking forward with the USWNT: three big questions for the next three years

They’ve got the time to make changes and learn from mistakes

Netherlands v United States Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

After an early exit from the 2016 Olympics, the US has a long time to wait for another chance at a major trophy. That’s an unfortunate effect of the calendar for the women’s game, which crams its two major events into a 14 month period, and then demands three years of waiting. But there’s a positive side to this, too. The long window gives the team a chance to develop in a way that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. If that time is used well, the US team in 2019 could be the best the world has ever seen.

In the coming months, we’ll be discussing this subject from a variety of angles—some reflections on the transition so far, some speculation on new players who could be brought in, some discussion of broad strategic considerations in lineup construction and tactical organization. Today I want to kick things off with a few broad questions, designed to give some shape to those continuing conversations.

But, before getting into things, it’s worth taking a moment to remember that:

The US is on the right track

Yes, they exited early from the Olympics. And yes, they’ve looked a little sluggish at times. But their overall results in 2016 have been fantastic. And even more importantly, the team’s broad tactical evolution is moving along well. The lineup is more dynamic. Many of the key players are improving, and they are also building good working relationships with one another. New players have been brought in, with significant success (most notably: Mallory Pugh, but others as well). All of this is to the good, and the US shouldn’t treat its early exit as evidence of massive underlying problems. The future remains bright.

That said, there are some areas that deserve serious attention as they move forward.

Question #1 – Can they diversify tactically?

The time has long-passed where the US can simply bulldoze all opposition without concern for setup or structure. The sophistication of the modern game makes tactical adaptation a necessity.

The US has already started down that path, but there’s a lot of room still to grow. The 2016 model, built around attacking down the wings and pushing fullbacks aggressively high, was often very successful. But it’s ultimately a relatively limited tactical setup, one whose flaws have become increasingly clear over the past year.

Some examples: Against deep-lying bunkered defenses like those employed by Sweden, the US suffers a bit for its lack of midfield creativity. A system built to move quickly into space can be stifled when that space is denied. Ironically, the US might have benefited from a striker in the Abby Wambach mode, who could simply power through that packed defense to bury a leaping header. By contrast, the US also had difficulty against France, whose strong pressing and emphasis on quick distribution from the central midfield down the flanks left the US ‘attacking fullback’ model looking fairly lifeless for much of the match. In both of these cases, the US has shown some flexibility (moving to a 3-5-2 against Sweden while chasing down their equalizer, for example), but both matches might have been improved by an even more aggressive adaptation.

The point is certainly not that the US should become purely reactive. But an expanded tactical range would broaden the arsenal of viable approaches, and give the coaching staff a greater capacity for responding to problems when they arise.

Sunday’s friendly against The Netherlands was an encouraging move in this direction, with the team trying out some variants of a 3-back system, in an effort to push the midfield’s center of gravity forward without sacrificing defensive solidity. It didn’t work perfectly, but showed some different possibilities. The US could use more development along these lines.

Question #2 – Will they bring in some new blood?

The roster for the matches against Thailand and the Netherlands was simply a recall of the Olympic 22 (minus Solo). Whether this actually made sense is a topic for another day. But since this was determined well in advance, there’s no point in reading much into it. The real question is what happens in October and beyond.

Jill Ellis has made clear that new names will feature in those matches, but how aggressively will she push the issue? Will we continue to see the same 20 or so core players receive the vast majority of minutes—with a few names brought into camps and never capped? Will we get a couple like-for-like replacements for retired or injured players but nothing more? Or will we get a serious commitment to broaden the pool?

The last is what’s needed. Not just because there are a host of talented players waiting to show what they’ve got (although there are), or because the team needs more diversity in playing styles (although it does, see above), or even because competition is an excellent driver of success (although it is), but simply because the continued growth and development of professional women’s soccer depends on the faith of the rank-and-file that achievement might be rewarded. If Kealia Ohai, Lynn Williams, Sarah Killion, and Dani Colaprico (just to name a few) see no reward for their excellence, it communicates to them and upcoming generations that the USWNT remains effectively a world of haves and have-nots. And that isn’t a message that US Soccer should want to send.

Of course, much of this depends on the status of the new collective bargaining agreement. In the current system, benefits are parceled out in a fairly rigid tier system, with regulars earning salaries directly from US Soccer, and all the associated benefits. Beyond that set, however, US Soccer has fairly strong incentives not to offer meaningful additional callups. A few caps for a new player and she’ll quickly escalate into the higher tiers, costing the organization quite a bit more money. For obvious reasons, this model is conducive to the ‘strong core, weak periphery’ model that has dominated the USWNT in the past. It remains to be seen how US Soccer and the players will end up on this question, but if they can find a way to agree on a more inclusive model, it would likely be a boon to the long-term health of the team.

Question #3 – Are they willing to really commit to experimentation?

One theme shared in the two previous sections is the value of trying out new things. That’s a crucial idea, and one that should be enthusiastically engaged. Put simply: the US needs to be willing to try out new things, simply for the sake of trying them. Even if they don’t always work.

Obviously, there is value to having a settled team, confident in their roles and responsibilities. But there’s also advantage to a little bit of uncertainty. Necessity is often the mother of invention, and chaos the father of creativity. Stepping out of their comfort zones might unlock some previously unanticipated possibilities, and be a serious boon for the long-term quality of the team.

At a certain level, this seems obvious. And yet it would be a real break from the team’s standard operating procedure, which tends to regard winning as the primary objective, ensuring lots of face-time for the best known players as a secondary goal, and everything else as a distant third.

Instead of that model, we should look for some truly experimental lineups against good opponents, even if that reduces the chance of winning some individual matches. Even more, we should expect occasional camps without all the big names, A/B squads designed to give alternates a real chance to integrate into the team, not just earn a few minutes at the end of a match. For example, while it’s quite likely Alex Morgan will still be the first-choice striker for the 2019 World Cup, the team would do well to try out some other names in that role, if only to see what they’ve really got. We already know what Morgan can do. Why not give Christen Press, or Crystal Dunn, or Jess McDonald an extended run as the primary center forward, just to see what they can do with it?

That’s just one example, but there are plenty of others that deserve some consideration. Of course, not every experiment will bear fruit. And the team might even lose a match here and there. But if they do, it shouldn’t be treated as a crisis, and shouldn’t derail the broader developmental plans.

After all, there is never going to be a time less high pressure than right now. As noted at the start, we’re roughly 30 months out from the next major international tournament. Obviously, winning is more fun than losing, and any significant decline in quality would be worrisome. But a few rough patches here and there would be a small price to pay for a stronger, more capable, more flexible team going into the next World Cup.