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Jill Ellis deserves more time, but not very much more

After a series of lackluster performances, it’s getting close to make-or-break time for the USWNT coach

Switzerland v United States Photo by George Frey/Getty Images

In my preview of the SheBelieves Cup, I said that it wouldn’t be a crisis if the US underperformed. Now that it’s happened, it’s time to take a look back and check our priors. Just what is the state of the team right now?

Drawing back to the widest angle (and paraphrasing John McCain), it seems irrefutable that the fundamentals remain strong. Until this month they hadn’t lost a match since 2015 (acknowledging that this ‘streak’ included their elimination from the Olympics in a quarterfinal penalty shootout with Sweden). And while the quality of play hasn’t always matched those results, this has been a team in transition, with quite a few veterans departing after the 2015 World Cup victory. So it’s perfectly understandable that there would be some growing pains as they fiddle with playing styles, rosters, and tactics.

Taking that broad perspective, the results from SheBelieves might be unfortunate, but they’re hardly a reason for panic. The team was experimenting with a new approach, and was found out to a certain extent. But there’s still plenty of time to change course, to learn from those losses, and to get on with the process of development.

Nevertheless, as Senator McCain learned when he made his own ‘fundamentals’ comment, the baseline strength of an institution is not necessarily an argument for continuity at the top of the ticket. So, while the US team is not in crisis and has every chance to learn from these losses, one big question on a lot of minds right now is: how much do we trust Jill Ellis to steer the team through the trials and tribulations of the next three years?

An excellent piece at Black and Red United recently made the case for closing the book on the Ellis era. The heart of the argument is her tactical limitations, and her insistence on trying to drive square pegs into round holes. Elsewhere, Kevin McCauley has identified many of the same problems. In both takes, you can see the severe tactical limits of Ellis’s coaching style. If taken seriously—as I think they should be—those pieces raise serious questions about Ellis’s ability to get maximal value from the exceptionally talented US player pool. And they call into doubt whether she should be entrusted with the process of development that will be needed to prepare them for the 2019 World Cup.

The case for giving Ellis more time

However, I want to take a moment to offer a word of caution, and make a plea for time. It is unquestionable that Ellis has limits as a coach, and it may well be that she is a poor choice to lead the team to 2019. But the case hasn’t been closed yet, and she still deserves time to prove her strengths. Here’s why:

First, it’s a game of results, and even with the recent stumbles, Ellis has put together an excellent set of results. Obviously, she led the team to a World cup victory in 2015. But more broadly, she’s averaged 2.5 points per game in her tenure as coach, which is just about middle-of-the-road for US coaches over the past two decades. And she’s compiled that record against a field that’s more competitive today than it’s ever been.

The big question is whether those results were because of Ellis or in spite of her. For one thing, the tactical shifts that helped the US in 2015 were arguably driven by accident as much as intention. Moreover, given the quality of the roster—and the expectation that they should win the vast majority of their games easily—the key question is more about performance than the final result. And even as results were solid over most of the past 18 months, the performances haven’t been great.

Still, while her results don’t create an irrefutable case for permanent employment, they do argue for some measure of caution. Whatever her flaws, Ellis clearly has strengths as well. Those strengths seem to be less immediately apparent to the viewer at home, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. It’s possible that Ellis has been a mere bystander, drafting behind the talents of the players on the pitch, but we shouldn’t be so quick to assume that she played no part in building the team spirit and motivation that allowed them to win so many games.

Second, Ellis deserves more credit than she’s been given for her willingness to experiment, and for the motivations that seem to be driving those experiments. For most of 2016, the US played a system designed to lean heavily on attacking fullbacks and movement on the wings. While it didn’t always work in practice, in concept it was a well-conceived response to the state of the roster. In particular, it reflected an awareness that the retirement of Lauren Holiday robbed the team of its primary creative influencer in the central midfield.

The style of play for 2016 reflected that reality—focusing creative development on the wings and pressing high with attacking fullbacks, while bolstering the defense with a double pivot. It wasn’t pretty, but it produced reasonably solid results as a stopgap response to the spate of post-World Cup retirements.

However, for the longer term, a larger shift in play style seemed crucial—one that would prioritize technique over athleticism and give the new wave of creative talent on the squad a chance to truly shine. And that’s precisely what we’ve seen, with the turn to a back three. As I wrote before SheBelieves, one of the key advantages of a three-back system is its capacity to dominate the central midfield without sacrificing width in the attack. And, when deployed as a high-pressing, quick-transition fashion, it creates attacking opportunities organically.

In concept, then, the two major tactical innovations Ellis has undertaken since 2015 both make a great deal of sense. The double-pivot was a reasonable response to forced changes—capable of quick realization and simple execution. The three back is more experimental, but has a lot of potential to unlock a new style of play. And with the next major tournament more than two years away, it’s absolutely the time to try out new things.

In many ways, it’s unfortunate that the US had their catastrophic result in the final match of SheBelieves. While no one should have been surprised at what happened—and Ellis of course deserves criticism for persisting against all odds with a system that would hang the players out to dry—the reality is that this setup basically worked against Germany.

Now, given that the loss to France has finally provided material evidence of the flaws with Ellis’s tactical thinking, the real question isn’t whether she got things wrong, but how she’ll respond.

So, the third argument, which follows naturally from the second, is quite simple: the US should be more tolerant of failure. That Ellis’s experiments haven’t all worked isn’t a catastrophe. It’s just a piece of information, which can now be incorporated into future decisions. If your mantra is ‘never fail,’ you will be doomed to disappointment. Instead, the goal should be to learn from your failures, something that Ellis should still be given the chance to do.

A dismissal now would be an overreaction to SheBelieves. To go from ‘full confidence’ to ‘fired’ so quickly would send a clear message to the next coach: don’t take risks and don’t play for the long-term.

To be sure, some of Ellis’s decisions have been baffling, and her reasoning for those choices sometimes muddled in the extreme. But at the broadest strokes, her choices do follow a coherent logic. The question is whether she can use the failures to enhance the successes, and that’s something that only time will be able to tell.

Which brings me to the fourth point in favor of sticking with Ellis: the timing just isn’t that pressing. It’s still more than two years until the 2019 World Cup. That leaves plenty of time to bring in a replacement should it be necessary. Obviously, there’s some danger in waiting too long, but we’re still months (probably years) out from that inflection point. For now, there’s not much danger in giving Ellis another six months to show that she’s learning and improving.

Setting benchmarks: what would constitute real improvement?

These arguments are not meant to inoculate Ellis from criticism. Quite the opposite. I have tried to lay out the best positive case for her efforts in order to show just how much they depend on anticipation of future improvements.

Her experiments show some promise, but mostly haven’t panned out. Her inclination to use players out of their natural positions has produced a few successes, but often creates more problems than it solves. Even if the underlying motivations for the three-back were smart, the second-level choices about that system have been pretty baffling, and the execution poor. There have been problems at almost every level, from personnel (Long at center back) to structure (refusal to deploy a true defensive midfielder) to execution. In fact, the flaws here have been so egregious that it invites serious questions about whether Ellis ever really had a coherent plan to start with.

She deserves all the criticism she’s come in for on these points.

So, while I’ve made the case that she deserves a chance to see if this work bears some fruit, time is beginning to run out for her to show that she’s doing more than just spinning her wheels in this role.

US Soccer doesn’t need to make a change, but if Ellis can’t show real evidence of improvement over the next six months, her position will grow increasingly untenable. Over that time, the US will play a pair of matches against Russia and Norway, as well as an anticipated mini-tournament over the summer. That’s (most likely) seven matches for Ellis to show that she’s learning her lessons, and really does have a plausible long-term plan for getting the US back on track.

Some key questions to consider: does she understand how France was able to load so much pressure into attacking spaces and why Long and Short were so badly exposed? Does she now see the danger in employing wingers with limited defensive capacity, while failing to include a designated defensive midfielder? Does she understand just how much Carli Lloyd served as a dead weight in possession?

And if she did see these problems, how will she respond? Will the forwards begin to do better making runs off the ball to generate space? Will Lloyd continue to play the full 90 with regularity? And if so, will she begin to the make the runs needed to get the midfield triangles moving? Will the deeper central midfielders develop better chemistry, and demonstrate more comfort on the ball, or will they continue to shuttle the ball wide as quickly as possible?

These are crucial questions, and US Soccer will do well to keep a close eye on the answers. These can now serve as benchmarks. If Ellis seems to be learning from her mistakes, if the players remain on board, that is an indication that she should remain at the helm. If not, then it really will be time for change.