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SheBelieves postmortem: three back to the drawing board

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Yikes. But also some good stuff happened too.

2017 SheBelieves Cup - United States v England Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Okay, let’s just rip off the bandaid. The United States came last in their own mini-tournament, managing one goal in three games, just barely beating a listless Germany and getting beaten by England and France. Not only did they get beaten by France, France held them by their ankles and turned their pockets inside out while shaking them up and down to get at their loose change.

But the picture is not completely bleak. Here are the things we learned, good and bad, from the 2017 SheBelieves Cup.

The three-back needs to remain a situational tool

SheBelieves was supposed to be the test of the three-back system that Jill Ellis has been trying out for several months now, and boy howdy did they get an answer. France demonstrated the weaknesses in the system with great gusto; namely if the entire team is not operating on the same wavelength to pull back and absorb attacks, then they leave nice big swathes of space for a talented team to exploit. You combine that with nearly everyone on the pitch having a bad game against France, and that leads to a back three exposing their goalkeeper several times. Just watch France’s third goal.

Casey Short has left a giant gap behind her despite the fact two of her teammates are already converging on Thomis. Short can’t catch Perisset before she makes the cross. Meanwhile Allie Long doesn’t see Camille Abily behind her while Alyssa Naeher points and shouts at the white jerseys entering her box. Sauerbrunn does her best to try and cover Abily (which leaves another French player open far post) but it’s too late. Short and Long also had a bad time dealing with Eugénie Le Sommer and it showed.

On the one hand, you can to a certain extent admire that Ellis was willing to keep the three-back for a full 90 to see if they could adjust. On the other, it might have also been instructive to see if the team could shift into a four-back again, demonstrating their ability to use three in the backline as a situational tool and not a default setup. It’s not that the three-back is de facto bad, but it needs the right personnel and needs to be used in the right way at the right time. The France game (and parts of England and Germany) demonstrated that Long and, surprisingly, Julie Johnston don’t really fit into the middle of that three.

And to be really, scrupulously fair here, the three-back probably deserves at least one more look against a French-style team on a day when everyone isn’t having a really bad individual game. It wasn’t entirely the defense’s fault. We saw that when Mallory Pugh and Crystal Dunn came on, they were able to compensate somewhat in a way that led to a couple of hopeful opportunities. If Rose Lavelle or Carli Lloyd or Morgan Brian had been firing on all cylinders from the start then this could have been a very different game.

The forwards can’t score if no one is helping them

Speaking of Carli Lloyd, she did not have a good tournament. As the one consistent piece sitting behind the front two that Ellis kept switching around, that central channel was where many attacks went to die. Lloyd’s connection to the front two was minimal no matter who the pairing was, leaving it to the wingers whether that was Tobin Heath, Rose Lavelle, Crystal Dunn, or Mal Pugh. Lloyd just seemed off; her passing was lacking and her first touch left her exposed for a turnover a lot, especially against France. She had limited looks on goal too (see above re: turnovers) which made it kind of baffling that Ellis gave her so much time and started her for all three games in a row. Lloyd is a player of extremes; either she’s banging in that 35-yard screamer and breaking into the box like it’s a Las Vegas casino and she’s George Clooney, or she’s not really doing much. Ellis rotating her forwards, trying to find a front two who could score, was hobbled by the continued placement of Lloyd behind them.

There’s hope for the midfield

For all that, there is hope. The difference between midfields from first game against Germany to second game against England was really heartening. Sam Mewis and Lindsey Horan were solidly good in that second game, and of course there was Lavelle’s stellar debut - which Ellis really didn’t help by switching Lavelle left to right to central, then starting her on the right against France. But we’ve seen that somewhere in the United States roster, there is a midfield that can nicely link between the back line and moving the ball up the field as one without getting hassled into turning it over. In that England game there were a lot of times when a player like Mal Pugh would smartly hold up play with a simple tap back and allow everyone to swarm up together. There are players in the pool - and young ones too - who can think their way through an attack as well as look comfortable in possession. Did they break down a lot against France? Yes. American players got hassled into lots of turnovers and French mids like Abily picked their fair share of pockets. But every team has bad days, and the result against France should be seen more as a combination of wrong formation with bad execution. If it had been wrong formation but everyone played well, or right formation but everyone had a bad day, probably the US could have made something out of that game.

If Ellis can study this game and make the appropriate changes, then this result should end up being the results of an experiment and not a regular occurrence. As for whether Ellis actually will make those changes, well - we’ll see.