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USA vs Russia: what to watch for

More tweaks to the three back ahoy?

Soccer: International Friendly Women's Soccer-Japan at USA Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The United States will kick off one of two friendlies against Russia tomorrow as they take advantage of the FIFA match calendar’s April window.

The team is just coming off their weird and kind of disheartening SheBelieves performance, in which they managed to scrap together a win against Germany before losing to England and France. These losses were the result of a manager using an experimental formation with some players who were adjusting to new roles and Russia will probably be more of the same.

That’s not necessarily the worst thing in the world; being willing to lose in order to try out new things is the sign of a team that is growing away from rigid win-at-the-cost-of-development mindset. What fans should really be watching for in this pair of Russia friendlies is adjustment from Ellis if she continues to try tweaking her three-back.

Will Allie Long be better on the defensive side of the ball and improve her deep distribution? Will Ellis continue pushing Sauerbrunn wide, negating some of her value as a center back nonpareil, or will she give someone like Ali Krieger more time? Will the team do better at pulling back together cohesively, or will they continue to expose space in the defensive third? Will Rose Lavelle continue to get a roll out in a more stable position, or if she gets time, will she continue to get shunted all over the field? Will youth callups Jaelin Howell and Sophia Smith actually make the final roster? Will Megan Rapinoe make a fully healthy return to the pitch? Who will Ellis test out as a strike pair in front of Lloyd, especially with Amy Rodriguez in the mix? And will Ellis continue to build lineups around Carli Lloyd or will she risk seeing what the team can do without her for more than 15 minutes at a time?

Some of the answers to these questions are more obvious than others. Don’t bet on Ellis switching up her three-back too much, and yes Carli Lloyd will continue to dominate any discussion of the midfield. Rose Lavelle will probably go where Ellis tells her to go and it’s unlikely Howell and Smith will actually make it to the pitch. But it would be nice if these answers actually weren’t obvious and Ellis demonstrated more adaptability in her lineups. After all, that inability to adapt during SheBelieves is partly what got us an 0-3 scoreline against France.

Against an opponent like Russia, a team the United States has previously pasted 7-0 and 8-0, continued testing of the three back may be more about seeing how players individually perform within the system rather than putting any stress on the system itself. After all, the three back is supposed to be a tool for breaking down opponents by adding more pressure in the attack, but Russia is not likely to be the opponent that really stonewalls the United States regardless of formation. Short of Russia tetris-ing 10 players in the mouth of the goal into a wall, the US is probably good for some goals regardless of formation.

USA vs Russia game 1 kicks off at 8:30 ET on Thursday, April 6. It will air live on FS1.