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It’s time for Jill Ellis to prove she can learn

Two away friendlies this week provide an important test of whether the USWNT coach has what it takes to fix the team’s problems

Japan v United States Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

Three months ago, I wrote a piece arguing that Jill Ellis deserved more time as USWNT head coach, and said that the ‘next six months’ would be crucial for showing signs of progress. Since we’re now halfway through that time period, it seems like a useful time for a status report, and a reflection on what specifically we should be looking for in the upcoming Scandinavian friendlies.

Roster selection: glimmers of progress?

There hasn’t been much action for the National Team over the past few months, with just two (fairly pointless) games against Russia on the calendar since the end of She Believes. Still, we can at least take a look at Ellis’s roster decisions, in order to look at how she envisions the team. And there is some good news here.

First, and most important, Ellis does seem to be demonstrating some interest in form, offering several call-ups to players who have performed well in the NWSL this year. First on that list is Abby Dahlkemper, who has been one of the best defenders in the league over the past calendar year, and has a good argument for being the second-best center back in the US pool behind Becky Sauerbrunn. She has also demonstrated the ability to flourish in a back three, dominating the right side of North Carolina’s backline in several games this season. If the three back is still going to be part of the USWNT arsenal (as I think it should), bringing in Dahlkemper would be a good step in the direction of building a functional system.

Ellis has also called in Abby Smith to serve as the backup keeper for this tour – another good sign. With Ashlyn Harris out for two months, there was a clear opening, and it would have been easy for Ellis to simply stick with Jane Campbell as the preferred #3. But Campbell has only played once this year (with disastrous results), while Smith has played every minute for Boston, and looked excellent doing so. Regardless of what Ellis thinks about who will ultimately become the ‘keeper of the future,’ right now, bringing in Smith was the right call.

Finally, the initial roster included a name that had been long absent from the national team fold: Jaelene Hinkle. While she has since withdrawn for personal reasons, this was another good sign from Ellis. Hinkle has been excellent for North Carolina this year. And while we now won’t get a chance to see how Ellis was thinking about using her, it’s also possible that this is another good sign that she has learned some lessons from the drubbing by France. Hinkle is precisely the sort of player that can slot in at wing back and provide good service going forward without completely sacrificing the defense.

A short roster: sifting through the tea leaves

However, the news isn’t all good on the roster construction front. The initial lineup started with 21 names. After Morgan Brian and Alex Morgan were ruled out for injuries, Ellis only brought in one replacement (Lynn Williams). Now, with Hinkle also absent, the number is down to 19. This by itself isn’t a terrible sign. It’s a short break and involves quite a bit of travel. Given the expense of adding a few names to the end of the bench, who might not even make a gameday roster, going with a short roster is defensible.

However, looking at the 19 names now included does bring us back to many of classic questions about Ellis. In particular: where is the defense? The roster includes six listed defenders, but from that group, Kelley O’Hara has mostly been used as a forward this year by Sky Blue, while Julie Ertz has only played one game in the backline for Chicago. That means that the roster currently includes only two players (Dahlkemper and Sauerbrunn) who have spent meaningful time at center back this year.

Meanwhile, even given the short roster, there still doesn’t seem to be space for a Sarah Killion or Dani Colaprico—genuine holding midfielders, who can exert control over a game and impose a bit more structure. Certainly, players like Sam Mewis, Allie Long, and Lindsey Horan can play centrally and do much of that same work. Mewis in particular is looking more and more like a dominant central presence. And it’s also possible that Ellis will use Ertz in that deep-lying #6 slot, where she has been most successful for Chicago this year as well. Still, with roster space available, this would have been a perfect chance to bring in a true holding player, even if just to try her out for a half.

Ellis has shown a strong preference over the years to load the field with as many attackers as possible, and the overall team shape has suffered accordingly. The roster she is taking to Scandinavia doesn’t do much to suggest that she’s changing her colors on that front.

What to watch for against Sweden and Norway

With all that in mind, what should we focus on in these two friendlies? If we want to get a better sense of whether Ellis is addressing some of her blind spots, the single most important theme is quite simple: is there evidence of a coherent plan motivating her decisions?

Here, I am relatively agnostic about what specific things Ellis needs to accomplish in these games. All I want to see is evidence that—whatever goals she sets—she genuinely commits to them, and has a plan about how her decisions here will lead toward long-term results.

Perhaps she sees this as a perfect test for the three-back. Her initial move toward this approach was, after all, motivated by a desire to resolve the problems from the Olympics against precisely this level of opposition. Or maybe Ellis hopes to use these games to test out options for the #10 role, testing out Lavelle or Pugh in that role. Or, given the injury to Alex Morgan, she might see this as a chance to build a team around Christen Press. Perhaps she wants to give Sydney Leroux a solid chance to demonstrate her form.

These would all be reasonable goals, and there are plenty more possibilities as well. The key point is that these goals will often conflict. If the goal is to truly test the three-back, then you need to build the whole team around that concept. That may mean dropping players who are better in an overall sense, but who can’t fulfill specific designated roles as well. If the goal is to truly give Press a chance to shine, that means setting the rest of the attack up in order to make that work. If the goal is to test out Lavelle as the playmaker, that means building a midfield that can support her in that role.

There are plenty of useful things Ellis could attempt to do with these games, and there’s no real way she can achieve all of them. All we should really hope for is evidence that she has a plan, and that her decisions move the team forward in a logical and coherent direction.

However, within that broad framework, there are two smaller questions that deserve investigation.

First, how does the midfield look? As noted above, the poor American performances over the past couple years have often been driven by a lack of control over the central midfield. Now is the time for Ellis to show that she can set her team up to dominate that space. Sweden and Norway are both good teams, but neither can reasonably hope to out-possess the US—even at home. Instead, they’ll most likely focus on building a stout defense, pressing the ball closely in the center of the pitch and looking to shuttle play out to the wings. This is precisely what the US faced last summer when they fell to Sweden in the Olympics. It’s time for Ellis to show that she has developed.

Second, how many minutes does Carli Lloyd play? Lloyd remains a useful player, but she can also be frustrating and listless, and her lack of movement is often devastating for the US possession game. It’s certainly possible that the best US team in 2019 will include a prominent role for Lloyd, but it’s also very possible that it won’t. Ellis needs to start making a serious effort to think about what the team can and should be without Lloyd in it.

Process, not results

The US hasn’t truly looked like the best team in the world for a long time—maybe even going as far back as the knockout rounds of the 2015 World Cup, when the central midfield of trio of Brian, Holiday, and Lloyd created a solid fulcrum on which the whole team could balance. Ever since, that sort of coherence and clarity has been missing, even as the team has been able to mostly churn out results. If Ellis can get the team playing with that sort of precision again, it would be a real sign of progress. Conversely, if we get more of the same—lethargic movement, inconsistent structure, messy passing—it will be one more nail in the coffin.

Still, whatever happens in these games, it would be a mistake to draw too many conclusions. It certainly would be a problem if they play as poorly as they did at She Believes, but this is a short camp, and the first away international friendlies the team has played in years. If they look a little sluggish, it would be understandable. At the same time, the US should win these games. Sweden and Norway are both good teams, but they are also clearly a cut below the top tier of squads in the world. A couple victories would be nice, but would hardly provide conclusive evidence that Ellis has turned a corner.

Ultimately, the real goal here is to plant some seeds, which will then be given a chance to flower later this summer at the Tournament of Nations. So certainly, pay some attention to the results. But pay more attention to the process.