For the first hour or so, this was shaping up to be one of the worst performances from the United States in recent memory. They fell behind 3-1 and looked as lost as we've seen them in years. Then, with a flurry of goals in the final 15 minutes, the world turned upside down, and the US came out the other side with a famous comeback. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's get into it:
There is a ton of talent on this team, and a ton of spirit
Watch the final quarter of the game, and you’ll see an energetic team, moving the ball with pace and direction. Christen Press, a player that many of us have been hyping for years—incisive, perfect touch, incredible vision, a vicious shot. Mallory Pugh, a player who could grow into a generational talent. Megan Rapinoe, a stalwart who has played her way back to her peak. Julie Ertz, a true engine of a holding midfielder, seemingly able to lock down the defense while still getting forward. Kelly O’Hara, indefatigable, relentless, impossible to mark.
Watch another game, and you might see some of these same players performing like this. Or you might see a different set. The US roster is simply bursting with top-level talent. And the classic American spirit—never giving up, never saying die, fighting until the last moment—is still there too. Put that together and you get a team that will never truly be out of it. No matter how bad they look in the moment, it’s always only a few steps away from everything kicking into overdrive.
That is an important point, and one that shouldn’t be undervalued. On a day when both Germany and France (the two closest challengers for that FIFA #1 ranking) were eliminated from the Euros, watching the US scrap back to earn a victory was a reminder of what has often been the core of the US team’s success over the years. They don’t necessarily look the best, but when the chips are down, they just manage to find a way.
Talent and spirit aren’t enough
But while there were obvious positives from the game, there were clear negatives, too. As good as they looked in those final minutes, they looked just as bad in the other three-quarters of the game. During that time they were incoherent, disjointed in possession, poor on the ball, and timid. The communication among the back five was atrocious, with Naeher looking as bad as we’ve seen from her in years. The experiment with Sauerbrunn in the midfield turned out precisely as well as you’d have expected. The forwards were languid at best. The team shape was wretched.
We can sometimes fall in the trap of judging things relative to our highest expectations, and lose perspective in the process. No team can be at their best all their time, and there will be occasional lulls. It’s important not to overthink every mediocre performance.
That’s not what was going on here. This wasn’t a mediocre performance from a good team. This was just…bad. So bad that it’s almost impossible to believe that they were ‘only’ down two goals once the recovery kicked in. And so bad that it’s hard to imagine how players of this quality could be so poor.
Experiments are good, but you need to be clear about what you’re trying to learn
Jill Ellis has stated that she sees the opening nine months of 2017 as an experimental period. A time far away from major tournaments, in which she has the freedom to try out new things without too much concern over the results. And that’s a perfectly legitimate way to think about things. This is a time to experiment, and it’s absolutely worth it to sacrifice a few victories now if it will improve the team’s chances in 2019.
But this presumes that these experiments are generating useful information. There’s an old computer science term ‘GIGO’ which applies here. It stands for ‘garbage in, garbage out.’ No matter how sophisticated your program, if you feed in meaningless information, you’ll get garbage coming out the other side, too.
So the problem isn’t that Ellis has been experimenting. It’s that she never seems to be clear about what exactly the experiments are, nor about what exactly a given experiment is actually supposed to teach us.
At the largest level, this stems from a lack of clarity about what these games are actually for. It’s not ‘win at all costs.’ It’s not ‘give new kids a chance.’ It’s not ‘lock down our best tactical setup.’ It’s not ‘experiment with new tactics.’ It’s not ‘give our best XI a chance to get more comfortable.’ Or, to be more accurate, it seems to be all of those things at once. Which means it ends up being none of them.
Ellis says decision to play Sauerbrunn in 6 was to keep check on Marta, give Dahlkemper chance to lead line and put Short's pace in middle.— John D. Halloran (@JohnDHalloran) July 31, 2017
This provides a perfect encapsulation of the problem.
There’s actually plenty here that makes sense. Many of us have been screaming for months (years even) that Ellis would do well to play a genuine holding midfielder, who can lock down the center of the pitch and free up other players to be more expansive. Abby Dahlkemper could use a game as the ‘leader’ of the defense. She’s still learning, but trial by fire is a great way to improve. Casey Short isn’t a center back and shouldn’t play there regularly, but it’s nice to have the flexibility and there can be circumstances where her pace might be more useful there.
Depending on what you want to get from the game, you can make a case for each of those individual decisions. But put them all together, and then combine them with an existential fear of losing, and you get something verging on total incoherence.
Because while you’ve just made an excellent case for trying out some of your depth options at center back, your fear of losing means that instead of giving poor Becky Sauerbrunn a bit of a rest, you move her to the midfield. To fill a holding midfield role that is arguably one of the single deepest positions in the entire US player pool. Julie Ertz has been stupendous in that role for Chicago this year, and played it well in the latter stages of this game. And the NWSL is full of other players who excel here: McCall Zerboni, Tori Huster, Sarah Killion, Dani Colaprico, Angela Salem.
The end result of all this frenetic shuffling is an unbalanced and incoherent team setup, with players out of position and no clear sense of what was even supposed to be learned from the process.
Now is the time to experiment. But experiments only work if you start with a hypothesis and can learn something from a null result. All that the US learned from the opening hour of last night’s game was: never do that again.
We should take them at their word. Ultimately, this is about process, and the process was terrible
There’s a strange game of ping pong going on in conversations about the US Women’s National Team. The narrative going into the tournament was ‘it’s all about the process’ and that fans were too focused on results. And this is true! Obviously results matter, but at this point in the cycle it’s about improving, learning, and developing.
Which is precisely why we shouldn’t let last night’s result overwhelm our sense of judgment. It was an amazing comeback and a wonderful experience in the moment. Don't lose sight of the grit, determination, and skill that went into the recovery. And don't ignore the quality on display in those waning minutes. But at the same time, don't forget why it was all necessary in the first place.
By rescuing a victory, the team presumably bought Ellis another decent length of rope. But we should take them at their word. At this point in the cycle, it's not about the results; it’s about where this is all going.
And right now it’s not at all clear that this team knows where they're going, much less how they can expect to get there.