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USA wins the Tournament of Nations: four things we learned

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After a long time in the wilderness, the US is finally starting to play like the best team in the world

2018 Tournament Of Nations: Brazil v United States Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

The United States concluding the Tournament of Nations last night in resounding fashion with a 4-1 victory over Brazil that secured a first place finish in the event. Here are four things we learned from these matches.

Jill Ellis is finally playing to her strengths, and it’s producing much better results

The US spent some time in the weeds over the past couple years, in a period of ‘experimentation’ that often felt ill-considered and poorly executed. During that period, the players often appeared lost, playing well below their intrinsic ability, and struggling to impose themselves on games. The offense in particular was far more stagnant than it had any right to be considering the personnel available. And whatever stability was occasionally found was quickly disrupted as key players fell to injuries or loss of form. The results weren’t terrible, but the performances were far below what US fans have come to expect. Despite endless promises of a new, silkier, more possession-oriented style of play, success always seemed to be just beyond the horizon, with old habits dying hard: play getting shuttled around the midfield, and offensive buildup remaining stagnant.

In the last year, however, they’ve generally settled into a system—a relatively straightforward 4-3-3, with a defensively-minded holding player at the pivot of the midfield, and with attacks generally being led by quick movement down the wings. This system is hardly the most innovative, but when you have the best players in the world, innovation can be less important than simple effectiveness. That’s particularly true when your head coach is a good player manager, and tolerable when it comes to broad themes, but not particularly strong on intricate design.

Moreover, by settling the style of play, this new approach finally seems to have created some space for the creativity of the players to shine through. The US is still relying on speed and athleticism, but it’s also increasingly giving its more technical players opportunities to shine. This is still not Guardiola’s Man City or Sasaki’s Japan, but the US is now dominating not just by force by also sometimes by style. They’re controlling possession, creating channels with off-the-ball movement, and moving the ball quickly through tight spaces. Witness the interplay between Heath and Lavelle against Brazil or the emerging relationship between Dunn and Rapinoe on the left.

This is still very much a Jill Ellis team, which means intense focus on racing up and down the wings and a midfield that’s more focused on disruption than possession. But it’s far more successful iteration of the model.

The defense is shakier, but they’re more than making up for it

Through eleven games in 2018, the US has only managed to keep three clean sheets. But it’s hard to get too upset about this new defensive frailty, given the accompanying offensive explosion. After all, conceding one but scoring four creates a greater margin for error than those narrow 1-0s results they spent so many years eking out.

This is not to say that there is no reason for concern. The US was shockingly exposed on a number of counterattacks during the tournament, in games they were otherwise dominating. That is a real problem, and certainly something that the team will be working on in future training camps. But to a certain extent, this is simply a feature of their high-pressing, aggressive tactics, which push the game heavily into their opponent’s half and create those spaces that can occasionally be exploited.

It’s a tradeoff worth accepting, but they’ll need to get better at executing if they want to protect those leads they plan to acquire. That means:

  1. Dropping to shield space rather than attack the ball when their opponents are coming at them, at least until you reach the vicinity of the goal (see the Brazil goal)
  2. Greater willingness to give away tactical fouls where necessary to break up plays before they become truly dangerous (see the Australia goal)
  3. Getting better at setting up the counterpress for when possession is lost. Too often the team overcommits to the attack, leaving holes exposed which opponents can quickly punch through

Each of these is achievable. And while they won’t prevent this sort of attack entirely, they’ll do a bit more to manage the risk.

The midfield is alright, mostly

Many followers of this team (including your truly) have spent years fixated on the broken midfield. Those problems persist, but finally seem to at least be under control. In this 4-3-3, Ellis generally designates one player to serve as the pivot, in more of a traditional holding role, asking the others to move more horizontally to link with the wide attack. At times, this can make building through the middle quite difficult. But Ellis has never cared much about that sort of development, and at least this system grants its midfielders more options to shield possession where needed, and then link with their wide support further upfield.

That means that while the midfield remains a weak point, it’s only weak in relative terms. The structure enables more fluidity than the old double-pivot that so often stagnated in previous years. By sacrificing a bit of defensive solidity, the US has gained quite a bit more flexibility.

It also helps that the midfield options have expanded significantly. Installing Julie Ertz as the #6 at this tournament last year made a huge difference, and she continues to be a critical contributor. Meanwhile, Lindsey Horan is in the midst of a breakout season—very impressive considering the quality of performance she was already offering before this year—and offers more physicality and insightful movement to the midfield. Absent significant developments, Ertz and Horan seem like locks for the World Cup next summer.

But the US is blessed with a wealth of other options, who provide different skills, giving Ellis tools to tweak her team’s play without fundamentally shifting the structure.

There’s Rose Lavelle, finally finding her way back into form after a year spent on injury walkabout, reminding us of just how exciting she was last spring. She made an immediate impact against Japan when she entered as a sub, but her true potential was made clear in the Brazil game, where her combinations with Tobin Heath on the right were wonderful—the sort of intricate play the US has so long been missing.

Then consider McCall Zerboni, who is busy proving that her 2017 performance was anything but a fluke. She picked right back up in 2018, and showed over the course of several appearances here that she can be a valuable contributor: offering bite, aggression, and flexibility to the US midfield. Against Brazil, Zerboni allowed Ertz to push further upfield, to excellent results. Against Japan, she offered vertical movement that put the defense under serious pressure

Morgan Brian also seems to have finally turned a corner in her recovery. She’s still a step or two off her peak, but is far closer than she’s been over the past 24 months. The acceleration still isn’t quite there, and the touch still seems a little rusty. But the vision and awareness remains off the charts. In the past couple years, she’s been in and out of national team camps based primarily on talent and potential, rather than on form. At this point, the performances are good enough to say that she deserves a spot in the rotation even if there’s no further improvement. And if she can make that next step back, she could return to being one of the world’s elite midfielders.

Finally, remember that the US barely used Sam Mewis in this tournament—arguably their best player in 2017. When she completes her recovery, it will be hard to argue against her inclusion.

For a team that spent so long struggling to build a coherent and sustainable midfield, the US suddenly finds itself with a wealth of options. There are still plenty of question marks here (will Lavelle and Brian be able to return to their absolute peak? Will Zerboni be able to maintain her form? Will Mewis get healthy enough to play a full consistent 90?) but the future seems a lot rosier here than it did even a few months ago.

The competition is fierce, but the US should be considered favorites to retain the World Cup next summer

After a difficult season in 2017, the US women were teetering on the edge. The gap between them and the rest of the world seemed to have closed entirely, or maybe even shifted to the other side. They had sputtered in She Believes and the Tournament of Nations and seen some of their key rivals expose their frailty in the process. The mystique of the US was gone.

One year later, things seem to have settle back into familiar patterns. At this point, it would be exceptionally hard to argue for anyone besides the US as the world’s top team—after a year in which they have gone undefeated while running a gauntlet of matches against virtually every serious competitor.

The performances haven’t always been pretty, but the results have been good. And increasingly the style seems to be filling in behind the results. The US decisively outplayed their opposition this week, exposing Brazil and Japan as far weaker teams than one might have guessed from their rankings, and putting Australia under serious pressure as well.

The level of parity in women’s soccer has never been higher, and it would be foolish to treat success as a foregone conclusion, especially in a single-elimination tournament. After all, the US nearly lost to Australia this week, in a game that they actually played quite well. But all things considered, the US remains the team to beat.