Jill Ellis, the U.S. women and whether a “wrong experiment” exists

Sometime last night, while the U.S. women were losing to Brazil (before the frenetic last 10 minutes yielded an improbable 4–3 win), WoSo Twitter was melting down.

And it wasn’t without reason. I found myself recalling that Tom Sermanni lost his job for far less experimentation than Jill Ellis has been doing in 2017.

But the consensus is that Sermanni was unjustly fired, isn’t it? Wouldn’t we (mostly) agree that it’s a good thing that no block of veteran players is going to grumble every time the lineup changes and force U.S. Soccer to start from scratch?

Some of the concern on Twitter was about this elusive “chemistry” that the team might lose by shifting things around. But we’re still two years from the next World Cup. As it stands now, the players in the best form are Megan Rapinoe and Christen Press. Who’s to say it won’t be Crystal Dunn and Tobin Heath in 2019?

National teams have to experiment at some point. Otherwise, we get situations in which, say, only one goalkeeper and two central defenders have any experience. That’s not good.

Now the question is whether Jill Ellis is choosing the right experiments. She has plenty of time right now, but it’s not unlimited. The team won’t play enough games to try every possible permutation of 40 or so players. The 3–5–2 formation trotted out earlier this year may be best saved for the time the USA would actually use it — trailing late in the game (like last night). We may also wonder why Lindsey Horan is getting a run at forward when we have plenty of evidence that says she’s best as a midfield playmaker, a position the USA has never had in abundance. (Arguably none since Aly Wagner.)

And yes, Becky Sauerbrunn at defensive mid was an odd call. I can see a bit of a case — she hasn’t been flawless in 2017, she could surely do the job, and moving her gives other players an opportunity. But there’s little doubt her best position and the team’s greatest need are in central defense.

Yet the experiments do yield some results. At this point, the clear choice for defensive mid — a position occupied by converted forwards all too often — is Sauerbrunn’s former partner, Julie Ertz. And if you had to pick one forward right now, you’d have to pick Christen Press. We can also conclude that Megan Rapinoe’s run of form in the NWSL is no fluke.

All that said, Ellis may still need to try other people in those positions this year. Players lose form and get hurt. That’s why the U.S. men rarely field a recognizable lineup from one game to the next in friendlies and the Gold Cup group stage.

It’s taken us nearly 20 years to realize a national team needs more than 15 players. Don’t spoil it now!

And let’s be clear — a lot of the failings you saw last night had nothing to do with unfamiliarity. Abby Dahlkemper isn’t sending weak passes back to the keeper because she’s not familiar with her defensive partner. Alex Morgan isn’t failing to spot her passing options because she doesn’t know Press or Dunn. (Maybe playing a bunch of blowouts in Lyon didn’t sharpen Morgan’s form. I’d be tempted to argue that playing in England might have hurt Dunn and Carli Lloyd, but it didn’t hurt the English national team!)

And still — the USA didn’t play that badly last night over the whole 90 minutes. The first Brazilian goal was a shot that Alyssa Naeher saves 99 times out of 100. After consulting with the Laws of the Game and a few refs, I’d say the ref erred in giving an indirect kick for dangerous play instead of a penalty kick when Sauerbrunn took a Holly Holm-style boot to the face — the intent may not have been there, but the Laws do mention “contact,” which obviously was.

Rewind to the 2008 Olympic final. The USA beat Brazil in that game because Hope Solo played out of her mind and Carli Lloyd took a shot that changed her life. The gap between the USA and Brazil has historically not been huge.

If you’d said before last night’s game that the USA would concede a goalkeeping howler, concede a goal on a world-class free kick, be robbed of a penalty kick and see Dunn, Morgan and Mallory Pugh squandering chances, would you have predicted a 4–3 win? Probably not.

So let’s not excuse everything. Maybe spread some of the blame to the players, some of whom are simply not at their best right now for whatever reason.

And we can hope Sauerbrunn stays on the back line from now on. Otherwise, on to the next experiment … (maybe Campbell at keeper? Or Krieger with Sauerbrunn in central defense?)

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