The USWNT is performing exactly how Jill Ellis wants, but will it work against the best?

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It doesn’t look pretty. In fact, it looks quite clunky. Solid possession is at a minimum, the midfield can’t seem to get a hold on the game, and long balls often stifle creativity.

But despite what the eye test is telling us, the USWNT is performing exactly as Jill Ellis wants.

The biggest question now isn’t whether they’ll start playing better anytime soon. They already are at or close to their best. This is the apex of what we’re going to get. Don’t expect anything prettier, don’t expect anything more fluid, or you will be sorely disappointed.

[ USMNT: Gold Cup roster | Possible lineups ]

No, the question isn’t when this team will peak. Ellis has this club playing a strictly defense-first mentality, and with just one single goal conceded all tournament, they’re playing at optimal levels.

Julie Johnston has emerged as the team’s best player, and her center-back partner Becky Sauerbrunn is happy to operate at peak performance in her shadow. While television analysts clamor for the wing-backs to bomb forward and provide some help to the patchy creativity up front, Ellis has Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger sitting comfortably in defensive positions on the flanks.

So when you consider this team has conceded just one goal through four matches so far, and they’ve scored just enough each time, Ellis doesn’t care about any other numbers. While analysts, journalists, and fans clamor the “yea but,” none of that matters to the USWNT right now. That is why, when they found themselves scoreless at halftime against a clearly inferior Colombia side on Monday, nobody looked panicked, frustrated, or concerned in any fashion – they had kept the other team scoreless, and knew that one or two were on their way into the back of the net at some point, no matter how awkward the goalscoring was destined to look. Here’s the expected goals tally for that match:

Sure Alex Morgan is still far from her best. Sure Abby Wambach looks less and less useful. But 0.2 xG for an opponent is a complete and total defensive shutdown, and that’s priority #1 for Ellis. Sure it ain’t pretty, but it’s worked – so far.

And that is the elephant in the room. Not if this team will peak, not if this team will start to look more fluid, more attacking, more cohesive up front; none of that is going to happen. No, the true question mark plaguing this team is do they have enough to hold teams like Germany, France, or Japan off the scoreboard?

When you play to concede zero rather than score three, that is the biggest concern. Sure, the United States has given up just one goal all tournament, but in the only match they did concede – the opener against Australia – it truly felt like they were in trouble. They also drew Sweden, but taking 0-0 to extra time in the knockout stages would feel like advantage US. It’s when the USWNT concedes a goal that the plan begins to unravel.

And that is where the concern lies. The attack of Germany has utterly decleated nearly every defense it’s faced thus far. Can the United States truly play a defensive style and expect to come out with a 1-0 win against a team like that?

Jill Ellis has this USWNT performing exactly how she wants it to at the moment, but when the time comes to put her money where her mouth is so to speak, the fate of the United States’ World Cup hopes lies firmly with the back line. If they can hold the best attacks in the world off the scoreboard, the United States will rumble, bumble, and stumble its way across the finish line to hoist the trophy that has so eluded Abby Wambach and the rest of her teammates. If they can’t, they will go home empty-handed.