Talking tactics: United States needs changes ahead of Women’s World Cup quarterfinal

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OTTAWA, Ontario – U.S. coach Jill Ellis often tells the story of her message to the team in May 2014, when she took over the position permanently following the controversial firing of Tom Sermanni: “Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you’ll get run over,” she wrote on the blackboard.

It’s clear through four games at this Women’s World Cup that something has to give.

Perhaps it won’t matter in the end that the United States women have been underwhelming at this World Cup. They are through to the quarterfinals, favored against China and three wins from claiming their first World Cup crown in 16 years. But with France or Germany looming for a potential semifinal, the U.S. certainly would not be favored against either team on current form.

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U.S. players know they haven’t been good enough, but they take solace in the fact that they’ve managed to win ugly.

“At the end of the day, we all know we’re not playing our best football and we’re still finding ways to win,” U.S. midfielder Carli Lloyd said. “I think that’s the history of this team – no matter if it’s good, bad, we still find a way to get it done.”

There is still a belief – a hope – that things will come together in due time, which is of course quickly running out.

“When it finally does click, we’re going to be very fearsome,” said U.S. defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who has been the glue to a defense that hasn’t given up a goal in 333 minutes.

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China plays a 4-2-3-1 formation, a highly-organized, defensive system that isn’t easily broken. The United States has struggled against teams which play with more numbers than them in the midfield, most notably against Australia and Colombia and, to some extent, against Nigeria as well.

Such issues, combined with the suspensions of Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday from Friday’s matches, have many calling for a change to the formation – or system, as Ellis prefers to call it. That seems highly unlikely, however.

“At this point, it’s not about changing a shape,” Ellis said Thursday. “I’ve said this: A lineup is just an alignment of players. It’s how you play within any shape. It’s really about how mobile we are. It’s really about what we commit to in terms of how we want to play. And again, it’s about selecting the right tools that we think will be beneficial in this match.”

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By the sounds of it, Lloyd will push higher into the attack – her more natural position – and put more of the defensive duties on 22-year-old Morgan Brian, who is best known for her ability to create in the middle of the field. Lloyd said earlier this week that the United States’ deeper line of confrontation makes it harder for her to play the way that she would like to play.

“For me, I love to attack,” she said. “I had a decent shot last game. I need more of that. I need to get the ball and I need to run at players, I need to create stuff. I need to find a way to impact the game, no matter how it’s going.”

Despite an increasing amount of scrutiny for its style of play, the team’s mood remains optimistic – outwardly, anyway.

“In front of you guys, it is about keeping it positive,” Ellis said to journalists on Thursday. “Positive comments for my players, keeping them in a good mindset. But yeah, we met and they understand. They understand that we’ve got to continue to raise our level with each round. It’s not a matter of being satisfied.”

Players have faith in the plan, whatever it may be on Friday.

“We’re just following the direction of our coaches, the coaching plan and doing everything they ask of us,” Lloyd said. “At the end of the day, I’ve got full confidence in everyone and faith in everyone that we’ll eventually find our rhythm. We’re working, we’re grinding, the effort’s there. We just need to put it all together on the field.”

Should it all come together, the U.S. is capable of beating any team in the world. That much has never been in doubt, even before the tournament. The talent is there, but execution needs to match it. Thus far, it hasn’t. Friday is another opportunity to change that.