MONTREAL – If you subscribe to the theory that fortune favors the bold, then inductive reasoning would prove that on Tuesday.
United States coach Jill Ellis switched up her team’s system against world No. 1 Germany in the 2015 Women’s World Cup semifinal and it worked to perfection, leading the Americans to a 2-0 victory and a second straight trip to the World Cup final.
Ellis faced major lineup decisions coming into this game, the answers to which would define this World Cup for the United States.
On the surface, what Ellis did on Tuesday may not seem overly risky. She played what many viewed in the walkup to the match as her best possible lineup against Germany, managing to get central midfielders Morgan Brian, Carli Lloyd and Lauren Holiday all on the field at once.
But Ellis has received immense criticism for her decisions at this World Cup and in the buildup to it. She started 35-year-old Abby Wambach in three of the first four matches of the tournament. She tried playing Lloyd – her best attacking central midfielder, as once again evidenced at this tournament – as a wide midfielder in the spring. And at times early in this tournament, the Americans intentionally stuck to a more direct style of play.
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Ellis is unapologetic about marching to her own beat. She says she doesn’t read what is written about her or her team in the media. She doesn’t have Twitter. She operates within the team’s “bubble,” which she and players speak of frequently.
“In terms of what’s out there, yeah, I don’t know what’s out there,” Ellis said on Monday regarding criticism of her and her team.
What was out there up until last Friday was largely negative. The Americans were winning, but they were winning ugly in a way that everyone – even they – knew wouldn’t be good enough against the world’s best teams.
U.S. players weren’t immune to that. They acknowledged all last week that they were playing below their standards.
In Friday’s quarterfinal victory over China, Ellis was forced to make changes due to the suspensions of Holiday and Megan Rapinoe, and the U.S. boss pushed all the right buttons. She did exactly that again on Tuesday, playing Lloyd in a withdrawn forward role behind Alex Morgan and letting Brian and Holiday sit underneath in more defensive “No. 6” roles.
It’s a system that the United States has barely used. It was implemented in the final 20 minutes of the round-of-16 victory over Colombia last week, but that was the first time using is since a trip to Brazil in December. So to turn to it in a World Cup semifinal against Germany – in a matchup of the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 teams – was bold, no matter how you slice it.
“You live and die by these decisions as coaches,” Wambach concisely said after Tuesday’s win. Even benching Wambach – the world’s all-time leading scorer – the past two games is a move that takes guts.
The United States women were spectacular on Tuesday, putting in a convincing 90-minute performance that most outside of their bubble wouldn’t have thought possible the way they played early in this tournament. But Tuesday was vintage United States, back to the days when the Americans took the initiative, pressed teams and shoved the result down their throats.
That energy set the tone for the game, and Germany looked rattled from the start, settling for poor shots from distance that never tested U.S. goalkeeper Hope Solo, who only had to make one save on an early shanked cross.
Germany entered the match with a tournament-high 20 goals and 134 shots. The U.S. won the battle, however, extending its shutout streak to the nearly immortal mark of 513 consecutive minutes without conceding a goal.
Luck was certainly on the side of the Americans. Defender Julie Johnston was only shown a yellow card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity in the 59th minute. By the letter of the law, she should have been shown a red card, but the yellow allowed the U.S. to carry on with 11 players, and Celia Sasic missed the penalty kick after a lengthy delay of gamesmanship from Solo. Eight minutes later, the entire game changed. Morgan drew a penalty kick, Lloyd buried it and the rest is history.
“The rule says yes, but she didn’t get a red card,” Germany coach Silvia Neid said. She added that she is “very sad” that the game-winning goal came on a penalty kick that arguably should have been a free kick outside of the box (“My first reaction was I already wanted to build the wall,” Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer said. “Then I was a little bit confused that it was a penalty.”). However incongruous the statements, Neid said she wasn’t making any excuses despite the controversial decisions by referee Teodora Albon.
But Ellis made the crux of the argument in one short statement in the minutes that followed. Were the decisions questionable? Absolutely.
“Between the 18[-yard-boxes], we were a very good team,” Ellis said.
That’s the heart of it. The United States is finally playing its best soccer, peaking at the time when they told everyone they would, even though the evidence was slow to materialize.
Ellis, for all the criticism she takes – even if she is truly oblivious to it – deserves credit for making the necessary moves to get this team going over the past five days, even if it did take a while to do.
Sure, Ellis’ hand was forced against China due to suspension. Sure, a little bit of luck was on the Americans’ side against Germany. But Ellis got it right for the second straight time on Tuesday, and the U.S. has caught fire heading into the World Cup final.