The United States women beat Spain 2-1 on Monday in spite of their head coach, not because of her. That much is a fact.
The USWNT survived and advanced thanks to a soft late penalty in a game that saw upstart and plucky Spain rise to the challenge and go toe-to-toe with one of the best squads in the world. It didn’t have to be that way.
Jill Ellis had about four or five potential substitutions staring her in the face as early as halftime, and yet she didn’t make her first change until the 85th minute, a frankly inexcusable fact. If she remains that passive against France in the quarterfinals, the United States will be headed home faster than you can say “free Carli Lloyd.” While the U.S. eventually came out victorious thanks to a soft penalty with 15 minutes to go, the sigh of relief does not exonerate Ellis on the day she matched the USWNT career games coached record.
Ellis said before the match that both Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz, who had missed World Cup group stage time with minor injuries, were “fine.” It was obvious that Morgan was not “fine” as she appeared to be running with a piano on her back, unable to make her trademark runs between the lines and nowhere to be found on counter-attacks. At one point in the second half, Morgan found herself on the ball down the right flank in acres of space, and instead of charging into the space, she waited for a defender to close her down before firing a speculative long-ball towards the box that deflected off the defender and landed harmlessly in front of the Spanish goalkeeper.
If it wasn’t clear Morgan was injured by her play on the field, it was obvious as the game wound down when, as she was set to take the second penalty, a switch was made to Rapinoe during the VAR review – if Ellis knew Morgan was too hurt to take a viable penalty, how could she possibly contribute in open play? With Carli Lloyd and Christen Press on the bench, Ellis fell asleep at the wheel, instead preferring to see a hampered Morgan trudge around the pitch for 85 minutes before mercifully making a change well after the U.S. had retaken the lead in fortunate fashion.
While Morgan toiled up front to little return, Megan Rapinoe also had one of her worst games in a USWNT shirt down the left flank, despite her brace from the spot. The U.S. co-captain was continually dispossessed, choosing to barge into defenders and fall over rather than look to beat them one-on-one and deliver her patented vicious crosses from deep in the corner. Rapinoe’s Spanish marks Marta Corredera and Lucia Garcia down their right were more than up to the task, continually stopping Rapinoe in her tracks and flipping possession. With Mallory Pugh ready to go on the bench, Ellis was again caught napping as Rapinoe faded further and further into oblivion. She was almost invisible in the second half, at one point receiving the ball for a counter-attack and slamming on the brakes, ending the danger with a back-pass that forced Fox commentator JP Dellacamera to incredulously exclaim – after a moment to process the ruined opportunity – “It seemed like it was on.” You could feel him shaking his head.
Finally, there was the pre-match decision to sit Lindsay Horan, one of the most valuable U.S. players. While it’s difficult to criticize the decision to leave Horan out – with the midfielder on a yellow card, a calculated risk to sit her before a potential meeting with France is an understandable and defensible strategy, even if some may not agree – her decision to then bring Horan on with one minute remaining in regulation and seven minutes of stoppage time was absolutely unthinkable. The end of an overly physical game is a breeding ground for a late flurry of cautions, and if Horan had sat the majority of a tough match before coming on in garbage time to earn a suspension against France would have been utterly deplorable.
Ellis had a plethora of possible substitutions at her disposal, each of which would have likely swung the game in the U.S.’s favor, and yet she sat on her hands for 85 minutes before the game was in hand. Tobin Heath took a beating in the second half and could have used a change as the game wore on. Becky Sauerbrunn hardly covered herself in glory on occasion. Sam Mewis and Rose Lavelle were the best players on the pitch but had little help in the final third.
But don’t take my word for it, take Andy’s.
With a highly anticipated quarterfinal against France now confirmed, Ellis must be far more assertive on the touchline if the United States is to match up against an opponent who can match them not just physically but also technically. No disrespect to Spain, who deserve all the credit in the world for not only bringing a disrupting amount of situational physicality to the pitch but also a superior tactical game plan, but the test on Friday against France will be even more difficult. As a fellow favorite to win the title and as host nation sure to draw a hostile environment for the Americans, France will prove a worthy opponent and have all the talent needed to prove a legitimate threat. It wasn’t easy for the French either in the Round of 16, needing an extra-time goal from Amandine Henry to squeeze by a down Brazil side, but they will still be up to the task.
After the stinker against Spain, the U.S. head coach must be up to it as well, or the Stars & Stripes will be going home from the 2019 World Cup disappointingly early, and will only have themselves to blame. Against France, there will be moments where a substitution will be necessary to regain hold of the game or fill a gap the opponent is good enough to exploit. Jill Ellis must face the truth: there’s nowhere to hide against the hosts, and the only way to get by such a daunting task will be an aggressive approach off the bench.