With a couple of days to reflect on the U.S WNT loss to Sweden and its elimination from the 2016 Olympics; here are four thoughts on where the defending world champions go from here.
1) Make Solo Fight for Her Place
And no, this is not because the combustible goalkeeper made some stupid remarks in the wake of Friday’s disappointing loss when she called Sweden “cowards” for employing a clever and clearly effective defensive strategy to frustrate and eventually defeat the favored Americans.
The comments were in epically bad taste but Solo is a competitor and not for Miss Congeniality. Simply put the 35 year needs to prove that she is still the best option for the U.S. WNT as it heads to the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France and then on to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Solo’s age combined with an up and down performance at these Olympics means she cannot be an automatic selection going forward. That doesn’t mean that she should be scrapped, just that it is time for some other options to get a real look.
Before selecting Alyssa Naeher to back up Solo in Rio coach Jill Ellis expressed faith in Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, should she need to use them in Solo’s stead. A pair of September friendlies against Thailand (9/15, in Columbus, Ohio) and the Netherlands (9/18, Atlanta, Georgia) is the perfect time to put that confidence to the test.
Portland Timbers keeper Adrianna Franch received a camp invite earlier this year from Ellis and she also deserves consideration, and Ellis should be scouring NWSL keeper tapes for other candidates.
2) What Exactly is the Plan?
One thing Solo had right in her post game rant was that the U.S. is a more talented team than Sweden, but for all that depth of talent the U.S. could not break down Pia Sundhage’s well-organized defense on Friday.
And it wasn’t as if Ellis could have been surprised by the Swedish approach, after all, the teams tied 0-0 in last year’s World Cup. That makes it fair to note that Ellis was out coached by her former boss. Bringing recovering Megan Rapinoe along backfired when Sundhage had to replace the crafty winger in extra time after a short run out as a sub but sometimes gambles work and sometimes they don’t.
The bigger problem for the U.S. continues to be how to get all that talent on the field at once. The back four wasn’t perfect in Rio, Julie Johnston’s injury didn’t help, but given the amount of the ball the U.S. had versus Sweden surrendering one counter attack goal shouldn’t have been a problem, meaning the Americans should have won by a score of 3 or 4 to 1.
So, let’s look further up the pitch. Ellis’ problem remains finding a defensive midfielder and a distributor. During the World Cup buildup striker Lindsey Horan was partnered centrally with Morgan Brian. Both are natural attackers but the pair seemed to be meshing.
For the Olympics, Ellis replaced Horan with her Portland Thorns teammate Allie Long. Long seemed a better fit defensively, if Brian could pull the strings. Brian had a couple of “second” assists but most of the U.S. creativity came from Tobin Heath, who was playing out wide.
Maybe it is time to hand the creative Heath the keys to the U.S. engine room alongside a strong defender (Julie Johnston?), instead, the Timbers creator finished Friday’s match at fullback when the Rapinoe move backfired.
3) An Embarrassment of Riches that Must be Managed
Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Crystal Dunn, Mallory Pugh, a healthy Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Christen Press, and returning duo Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux.
That is a lot of talent and not too many members of the coaches union will be feeling sorry for Ellis but it is her unique challenge to fit all of these pieces together. Lloyd reminds me of Clint Dempsey with the U.S. MNT. Exactly where she fits is hard to say, she seems more a second striker than a midfielder at this point, but like Dempsey when her team needs a goal in a game that matters, it is usually Lloyd that produces.
But can Lloyd and Morgan work together up front? And how do you keep Dunn off the field? She was the most dangerous American player versus Sweden. Pugh is the team’s best winger at the moment and who can even guess how good she can be, and while Press, Leroux, and Rodriguez have all played other positions, they are all strikers at heart.
It may be a case of too much of a good thing but Ellis has three years to fit this puzzle together.
4) Yes, Ellis
The U.S. has never before failed to qualify for the Olympic final, winning in 1996, 2004, 2008, and 2012, while settling for silver in 2000.
Should this result cost Ellis her job? No, of course not. Winning the first World Cup for the U.S since 1999 last year in Canada buys Ellis some time.
But the strange schedule in the women’s game means that real competition will be hard to find between now and 2019, still as Ellis’ predecessor Tom Sermanni found out when he was axed after a seventh place finish in the 2014 Algarve Cup, in this job the pressure is always there.