Washington, D.C. – The Three Back. Three at the back, call it what you will, learning the formation has been the raison d’etre for the U.S. WNT at the 2017 SheBelieves Cup.
In the wake, and I do mean wake, of the U.S. flameout at the 2016 Olympics coach Jill Ellis sent her team out in the three back set against the likes of Romania and Switzerland.
Results like 8-1 and 5-0 over Romania and 5-1 and 4-0 against the Swiss proved little but Germany, England, and France have been a far better litmus test, with France on deck.
Ellis’s three back is not Antonio Conte’s, a point the coach made clear when GotSoccer made the mistake of referring to Tobin Heath, Crystal Dunn, and Mallory Pugh as “playing as sort of wingbacks” in the 1-0 U.S. win over Germany.
“If they’re playing,” Ellis gently rebuked, “we consider them wide mids.” “A wingback,” the coach explained, “means you have an automatic; if you watch Chelsea they automatically drop into a five back. These guys are not dropping back into a back line unless they absolutely have to.” “So,” Ellis emphasized, “I don’t call them a wingback, they’re full steam attacking players.”
That had been the point of the question, how to defend with such an array of attackers on the field at the same time. As for the nomenclature, Heath laughed and said “we’re just people,” to the wingback/midfielder question adding that it is really about the principals of “how we want to play.”
“We want to attack, we want to have numbers, we want to control the game,” Heath said, as she enumerated those principals. “I think this gives us a lot of great options. We want to transition as a group and not just as players and we want to defend as a group too.”
A key to making the U.S. three back set work is the passing ability of the center back, which Ellis highlighted when she moved midfielder Allie Long into the position. How new is Long to the defensive role?
Let’s hear Long’s reaction to last Wednesday’s shutout win over the Olympic champion Germans. “Normal back lines are always so excited to get a shutout and that was my first, I guess.” Long laughed as she recalled, “they’re (her fellow defenders) like, yeah! And I was like, what are we cheering for? A shutout! Oh, awesome!”
No surprise then that the neophyte center back got her terminology wrong when asked about responsibilities of the back three. “Our wingbacks, Tobin and Dunn, are required to do a lot of work offensively and defensively,” Long said noting, “there is more of an emphasis on being organized, staying unified as a three back.”
Long has been a mainstay at the center of this formation generally flanked by Becky Sauerbrunn and Casey Short but Ellis has used the SheBelieves Cup to get a look at other players and GotSoccer chatted with Julie Johnston before training Monday afternoon at the University of Maryland.
Like Long, Johnston has made the switch from midfield to center back, slotting in next to Sauerbrunn prior to the 2015 World Cup. The move was an unqualified success with Johnston playing every minute in Canada as the U.S. won its first World Cup since 1999, with Johnston named to the World Cup Best 11.
“I like it,” Johnston enthused when asked about the formation change. “It’s definitely a new challenge, it’s fun to be able to play something that you haven’t played before and to learn a lot of different formations, so we can pull it out in certain scenarios.”
As a former midfielder Johnston replied she, “would like to think so,” when asked if her skill set translates well to the three back system. “For sure, I think playing other positions helped me,” the 24-year-old said. Johnston continued, “I like that the coaches expect us as defenders to be able to play with our feet really well, so it’s fun, it’s exciting.”
The Jill Ellis three back will get another runout tonight at RFK Stadium against the French, following England vs. Germany.
The SheBelieves Cup may be in the balance and the Americans want to win it, even if, as Johnston said, “the focus is on 2019,” and the World Cup.
“We want to win,” Johnston said firmly. “That’s just how our team is. We want to go out and play well, we want to win. That is our focus. We want to go out here and win.”