When Lauren Holiday picked up a yellow card against Colombia, it looked like a sizable blow to the United States. They were struggling in that match, looking like they would have a very tough time against China if they got through. Losing Holiday -- a key contributor to the 2011 World Cup final run and 2012 Olympic gold medal win -- would be a problem given the USWNT's lack of midfield depth. Her replacement would either be 38-year-old Shannon Boxx or 22-year-old Morgan Brian, a true attacking midfielder who didn't look good in her first World Cup start.
But even if Brian was an attacking player in college and is likely to fill that role regularly for the Houston Dash, she has the instincts of a pure defensive midfielder, and looked good in that spot during the few run-outs Jill Ellis gave her in friendly matches. She stepped in against China and performed better than Holiday had to that point in the tournament.
That presented Ellis with a bit of a selection dilemma. Sure, Brian was great against China, but Germany was an entirely different animal. China backs off in midfield, but Germany pressures, and they're the best in the world. Despite her excellent performance, Brian was still inexperienced. Plus, could she really bench a player as good as Holiday?
The solution to this conundrum was a pretty clear one, but also one that no one thought Ellis would consider -- play both of Holiday and Brian, along with Carli Lloyd, and only start one true striker.
Given that the U.S. has five strikers on the roster, four of whom have excellent scoring records for the national team, plus one that dominated NWSL last season (Amy Rodriguez), national team managers have been forced to find ways to shoehorn two or three of them into the team at one time. Plus, Lloyd is undroppable, as are Holiday and Megan Rapinoe. So what to do? Usually, the answer is to play a really unbalanced team, but on Tuesday, Ellis picked the correct solution and left four strikers on the bench.
Maybe Ellis had this plan all along. Maybe she knew she could skate through the first five games with a non-midfield, and it was a bait-and-switch tactic designed to fool their semifinal opponent all along. After pulling off a 2-0 win against Germany with some great tactics, we have to acknowledge that possibility. A slightly more likely scenario is that Ellis saw what Brian brought to the table against China and realized what her team had been missing all along.
What Brian does for a team isn't exactly obvious, because it certainly isn't flashy. It mostly has to do with off the ball movement, positioning, and making decisions that mitigate risk above all else. Here's a set of not-so-obvious highlights from the Germany match.
All of that stuff is subtle and -- if we're being honest -- a bit boring, but it's stuff that Lloyd and Holiday simply weren't doing for the USWNT. With Brian doing the dirty work, the U.S. had more possession, conceded fewer dangerous attacks, and most importantly, her midfield partners were freed up to get forward and try creative passes.
If it wasn't clear to your eyes, it was clear in the stats -- Brian was dominant defensively.
Whoa. Morgan Brian had 10 interceptions and won 6 tackles. A lot of times defensive actions don't tell a whole story, but here... damn.— Michael Caley (@MC_of_A) July 1, 2015
This happened because Holiday got suspended. If she hadn't picked up that yellow card against Colombia, Ellis wouldn't have gotten a chance to see what Brian could do against China. She probably wouldn't have made such a dramatic lineup change against Germany, and even if she did, Brian wouldn't have gone into it with the confidence that comes with having dominated a quarterfinal. That suspension saved the USWNT's World Cup chances.