The United States women's national team did as well as anyone could reasonably expect of them in the Women's World Cup group stage, finishing on top of Group D with seven points. They beat the presumed weaker two teams in the group, Nigeria and Australia, and drew world No. 5 ranked team Sweden. They now have an easy road to the semifinal. Mission accomplished.
Except this team hasn't been impressive in any way, and everyone can see it. For hardcore fans that watch poor quality streams of untelevised friendlies year-round, it's a continuation of a pattern. But even those who are tuning in for the first time in four years can tell this isn't the USWNT of old. They're just not nearly as impressive as they were last time around.
What happened? The game has changed and the United States haven't changed with it.
Tactics and organization used to be mildly irrelevant in the women's game -- the teams with the most talented individuals usually won. Japan's 2011 World Cup victory was a sign that the tide was turning a bit, but they still had Homare Sawa, the best player at that tournament. Four years later, the sport has shifted even more in favor of teams that are tactically and technically astute. It's a lot harder to win without defensive organization, good midfield positioning, off the ball movement and the ability to minimize turnovers.
To her credit, U.S. head coach Jill Ellis knows this. When Tom Sermanni was fired just under a year and a half ago, a source told Steven Goff of the Washington Post that it was because players weren't "learning anything, there's no vision, no direction, nothing." Ellis addressed this publicly shortly after she was hired. "I know what they want: They want to improve," Ellis told Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated. "Alex [Morgan] wants to be the best player in the world. She knows she has to improve. Every single one of these players wants to get better. Going in, I knew that wouldn't insult them. I knew that was exactly what they needed, in the sense that they know they have to evolve to get better. Even since 2011, teams have gotten better."
In another interview. with Leander Schaerlaeckens at FOX Sports, Ellis talked a great game.
"We can't stay where we're at. We've got to take the best of what we have and add more to it. ... The challenge for this team is: We're capable of keeping the ball -- can we do it more consistently? We're good enough to run by someone and play a ball in behind -- can we do it consistently? Can we really maximize our qualities that we have? You've got to keep continuing to seek and search and refine ... We are possessing to progress. Our possession is a tool. The more comfortable we are on the ball, the better we use that tool. It's really about moving the opponent and exploiting spaces."
A few days later, after the U.S. clinched a World Cup spot, Schaerlaeckens talked to a few players, who praised Ellis' vision and said they were improving tactically. "Jill has emphasized having a really big attacking shape," said forward and winger Christen Press. "It took us a while to see the angles and to see how that changed everything but as we've progressed through this tournament it's become quite clear that we're starting to get it." Abby Wambach and Carli Lloyd commented that they were learning new things as well, and that it was starting to translate on the pitch.
Fast forward to the World Cup and literally none of this is happening. It's fair to expect some rougher sailing at the highest level, but the U.S. doesn't look like it's living up to any of this talk. They're not moving well off the ball, their spells of possession aren't meaningful and they've resorted to pumping lofted balls towards the box when things don't go their way. They're all the bad things about the old USWNT, but because they're not committed to the style and they're not playing those balls early in spells of possession, they're even easier to defend against. And not only that, but their failure to implement this new attacking style has led to bad turnovers, which leads to them getting torched defensively on the counter. Not only are they failing to do any of the things Ellis has talked about, they've actually gotten worse.
Lying at the heart of this problem is the central midfield duo of Lloyd and Lauren Holiday. They make up a two-woman center that's supposed to quite a bit of running, creating and defending. Holiday isn't a true central midfielder and Lloyd isn't suited to a two-woman midfield in the modern game -- she's a runner, aggressive passer and scorer; she's not good defensively or in possession.
Ellis and USWNT analysts regularly refer to the two central midfielders as a "6" and an "8," meaning a true holding midfielder whose primary responsibility is staying in good defensive position and a box-to-box midfielder who has some freedom to get forward. After Tuesday night's win against Nigeria, Ellis was asked about Holiday and Lloyd's roles in this context and gave a strange answer.
Ellis also said that instead of playing with a 6 and an 8, they had Holiday and Lloyd pay as two 6's today. #uswnt— Jeff Carlisle (@JeffreyCarlisle) June 17, 2015
As Mike Goodman of Grantland points out, this was patently ridiculous.
Jill can say what she likes, Lauren Holiday was as much of a 6 for the USWNT today as I was.— Mike L. Goodman (@TheM_L_G) June 17, 2015
It was just the latest in a series of events where Ellis' comments and in-game actions do not match up. The words that she speaks almost never align with what happens on the pitch, or what players she selects for her team. There's no better example of this than the center of midfield.
There are four midfielders in the U.S. squad -- Lloyd, Holiday, Morgan Brian and Shannon Boxx. The former two aren't pivot players, Boxx is 37 years old and Brian is a utility player at this stage of her career -- she started on the right wing against Sweden.
The style that Ellis wants to play is just as much about positioning and winning the ball back -- primarily for central midfielders -- as it is about technical ability. Lloyd and Holiday haven't done well at circulating possession and creating chances for their forwards, but it's hardly their biggest flaw. The big problem with them is a pair is that neither of them appears to have any idea what they're doing positionally.
Here's Nigeria's best chance on Wednesday night, a 24th minute counter-attack.
There's nothing wrong with central defender Julie Johnston on this play. The problem is that there's literally no pressure on the ball, nor is there anyone between the passer and Asisat Oshoala that causes any kind of hesitation. The midfield is vacant. The USWNT literally has no midfield.
In what world are Lloyd and Holiday both playing as No. 6s here?
This is nothing new. This exact problem has existed since Ellis took over the team and she has refused to fix it. Even if she recognizes it right now, there is no great fix -- she left every last one of her real central midfielders at home.
Here's an incomplete list of midfielders suited to a two-woman center who have USWNT caps, U-23 caps or have been superstars for their NWSL teams in the last year: Crystal Dunn, Tori Huster, Sam Mewis, Jen Buczkowski, Yael Averbuch, Vanessa DiBernardo, Sarah Killion and Keelin Winters. Any of those players could be inserted into the USWNT lineup for Lloyd or Holiday, and -- despite having considerably less international experience and arguably less overall natural soccer talent than those two -- improve the team immensely.
Perhaps playing a 4-3-1-2 formation with no wingers or a 4-3-3 with one center forward could mask the team's current problem, but this squad's personnel isn't perfect for any of those systems, and switching to a formation they've never played before might be worse for the United States than playing with literally no midfield.
None of this is a slight on Holiday, the best American withdrawn forward, or Lloyd, who would excel in a three-woman midfield with a true holder and a deep-lying playmaker. They're just being played completely out of position, and it's in a position that should be of paramount importance to a coach who emphasizes keeping possession and changing with the modern game.
The good news for the U.S. is that they're going to get away with this for two more games. They'll play a mediocre third-placed team in the Round of 16, then China or Cameroon in the quarterfinal. Their next two opponents are worse than their group stage opponents, and the Americans have enough talent to scrape by them without a midfield. But when they come up against real modern midfielders like Germany's Dzsenifer Marozsán, Simone Laudehr and Melanie Leupolz, and a dangerous second striker like Alexandra Popp, we're going to see the USWNT's totally non-existent "No. 6s" exposed.
There's very little Ellis can do about it. All of the fixes are sitting at home. So how did someone who knows so much about the evolution of women's soccer get her roster so wrong?