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5 ways the United States women can replace their suspended stars

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A couple of big-time players won't play for the USWNT in the World Cup quarterfinals. Coach Jill Ellis has a lot of different options for coping without them.

The United States women head into their World Cup quarterfinal match against China knowing that they'll be forced into a couple of changes. Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe will both be suspended due to yellow card accumulation, and they've been key players in this tournament.

While Holiday has struggled, she's very clearly first choice in midfield, to the point where Jill Ellis hasn't tried anyone else in her spot. Rapinoe, on the other hand, has not struggled at all. She's been by far the Americans' most effective attacking player and will be a huge miss. She has no like-for-like replacement and other players will need to step up in her absence, because no one can replace her output. She's been her side's most dangerous and creative player while creating space for others by getting double- and triple-teamed.

Ellis has a lot of options for switching up her team, though she's probably not going to do anything dramatic. Here are five possible setups, starting with the one you're likely to see on Friday.

Option 1: What we think Jill Ellis will do

football formations

Jill Ellis has already said that Morgan Brian is the most likely candidate to replace Holiday, while Rapinoe said she thinks Christen Press can fill her role.

Brian is a lot like Holiday -- a true attacking midfielder who's very technically skilled, and has some experience playing in central midfield, even if it's not her best position. She has the same strengths and weaknesses as the person she's replacing.

The other swap is a slightly different story. Press has mostly played striker and right wing for the USWNT. She's not quite as tricky as Rapinoe, or as good of a passer or crosser, but she's a very good dribbler and goalscorer. It's likely that Tobin Heath switches wings while Press plays the side she's more familiar with.

Option 2: A more threatening and solid 4-4-2

football formations

So Press is more familiar with playing on the right, but that doesn't mean she should play there. What if the USWNT played with two totally different kinds of wingers that offered different threats? One that's good at beating her defender down the touchline and crossing, and another who's opposite-footed and can cut in and score? Plus, if Press has a tendency to drift in toward the back post, it'll give Heather O'Reilly three targets to cross to instead of one.

This is the lineup that releases the exiled players who should be playing more than they are. O'Reilly hasn't featured at all, and Amy Rodriguez has only come in sparingly, despite being the most in-form of the team's five forwards coming into this tournament. This team gives opposing defenses a bit more to think about than the one Ellis is likely to deploy.

And at this point, it's clear the two-woman midfield with two non-midfielders isn't working. Let's introduce Shannon Boxx, shall we? There are concerns about her age, and that she's lost a step, but she's been included in the team. If she's good enough to make the roster, why not use her?

Option 3: The 4-3-3 every analyst is crying out for

football formations

If you listened to former coach Tony DiCicco during Monday night's broadcast or follow literally anyone who regularly tweets about this team on Twitter, you've heard the cries for a 4-3-3. This is a team light on true wingers, loaded with great strikers and in need of solidifying in midfield. So this solves a lot of problems, right?

Maybe. It puts a lot of strain on the fullbacks, who have been decent, if unspectacular. Meghan Klingenberg and Ali Krieger don't look like they're capable of providing just as much attacking support as defensive cover. If they don't bomb forward, this team is going to suffer from a serious lack of width.

Moving Julie Johnston into midfield is also a questionable move. It might be her best position going forward, but she and Becky Sauerbrunn have been a spectacular tandem during this World Cup. Breaking them in-tournament is an extremely risky move.

An alternative version of this setup, with Johnston still in defense and Boxx in the holding role, might be the best team the Americans can field at the moment. But it's a big "might" -- the fullbacks are still a big question mark in a setup with no real wingers.

Option 4: How do we solidify the midfield, keep Johnston back and keep 2 strikers?

football formations

Why not take a page out of the American men's playbook? When in possession of strikers who are best with a partner and lacking good pivot players, as well as good wingers, why not go to a diamond midfield? The same question about the fullbacks remains here -- in a setup with no wingers, they have to get forward to provide width -- but that's probably the only real downside.

Boxx, Brian and Carli Lloyd all need some cover, and this is a way for each of them to have their deficiencies masked by their teammates. Heath hasn't been great out wide, but she's a great technical playmaker -- maybe moving her into the hole will get the best out of her? And maybe an advanced playmaker is exactly what this team needs to start creating quality chances from possession-based build-up play.

Option 5: What's another way to solidify the midfield and keep 2 strikers?

football formations

This is clearly a highly speculative column, so let's have some fun. The U.S. hasn't played with a back three at all recently, so breaking it out for the first time in the World Cup quarterfinals is a bad idea, but doesn't the team have some pretty great personnel for this setup? Johnston and Rampone are fast, ball-playing defenders and Sauerbrunn's perfect for the covering role in the center. Lori Chalupny and Kelley O'Hara aren't great fullbacks in a back four, but they're spectacular wingbacks in a three/five.

In a fantasy world where the U.S. were ready to execute this tactic, it fixes multiple issues. The midfield is more solid, but Boxx isn't asked to run too much. The fullbacks can provide width knowing that they have some cover. There are still two strikers. Plus, an extra center back should mean a more dangerous team on attacking set pieces and a more solid team on defensive ones.


We could argue endlessly about which setup suits the USWNT's available personnel best, but the alternative options all look quite a bit better than the team Ellis looks likely to field. The Americans have some problems, and she should make some attempt to address them, instead of making near-like-for-like changes in a team that isn't playing well and hoping for the best.

There is a ton of talent in the United States squad. Ellis should make some attempt to actually play to their strengths.