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Kim McCauley | July 9, 2015

The USWNT got revenge for the past and a blueprint for a dominant future

The United States women’s national team are World Cup champions, and they couldn’t have pulled it off in more exciting fashion, obliterating Japan in the final, 5-2. Golden Ball winner Carli Lloyd provided the exclamation point with the greatest goal the competition has ever seen.

It didn’t always look like their four-year journey would end happily. There were some dramatic twists and turns, resulting in a coach getting fired and rumors of a player revolt. The replacement coach’s competence was questioned. The players never looked like they’d come together to make a real team.

But in the end, they showed up everyone.

Watching Japan’s first goal in the 2011 World Cup final never gets less painful. Even if you know what’s coming, even if you know the result, and even if you know the United States beat Japan the next two times they faced off in major finals, you can’t help but put your head in your hands.

Christie Rampone passes the ball directly to Japan. Rachel Van Hollebeke falls over on her first clearance attempt. On her second attempt, she inexplicably plays a square ball right in front of her own net. Aya Miyama scores.

Van Hollebeke loses her mark on the second equalizer as well, with Homare Sawa — the Golden Ball winner — getting a step on her during a corner. Hope Solo is somehow beaten at her near post.

Then the penalties: a spectacular kick save, a blast over the bar, a horrible slow-roller. Only Abby Wambach scored.

The United States absolutely threw away the World Cup. They had all the good chances leading up to Alex Morgan’s opening goal and should have been up by three or four at that point. A 1-1 draw in regular time was a poor result, but they redeemed themselves, scoring in extra time. Then they blew that, too. The USWNT had never missed a penalty in the World Cup up until this match, but they blew the shootout as well.

As spectacular as their comeback against Brazil and their two final goals were, losing the World Cup final was an unmitigated disaster for the United States. They couldn’t let it happen again.

Coach Pia Sundhage came under some criticism for her rudimentary tactics, but it certainly wasn’t heavy, and she remained in her post for the 2012 Summer Olympics. But that tournament and Sundhage’s departure afterwards were still decisive, marking a transition point — would the program’s downward momentum continue, or was it time to blow everything up?

It turned out to be the former, partially thanks to Norwegian referee Christina Pederson. In Canada, she’s a criminal. But she’s one of the most important figures in the history of American soccer.

Canada was the better team in the Olympic semifinal. There’s no need to deny it. Canada outplayed the United States and might have gone on to win 3-2 if Pederson didn’t make two questionable calls. They weren’t clearly wrong, absurd or egregious errors, but they were questionable calls and Canada had every right to be upset about them.

First, the indirect kick given for holding on to the ball too long. Erin McLeod hadn’t been warned for it earlier and the application of the rule was swift and harsh. The whistle blew after she’d held the ball for six seconds, and it’s such an infrequently enforced rule that McLeod was genuinely confused about what the referee had called. On the ensuing free kick, the ball hit Adriana Leon on the upper arm or shoulder, depending on who you ask, and the USWNT was gifted an equalizer.

Morgan scored the final U.S. goal in the 123rd minute, sending the USWNT to another final with Japan, which they would go on to win.

The Americans put in a great performance in that match, but going on to win the gold medal and get revenge for the World Cup loss wasn’t the major turning point that it should’ve been. Had the U.S. lost a close-fought battle to the World Cup champions, it might have stung, but it wouldn’t have been a signal to start over. What really mattered was not losing to Canada. That would have resulted in a complete and utter blow-up and a re-considering of everything the senior national team does. Instead, in the afterglow of winning the gold, they tried a mixed approach — having a new coach blend in young, technical players while influential veterans stuck around. It took a while for problems to emerge, but this went poorly.

Tom Sermanni was supposed to be a slam-dunk hire in 2012. U.S. Soccer had a panel interview a variety of candidates and Sermanni was the one they determined the be the most qualified, and for good reason. He’d guided extremely young Australia teams through the World Cup group stage in back-to-back tournaments and had a reputation for dealing well with big egos. He’d know how to be critical of vets Wambach and Lloyd while getting the most out of Morgan and Sydney Leroux. He’d get younger players up to speed and mold the next generation of great USWNT talent.

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Tom Sermanni was supposed to be a slam-dunk hire in 2012

“U.S. Soccer has always been at the forefront of supporting the women’s game, and it’s exciting to coach the team in this next chapter of its history,” Sermanni said after he was hired. “After coaching against many of these players for years, I am looking forward to working with an accomplished group of veterans while integrating the numerous talented young players who are itching for a chance to prove themselves.”

Sermanni said all the right things. So did national team legends.

“I have known him for many years and think he is a great coach. And that he is a player’s manager type of coach,” former USWNT star Julie Foudy told Beau Dure. “But is a strong personality who can also ‘crack the whip’ (quote from many of current players) as many of the current players want.”

Sermanni asked his teams to play a more possession-oriented style of soccer than they had played under Sundhage, which was seen as a positive. Women’s soccer has been gradually moving away from an athlete-dominated game as smarter and more technical players come through the ranks. Japan’s two straight final appearances were evidence of that, as were the improving technical ability of the top two teams in Europe, France and Germany.

Out were Sundhage’s converted central defenders at fullback, in came the converted wingers. Out went the athletic, direct midfielders and wingers, in came the likes of Yael Averbuch, Kristie and Sam Mewis, while Tobin Heath was handed a key role. Sermanni was willing to utilize the pace and power of his young superstar strikers, but technical ability was his No. 1 requirement for midfielders. At first, it worked — the U.S. won the 2013 Algarve Cup, beating Germany in the final.

But things went south a year later at the same competition. Sermanni entered the 2014 Algarve Cup with an undefeated record, including multiple wins over Canada and others against Germany and Brazil. But a draw with Japan, a one-goal loss to Sweden and a bizarre 5-3 loss to Denmark sent the USWNT to the seventh-place game, where they defeated North Korea. It was a bad result, but featured only one truly poor performance — the first of his entire tenure as coach. That was enough to get him sacked.

Sermanni didn’t even seem too upset about getting canned. ”I’m disappointed that things didn’t work out, but I’d like to thank U.S. Soccer for the opportunity to have coached this team and also the staff and players for all their hard work,” he said in a statement he let U.S. Soccer put outAllison McCann of FiveThirtyEight called the decision “rash,” since Sermanni’s winning percentage was better than April Heinrichs and Greg Ryan, while Foudy wrote that “it just doesn’t seem fitting treatment for a man with such class.” Wambach was forced to come out and say that the players didn’t try to get him fired after rumors of a revolt emerged as explanation. Steven Goff of the Washington Post reported that a source told him the players weren’t “learning anything, there’s no vision, no direction, nothing.”

Enter Jill Ellis.

No one has hung around the top of the U.S. Soccer coaching food chain without becoming head coach longer than Ellis. On multiple occasions, while still serving as head coach at UCLA, Ellis was U.S. U-20 and U-21 manager, as well as the senior side’s assistant manager. Since leaving UCLA to take over as USSF’s development director, she’s served as senior team assistant manager and twice as interim manager. And in 2014, she was finally named the full-time head coach of the United States women’s national team.

Kent C. Horner/Getty Images

On this short of notice, with under two years to prepare for the World Cup, no one could have possibly been more qualified for the job. And in addition to her excellent resume, she’d been the assistant manager or youth coach for almost everyone in the senior player pool. There wasn’t going to be a serious adjustment period — the players knew Ellis and what she was about.

They quickly praised Ellis as a true coach, someone who could make them better. “It took us a while to see the angles and to see how that changed everything,” Christen Press told Leander Schaerlaekens at Fox Soccer during CONCACAF’s Women’s World Cup qualifiers, “but as we’ve progressed through this tournament it’s become quite clear that we’re starting to get it. We’re really growing into the way she wants us to play. The vision is there. The progression to the type of team that we’re going to, it’s starting to click.”

This was the message. The Americans’ average performances against Canada and France, followed by a terrible performance against Trinidad and Tobago, were just growing pains. The team was getting it. Ellis had a vision that she was implementing and the team was starting to play the way she wanted them to.

Then came a 1-1 draw against China, a 3-2 loss to Brazil and a 0-0 draw in a rematch. Fans were worried, but those last two matches — from an exhibition tournament in South America — were not easily viewable, so a lot of fans weren’t sure of exactly the degree to which the squad was in disarray. Then came another France game.

The dedicated, year-round USWNT fanbase might be smaller than most teams’, but there isn’t a single fanbase with higher expectations. Even the craziest, most outlandish college football boosters aren’t calling for anyone’s head when their program loses one game, falls short of the national title but wins a New Year’s bowl. In the case of the United States women, any loss is a reason to panic — just ask Sermanni.

On Feb. 8, France bulldozed the United States in a friendly. The score was just 2-0, but it was striking how easy the game was for Les Bleus. The Americans couldn’t get the ball off them to save their lives. When they got it, they quickly turned it over. The only attacks they could generate were from passes that played Morgan or Press into space, which they produced sparingly.

Once France scored — which they did only after missing two easy chances and forcing Ashlyn Harris into two world class saves — the game was over. They controlled possession and Ellis’ side had no idea what to do about it.

The game was the perfect microcosm of what was wrong with the United States and, by extension, Ellis. They needed a defensive midfielder to win the ball back and more technical players who could keep it. France’s style was the future, the USWNT’s style was the past and the Americans were going to get embarrassed in the World Cup semifinals if they didn’t make a drastic change. Quickly.

But the USWNT got a rematch against France a month later in the Algarve Cup final, and although we didn’t know it at the time, that game was the real preview of what was to come at the World Cup. The Americans didn’t change their tactics and still had technically inferior players, but they had the better athletes. France had no answer for Julie Johnston’s set piece prowess or Press’ speed in the Americans’ 2-0 win.

The United States didn’t have to change to beat France. They just needed to be a better version of their fast, physical, direct selves.

Fransisco Leong/AFP/Getty Images

Noticeably absent in the USWNT’s Algarve Cup victory was superstar goalkeeper Hope Solo. She was serving a suspension because she reportedly let her husband Jerramy Stevens drive a vehicle owned by U.S. Soccer while he was intoxicated. He was pulled over and arrested for DUI. To most fans, this was the less egregious of her two alleged offenses during this cycle, but it’s the only one that exposed the federation to a potential lawsuit.

Her more scrutinized issue was her domestic violence legal case. On June 21, 2014, police were called to the residence of Solo’s half-sister Teresa Obert, and Solo was arrested on two counts of domestic violence. Obert claims that Solo attacked her then-17-year-old son repeatedly. Solo claims that she was the one who was a victim of domestic violence on the night of the incident.

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On the eve of an era-defining World Cup, no one talked about soccer. They just talked about Hope Solo

Solo’s case was dismissed because witnesses failed to appear in court, and prosecutors have appealed the ruling. They’re expected to file their argument by July 13. Solo was never suspended by U.S. Soccer for this incident, but calls for her to be kicked off the national team got a lot louder when ESPN’s Outside The Lines released a new report on the incident, after the World Cup had started and one day before the USWNT’s opening match. The report paints U.S. Soccer and Solo in a negative light, and Obert repeatedly asserts that Solo is a liar.

On the eve of an era-defining World Cup, no one talked about soccer. They just talked about Solo. All of the questions Ellis got to start her press conference the night before her team’s game against Australia were about Solo’s off-field controversies. People asked if it was appropriate to compare her to Ray Rice and Greg Hardy (it isn’t) and whether it’s okay to suspend players for alleged crimes (it is). Most television coverage of the team was dedicated not just to Solo, but pundits angrily complaining that they had to discuss Solo’s legal troubles when they wanted to discuss soccer.

As expected, and to the disgust of many, Solo remained the starting goalkeeper. She didn’t talk to the media during the tournament and all her teammates had to say when asked about her was that she wasn’t a distraction. Ellis managed the situation masterfully, making sure it didn’t affect the team as a collective. But no one in the program answered the big questions that remained: should Solo have been selected for the team in the first place? Would the USWNT have won the World Cup without her? Does it matter?

The answers are no, no and no. If fans want U.S. Soccer to put what they think is right above winning, they will have to show them by refusing to support a team that Solo plays for. Almost no one is doing that.

Solo’s selection in the national team wasn’t the only controversial one. During the build-up to the World Cup, Ellis’ roster selections were criticized for the lack of new faces, playing into the theory that veterans beefed with Sermanni for dropping their old friends in favor of youngsters in earlier tournaments. An astonishing 21 of the 23 USWNT players were 25 or older (10 were 30 or older) and the roster also had 10 players with 100 or more caps.

Crystal Dunn, Kristie Mewis, Tori Huster and Keelin Winters were the squad’s most notable young omissions. Shannon Boxx — 38 and not a regular starter — was the only true defensive midfielder called into the team. At 22 years old, Morgan Brian had played a bit in the position, but it wasn’t clear that Ellis saw her as a true DM, and Brian’s first World Cup start ended up being on the right wing. Lauren Holiday, who plays as a second striker or advanced playmaker for her club side, was converted to the defensive midfield role and had struggled there during friendlies.

And then there was Wambach, who decided she wouldn’t be playing club soccer ahead of the World Cup. She felt so secure in her position on the team that she didn’t think she had to play NWSL to prove herself, which many saw as outrageous. If a similarly legendary and old male player pulled the same stunt ahead of a World Cup, it’s highly unlikely that they’d be selected for the team. Wambach knew she was in no matter what, so she decided she didn’t want to deal with NWSL. The Old Girl’s Club strikes again.

Everyone knew that an older, sentimental squad was coming, but it was still terrifying to see. The team had almost no youth and there was no indication that anyone actually had to earn their spots. In addition to Wambach not actually playing soccer, Leroux was in poor form and had been traded twice by NWSL clubs because of it, while Morgan was injured.

No DMs to control the center of the pitch. All of the famous strikers in poor (or no) form. It wasn’t clear if this team was a real contender, or if they had a plan to become one.

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

The first four games of the World Cup seemed to confirm everyone’s worst fears. This was a decent team, one that could hang with anyone in the world, but not one good enough to win the World Cup. The two-woman center of Holiday and Lloyd was actually worse than anyone could have imagined. Wambach looked slow in her starts. Once Morgan came back, she looked like she was still working her way back to fitness. Leroux was as unimpressive as her club form suggested she’d be. No one who got a look at right wing was particularly great. The front six was a disaster.

“To be honest, I don’t think we’re playing our best football right now,” eventual World Cup hero Lloyd told Bleacher Report. “But we’ve got a lot of talent and depth on this team and we’re capable of a lot more — and we all know that.”

Megan Rapinoe and the back five were the team’s saving grace. Rapinoe was by far the team’s most creative player, setting up chances left and right from open play and dead balls while scoring twice in the 3-1 win over Australia. Meanwhile, the back line of Johnston, Meghan Klingenberg, Becky Sauerbrunn and Ali Krieger, with Solo behind them, were nearly flawless. After letting in a goal in the first half against the Matildas, they went 540 consecutive minutes without conceding, keeping Lotta Schelin and Celia Sasic — the two most lethal strikers in European soccer — completely quiet.

Things changed in the quarterfinal, when Lloyd scored the game-winning goal against China.

“How this tournament’s gone so far, I was a little bit restricted in the beginning games,” Lloyd said after the game. “I wasn’t able to express myself.”

Lloyd’s emergence from being a net-negative for her team in the first four games to being their best player in all of the final three, en route to winning the Golden Ball, was down to two major factors.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

The first is Brian’s arrival in the starting lineup. When Holiday picked up her second yellow card of the tournament against Colombia, it forced Ellis into a change in her midfield. That change was to bring in Brian who, in theory, should have been similar to Holiday — an out-of-position attacking midfielder. She played as a No. 10 at the University of Virginia and her lone World Cup start had been on the right wing. Instead, Brian was brilliant in the role.

“The coaches told me to hold a little more and let her do what she needs to do,” Brian said after the game. “That way Carli feels like she can attack more, and that’s good because we needed that.”

Asking her to hold is one thing, but getting the desired result is another altogether. And there was no indication that was going to happen. Earlier in the tournament, Ellis comically asserted that she had asked Lloyd and Holiday to play as “two No. 6s,” a comment that was deservedly mocked. Just because you tell an attacking midfielder to hold doesn’t mean they’re going to be successful.

But Brian was more than successful — she was outstanding. She was everything the United States had been missing up to that point. Her understanding of positioning and how to keep possession — plus her willingness to put in a hard tackle — far surpassed that of Holiday and Lloyd. She was the Boxx replacement that everyone thought didn’t exist. Out of nowhere, a 22-year-old advanced playmaker in her first World Cup became the tournament’s top defensive midfielder.

The second major factor in Lloyd’s emergence was, of course, Lloyd herself.

Because of the end result of this World Cup, no one cares about Lloyd’s years of poor play between the 2012 Olympic final and the 2014 World Cup quarterfinal, nor should they. But we have to acknowledge that it happened.

There is no world class midfielder who turns the ball more often than Lloyd. Ellis probably saw this, because she’s not stupid and she’s seen a few soccer games in her day, but she knew she had to stomach those turnovers. She could not run the risk of doing anything to damage Lloyd’s confidence. Benching Lloyd and publicly criticizing her were not under consideration, nor should they have been, even if she was scoring two own-goals a game.

It would have been more shocking if Lloyd didn’t score big goals in big moments. That’s just what she does. Four game-winning Olympic goals, three game-winning World Cup goals, three Algarve Cup final goals, two goals in the game that qualified the United States for the World Cup. When the games really, truly matter, Lloyd is there. Everything else is a warm-up.

What would have happened to the United States if France had converted one more of their huge chances in the quarterfinal against Germany? What if Germany star Dzenifer Marozsán didn’t aggravate an ankle injury in that game, and was available to start against the Americans?

Maybe it’s no different. Lloyd is captain clutch, after all, and might have made the exact same plays against a superior opponent. But there’s no denying that the Americans were incredibly fortunate to come up against Germany in the circumstances they did.

The USWNT also benefited from some favorable refereeing. Johnston should have been shown a straight red card for her foul on Alexandra Popp and Morgan was contacted outside the box on the penalty she won. But, at the same time, this was a mauling. Germany didn’t play well and got run over. The United States were clearly the better side.

What’s more incredible is that they beat the Germans at their own game. With Lloyd moved into a more advanced position — she was more of a second striker than a traditional No. 10 — and a midfield anchored by Brian and Holiday, the Americans were able to play keepaway. They passed the ball on the ground well, didn’t give it up and avoided hoofing aimlessly when they won the ball back from Germany. Not only did they beat the No. 1 ranked team in the world, but they did it by playing a style of soccer that everyone thought they were incapable of playing — especially against the technically gifted Germans.

No one saw the final coming — except Ellis, that is. She called her shot. Before the game, she said that she had focused specifically on set pieces, and the United States’ first two goals came on their first two designed set piece routines. And who were they designed to get shooting opportunities for? Lloyd, of course.

That’s not to say Ellis saw a 5-2 win coming, or Lloyd capping off a 16-minute hat trick with a goal from halfway, but she knew her team would win and that Lloyd would score. She was so calm, and almost smug before the match. “Oh, World Cup final? Yeah, whatever. No big deal.” And it wasn’t. They just bulldozed Japan. It was easy.

Pour one out for Azusa Iwashimizu, the inverse Lloyd. She’s a brilliant, world class central defender who has been absolutely horrific in all three finals against the United States. This was her worst of all — she was directly at fault for all of the first three goals and got correctly rage-subbed in the first half.

The degree to which Japan were utterly overwhelmed was astonishing, and it’s the type of game we’ll probably never see again. The USWNT were a group of players hungry for revenge and redemption — they could not lose to Japan in the World Cup final a second time. Had they come up against a soaring, spectacular Brazil side with Marta clearly leading the Golden Boot and Golden Ball races, the final might have been different. But instead, the bottom half of the bracket spat out the one team that the United States would be determined to beat down until their players re-considered whether professional soccer was really for them. They were bloodthirsty, and they attacked Japan like rabid animals.

Germany was the real test. This was just a coronation ceremony. The champs had already been as good as crowned.

So what’s next for the USWNT? It’s hard to tell. Even though Ellis was initially a stopgap, she almost certainly has the head coach job for another four years if she wants it. And even though she’s been around the coaching game forever, she’s only 48. She can do this for a long time. Maybe she aspires to be the greatest coach in the history of the sport? She has the opportunity to achieve that, if that’s the goal she wants to pursue.

A new generation of young talent will have to be bled in, even if it didn’t go so well the first time around. Wambach, Rampone and Boxx will ride off into the sunset while Holiday has surprisingly announced her retirement. Ellis will have to get more serious about finding a backup and successor for Solo, who is now 33. Other players on the wrong side of 30 (Lloyd, Sauerbrunn, Rapinoe, Krieger, Heather O’Reilly, Lori Chalupny) face difficult fights if they want to remain part of the team for the next World Cup.

There’s plenty of talent waiting behind them. NWSL is the most stable professional women’s soccer league to ever exist in the United States, while the Under-23 team won their most recent tournament. Lindsey Horan, a 21-year-old forward, dominated at Under-20 level and has been scoring at will for Paris Saint-Germain. There is just as much young talent in the USWNT pool as there ever has been.

An Olympic gold medal can be next. Winning back-to-back World Cups can be next. The United States women had an extremely bumpy ride to this title, but they have the infrastructure to stay on top. There’s every reason to believe that women’s soccer in America will keep getting better.

About the Author

The best thing about soccer is that there's always a game on somewhere in the world. Unless you like sleep. Then that's the worst thing about soccer.

My favorite game of all time is the second leg of the 2011 Copa Libertadores Round of 16 tie between Junior Atletico and Jaguares de Chiapas.