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The USWNT is still a mess and I’m scared

The USWNT is barreling towards the World Cup with no idea what it should look like. It’s concerning ... and yet they can still win it all.

The United States women’s national team did not win SheBelieves Cup, its own tournament played entirely on its home soil. This is slightly, though not completely, alarming in a World Cup year. Congratulations to England for doing what the USWNT could not, and beating Japan comfortably to take the trophy.

More concerning than the USWNT’s results themselves — two draws and one win — was how the games unfolded. Head coach Jill Ellis set up her team to fail in the first two matches and was bailed out by brilliant individual talent, as is the USWNT’s usual mode of operation. Despite declaring last August’s Tournament of Nations as the end of the USWNT’s experimentation period and the start of World Cup preparations in earnest, Ellis continues to test wild ideas without any reasonable hypotheses.

If you’re wondering whether the USWNT can win the World Cup, the answer is yes. The United States have the deepest talent pool on the planet by far. They might not have any of the top five players in the world, but they may have 10 of the top 30, something no other country can say. But much like during the 2015 World Cup, they’re only going to win if one of Ellis’ experiments turns into a sensible tactic, not because they’re entering the tournament with a winning philosophy.

Ellis can’t figure out what a midfield does, exactly

The USWNT didn’t have Lindsey Horan at SheBelieves Cup, and she’s impossible to replace like-for-like. Horan was the NWSL MVP last season and by far the most complete player in the league, dominating in several defensive and attacking statistical categories. She’s a better goal-scorer, ball-winner, and ball-retainer than anyone else in the pool. But rather than change her tactic to account for Horan’s absence, or start another midfielder with a fairly well-rounded game, Ellis chose to start ... Mallory Pugh?

Pugh, if you’re unfamiliar, is the brightest young talent in the USWNT pool and arguably the most talented player that the program has ever produced. She has also spent her entire career as a winger or striker, with only occasional appearances as a central attacking midfielder while placed in front of a pair of very defensive midfielders.

Naturally, Ellis asked Pugh to play central midfielder and replicate many of Horan’s responsibilities. The results were poor: Pugh regularly looked lost in the role, and turned the ball over cheaply. She plays other positions so well that it’s forgivable that she struggled in a role that doesn’t fit her skillset. Pugh simply wasn’t put in position to succeed.

Even more bizarrely, Ellis dropped defensive midfielder Julie Ertz into the back line on a few occasions, leaving Pugh and Rose Lavelle — pretty much a true No. 10, whose defensive deficiencies are well-masked when Horan is on the pitch — to play as a two-woman center. Fox broadcaster and former USWNT midfielder Aly Wagner broke down why this experiment didn’t work on Twitter:

After two games of watching the Pugh-Lavelle tandem struggle — and after Lavelle picked up a knock against England — Ellis put in a real midfielder. And wow, what an improvement that was.

Enter Sam Mewis!

Sam Mewis was the focal point of the NWSL Shield and Championship-winning North Carolina Courage, and she can do a lot of the things Horan does for the USWNT midfield. She’s 5’11 and knows how to use her body to both bully people off the ball and shield the ball when she has it. She’s one of the smoothest passers in the pool. She has great positional sense. And she can score goals like this.

Mewis was everywhere against Brazil on Tuesday night, with every instance of her ball-winning ability punctuated by a seemingly intoxicated man yelling “SAM MEWIS SAYS NO” into the field microphone on the FS1 broadcast. She was the biggest reason why Brazil never seemed capable of getting back into the game after the USWNT took a lead.

But don’t just take my word for it:

Mewis’ presence also minimized the problems created by playing Pugh in a central role. When Pugh knew she had Mewis alongside her, instead of another defensively-limited player, she played more like a second striker than a midfielder. Pugh was also able to drift out to the right wing frequently, while Tobin Heath cut inside. As a result, Pugh had her best game of the tournament by far.

Tobin Heath has reached her peak

But that’s enough Ellis-bashing for now. Let’s talk about Tobin Heath, who has finally become the player she was always meant to be. She was the USWNT’s best all-around player at SheBelieves Cup, a performance she punctuated with an absolute banger of a goal.

Heath has 27 goals in 146 national team caps, but nine of those have come in the last year, and seven have come in her last 11 starts. Once criticized for having a lot of technical skill but little end product, Heath has developed into a player who can score or assist goals as well as nutmeg defenders. She still does tricks, but now she almost always produces something on the end of them.

Previous USWNT managers used to have to make a difficult decision between Heath’s inventiveness and the more practical offerings of another player. But there’s no decision to be made now: put Heath’s name on the lineup card in permanent ink.

Talent can overcome tactical problems, but ...

Let’s run down the things that had to happen for the USWNT to win the last World Cup.

  • Ellis had to decide that rookie Morgan Brian, rather than someone else, was the best person to fill in for the suspended Lauren Holiday.
  • Brian, who to that point had received her other USWNT starts as a wide player or attacking midfielder, had to perform at an expert level as a defensive midfielder.
  • Dzenifer Maroszan, arguably a top five player on earth, had to be injured for the semifinal.
  • Azusa Iwashimizu, an experienced world class defender, had to have a complete meltdown in the final.

This series of events is unlikely to repeat itself. There’s no question that the USWNT was the best team at the 2015 World Cup and deserved to win it, but they also had to be lucky. The chances that they win the tournament again without a sensible lineup and style of play ahead of the tournament is low. If Ellis’ team from SheBelieves Cup strolls into the quarterfinal against a healthy France, in front of a raucous French crowd, it will get steamrolled.

But please don’t tell McCall Zerboni I said that.