I would not be a good head coach of a soccer team. I only have a USSF E license and requested a demotion from a management position to a writer position because I have poor leadership skills. But if I did end up getting thrown into an Eddie situation, I’d like it to happen with the United States Women’s National Soccer Team.
If I spent training sitting in an Adirondack chair, sipping iced tea while occasionally yelling “KEEP IT UP GIRLS,” I would still be able to guide the team to the knockout stage of the World Cup. Hell, we might even win it. That’s how good the USWNT is. They’re just way more talented than everyone else.
This is effectively how actual qualified head coach Jill Ellis managed her team on Monday night in Reims. As Alex Morgan hobbled, Tobin Heath turned the ball over repeatedly and the team as a whole failed to create any shooting opportunities at all, Ellis sat on her hands.
Following the match, Jonathan Tannenwald of the Philadelphia Inquirer asked Ellis why she waited until the 85th minute to bring on a substitute from the most talented bench in the history of women’s soccer. Her answer gave me a headache.
Jill Ellis' full answer to my question about her substiution strategy in #USA vs. #ESP, including why she waited so long to make moves and why Lindsey Horan came in when she was on a yellow card:#FIFAWWC pic.twitter.com/GJcbrVWh22— Jonathan Tannenwald (@thegoalkeeper) June 24, 2019
At no point did the USWNT “start to gain momentum” in the second half of its 2-1 victory over Spain. Its best two chances of the game came in the 12th and 16th minutes, with its last shot from a central area of the 18-yard box coming in the 24th minute. Morgan, the starting center forward, finished the match with zero shot attempts. Heath, ostensibly the team’s most dangerous attacking threat, completed 11 passes. And the eventual winner came from a soft penalty that required an extensive VAR review to uphold.
Perhaps more bizarre than Ellis’ refusal to substitute any of her tired and struggling players was her decision to bench Lindsey Horan, then bring her into the game in the 88th minute. It was an arrogant decision to rest one of the world’s best players in a knockout stage match because she was facing a potential yellow card suspension, and an inexplicable to later throw her into a situation where she could get a yellow card.
In case you think Ellis just had one bad day, or is some kind of secret genius, let us revisit some Classic Ellis from the past:
- Played attacking midfielders Lauren Holiday and Carli Lloyd as dual defensive midfielders
- Played Morgan Brian as an attacking midfielder for months before giving her a game on the right wing to start the 2015 World Cup, and then eventually moved her to defensive midfield
- Switched to a back three system with box-to-box midfielder Allie Long as a libero
- Used central midfielder Rose Lavelle and attacker Mallory Pugh as wingbacks in that system
- When it didn’t work, Long moved to defensive midfield, another position she had rarely played up until that point. She had the turnover that led to the USWNT’s exit from the 2016 Olympics
- Spent years playing any random midfielder she could find at right back to avoid calling up actual right back Ali Krieger, before finally relenting and recalling Krieger for the World Cup.
- Currently starts Crystal Dunn, the highest performing central attacking midfielder in NWSL, at left back
- Said before the World Cup that she did not need a true backup left back on the roster because Heath, who has never played left back, can fill in at that position
The one of these moves that worked out perfectly — Brian’s move to defensive midfield — was forced by suspensions. None of Ellis’ prior decisions suggested that she envisioned Brian as a starting defensive midfielder, and she has usually played farther forward, as a box-to-box midfielder, since the 2015 World Cup ended. It was a random roll of the dice.
Ellis makes stuff up on the fly. She has no sound hypothesis. There is no method to her madness. And you should expect Ellis to do something very silly with her lineup against France in the quarterfinal on Friday, like, uhhhhhh, dropping her best performing player, Lavelle.
(Whispers) When Horan returns to the XI vs. , could well be for— Doug McIntyre (@ByDougMcIntyre) June 25, 2019
But it doesn’t even matter most of the time because the USWNT is the best team in the world. Bad player selections aren’t punished because all 23 players on the roster are world class. France’s superstars like Amandine Henry, Wendie Renard and Eugenie Le Sommer might be as good as any American, but there are players left off the USWNT roster who would easily crack France’s starting lineup. No one has depth like the Americans.
Ellis really might drop Lavelle and play Horan or Samantha Mewis as her most advanced midfielder for the first time in several years. This decision will be based on absolutely no evidence that it’s the best thing for the team, but it will probably work anyway, because Horan and Mewis are so talented that they could figure out how to play any role in any team at a competent level. Ellis will be asked about the decision in the post-match press conference, and she will smile and say that she’s always known that Mewis had the qualities to be her starting No. 10.
Ellis stinks, and she’s lying to you, and it doesn’t matter.