The scene felt familiar. The United States women’s national team taking a lap of honor as shrieking girls pushed to the front of the stands with their home-made signs and merchandise they’d like signed. The team hugged and huddled. And everything was well.
Not so terribly long ago though, the senior women’s program seemed at a crossroads. Head coach Tom Sermanni had unexpectedly been fired in April. He had survived the team turning in its worst performance ever at the Algarve Cup — losing two games in a row for the first time in eons — and then, strangely, got axed a month later, following a 2-0 win over China. He’d been brought in with a mandate to rejuvenate the team and modernize the playing style. But it hadn’t really come off quite yet. Perhaps he needed more time. Perhaps it was never going to work. Either way, he was gone. And with just six months remaining until CONCACAF’s Women’s World Cup qualifiers, it felt like almost two years of preparation time, going back to the 2012 Olympic gold medal, had been sort of wasted.
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In came Jill Ellis, suddenly under real-time pressure. Results weren’t overwhelming at first. A 3-0 win against China, just a few days into her tenure — as an interim at the time. A 1-1 draw in Canada. A narrow 1-0 win over France and then a 2-2 tie with them. Eventually though, the team started warming up and taking to her three-striker system that emphasizes width, high possession and quick transitions. A 4-1 win over Switzerland in August was promising. A pair of wins over Mexico in September by 8-0 and 4-0 scores even more so.
During this ongoing Women’s World Cup qualifying tournament for the CONCACAF region, which saw the USA qualify for Canada in 2015 on Friday night, the US women’s form has gradually improved as they have slogged their way a series of defensive-minded opponents. Certainly, the goals followed — winning 1-0 against Trinidad and Tobago and then 5-0 and 6-0 over Guatemala and Haiti and 3-0 over Mexico in the semifinals, to clinch the berth.
The results, though, are to be expected. What matters is the style and the substance underpinning it. The entire point of this exercise, the raison d’etre of Ellis’s tenure, is to adapt to an increasingly quick and technical women’s game. On that score, too, there has been growth.
"We’ve started to see a lot more of the things we’ve wanted to see when we play," said Ellis. "I think we make strides every game and certainly we identify things we can improve upon. But for me, certainly, the pictures and the images we’re getting of how we want to try and play have been very good."
"I think we’ve come a long way," added forward Christen Press. "Jill has emphasized having a really big attacking shape. 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. 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 has been the product of a two-week training camp in September and another week of preparation for this tournament, seemingly spent entirely on breaking the team’s attacking habits, which it had formed over a decade and a half. The directness, buttressed by superior athleticism, simply had to go. No more pummeling it at the strikers through the air or sliding in through balls for the speedsters to run onto. Instead, combinations and exchanges and overlaps and underlaps. Diagonal balls. Geometry. The beautiful game, intellectualized.
"Seeing things that are translating into the game that we’ve been working on in training has been fantastic," said Carli Lloyd, who has enjoyed a terrific run of form in the new system, which sets her free to roam in central midfield. "There’s another couple of levels in us. I think that we can continue to improve, continue to get better individually and as a team and just keep plugging along."
Striker Abby Wambach has cautioned several times not to read so much into the performances at this tournament. Teams won’t always sit in against the Americans like this — especially at the World Cup next summer. Some will actually attack them, and punch back. This is all true, but it’s also true that by playing unambitious opponents, the Americans have gotten ample opportunity to figure out their offense against stodgy defending.
Still, Wambach, too, sees the silver lining. "It’s been kind of a long year, body-wise — injuries, mentally and physically fatiguing for everybody with the NWSL — and now playing throughout October," she said. "But I think that we’ve made progress as a team. We’re going to look back to 2014 and I think we’ll have learned a lot."