We owe Jill Ellis an apology for ever questioning her ability to lead the United States women’s national soccer team to its rightful place in world soccer’s pecking order.
Team USA sealed a place in the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup final Tuesday by defeating Germany 2-0 at the Olympic Stadium in Montreal. Ellis masterminded this step toward glory, as Team USA saved its best performance of the summer for the sixth, and penultimate, game of the tournament. The referees also helped Team USA in measureable ways.
Ellis changed second-ranked Team USA’s formation from a two- to one-forward setup ahead of the meeting with top-ranked Germany and its high-powered offense. Ellis’ tactical switch added an extra body in midfield, preserved Team USA’s balance and posed a strategic problem to her counterpart Silvia Neid that the German tactician never quite figured out.
The tactical alteration influenced the outcome, but Ellis’ player management, which inspired Team USA to reach a higher performance level, was even more important to the result. Team USA played with supreme confidence and a lack of fear of its highly touted opponent. Whatever Ellis said to fire up her team before kickoff worked marvelously, as Team USA dominated play in the first 45 minutes and would have led by more than one goal at halftime if lone forward Alex Morgan had been sharper in front of goal.
Team USA’s first-half look was a new one, but it relied on old traits to navigate the topsy-turvy second half. Germany’s halftime adjustments gave it the expected foothold in the contest, and Julie Johntson’s foul on Alexandra Popp gave the Germans a penalty kick and a chance to take the lead in the 60th minute.
Referee Teodora Albon should have dismissed Johnston, who had been enjoying a near-perfect tournament up to that point, but she only showed the U.S. defender a yellow card for denying a goal-scoring opportunity. Celia Sasic then missed from the penalty spot, giving 11-woman Team USA a second chance at reaping the reward for its performance.
Albon made another mistake two minutes later that tilted proceedings in Team USA’s favor. Annike Krahn fouled Morgan on the edge of Germany’s penalty area. The initial contact took place outside of the 18-yard box, but Albon awarded Team USA a penalty kick, which Carli Lloyd dispatched with cool assurance.
Ellis responded to Lloyd’s goal with a pair of substitutions, which ultimately led to the second goal. Abby Wambach started the winning sequence by holding up the ball well in the corner. Fellow substitute Kelley O’Hara finished it in the 84th minute by stabbing a cross past Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer. Sandwiched in between the two actions was Lloyd’s brilliant moment, in which she created an opening inside Germany’s penalty area and delivered the killer pass into the goal-mouth for O’Hara to finish.
Lloyd now has scored in three consecutive games and her game-winning performance was indicative of her status as Team USA’s captain. Lloyd’s growth throughout the tournament dovetails with that of Team USA’s and our appreciation for Ellis’ methods.
Team USA looked startlingly average on June 8 in its tournament-opening win over Australia. Its defense grew increasingly stout from there, as Ellis organized her focused and determined players. Team USA’s tactical awareness, impressive fitness and winning mentality carried it through the rough patches in subsequent games, as its sputtering offense gelled slowly.
Team USA surprisingly was comfortable enough on the ball to pass through Germany’s high pressure and create real chances from open play. It defense remained impenetrable and now boasts a 513-minute shutout streak.
All these elements, hallmarks of championship-level teams, were in place when fortune smiled on Team USA, which also answered opportunity’s call.
Well done, coach Ellis. Now go again one more time.
Thumbnail photo via Jean-Yves Ahern/USA TODAY Sports Images