In her preparations for the Rio Olympics, USWNT Head Coach Jill Ellis made two coaching decisions that caused a fair amount of discussion.
One was often dismissed as nothing more than fans clamoring for their favorite player to return to the pitch; the other was debated but accepted more often than not. Both would prove to be the wrong call and played a role in the USA’s disappointing and short-lived Olympic tournament.
Megan Rapinoe has been a member of the National Team for a decade. Always inconsistent but capable of pure magic, Rapinoe is best known for her service from the corner and flanks. Her ‘Olympic Goal’ scored directly from a corner kick during the 2012 Olympics semifinal (the first such goal ever scored in the Olympics) and her physics-bending cross to Abby Wambach for the equalizer in the 2011 Women’s World Cup quarterfinal have earned her a place in history, and rightfully so.
However, Rapinoe entered the Olympics without having played a minute of competitive soccer in over nine months after suffering an ACL tear in December. Her inclusion on the roster, and subsequent lack of play in the sendoff matches, raised some eyebrows. Ellis explained that Rapinoe was not going to be a 90-minute player but was instead intended to be a game-changer.
Well, consider that goal accomplished, albeit in not in the way Ellis wanted. In her first thirty minutes of play since October 2015, Rapinoe went in for a ridiculous, unnecessary foul that gave away a free kick and should have by rights been a yellow card. Had the late, stud-ups, scissor-kicking tackle that didn’t come near the ball been more from behind, it could have been grounds for a red card. The result? A terrible gaffe by goalkeeper Hope Solo that gave Colombia the lead.
Rapinoe left another player down on the field against Sweden, although that move did lead to a goal in the correct net. And in both games – her total playing time around an hour – she had a handful of good crosses and corner kicks, the latter of which have been severely missed without Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, although none directly contributed to a goal. So it wasn’t all bad.
But Rapinoe’s lack of match fitness caught up to her after 37 minutes against Sweden, and Ellis had to burn another sub to replace a player who was herself a sub. The question on the minds of many is could another player have made the same contributions, while avoiding the dumb foul and, more importantly, continued to play into extra time? The answer is yes. Rapinoe’s best moves were good but not magical, and as for her presence on and off the field, the spark she was to bring, that quality supposedly no one else had? That final piece of the puzzle that is always the last to come back from injury? It seems to still be on that terrible practice field in Hawaii.
With very, very few exceptions, you can never say a single player will be the definitive difference maker, nor that a coach will use two players in the same way, and that remains true. But you can say that Heather O’Reilly was an alternate in this Olympics. You can say she is an end to end player known for her tireless work ethic who has such good fitness she beat the entire rest of the team at the beep test in January. You can say she scored the game-winning goal in the 2004 Olympic semifinal, and she sent in the cross to Alex Morgan to win the 2012 Olympic semifinal. And you can certainly say she wouldn’t have needed a sub and is more than capable of putting away a penalty kick.
Ellis’ other big risk was just as long in the making but was not nearly as divisive, at first. Two facts: the US defense worked in the 2015 Women’s World Cup. The US offense did not. So it’s no surprise she set to change the offense before the Olympics. What is a surprise was that she was willing to sacrifice the defense to do so. Making both personnel and tactical changes, Ellis gave her fullbacks free reign to roam the field. The result, against the outmatched teams the US plays more often than not, was initially fun. Meghan Klingenberg and Kelley O’Hara shot down the flanks, crashing the box and sending in ball after ball.
What that created, however, was an over reliance on the formidable skills of Becky Sauerbrunn and Hope Solo, relying on the two to bail out the US when the defensive shortcomings let attacks slip through. And when Sauerbrunn and Solo, both among the best in the world at their respective positions, proved to be human under that sort of pressure, the results weren’t as pretty. Perhaps the only skill Sauerbrunn lacks is speed, and when the majority of the defensive line is nowhere to be found, that gets exposed, as it did in Sweden’s goal. As for Solo, she is capable of standing on her head between the posts, as she did against France twice this year, and she is capable of having games as she did against Colombia that are best forgotten.
To put it simply, Klingenberg and O’Hara are not defenders by nature. Klingenberg, a former midfielder, plays as such, darting up the field when a ball gets within 100 yards. O’Hara, a converted forward, prefers to go for the box and take a shot. This behavior was encouraged by Ellis. When a team is overwhelmed by US pressure, that works. When they’re pushed back on their heels, such as against Japan or France, their lack of defensive positioning creates a huge problem.
None of this is to say that outside backs don’t have an offensive responsibility, because they do, just as much as defensive. Perhaps more than any other position, a fullback has to find a 50-50 balance between offense and defense, restarting the attack, pushing up the field in overlapping runs with wingers, and providing service from the flanks. And yes, sometimes even putting themselves inside the box and taking the shot. But the player has to be smart about it, has to know when they can push up and when they need to track back to provide cover.
In Ellis’ wingback system, the emphasis was put too much on the offense, and when the games mattered, it came up short. Neither outside back had a tournament to write home about, getting caught out of position, throwing away long balls, and struggling with passing. So when the supposed offensive benefits of this system disappeared, and the defensive gaps remained, what exactly was the point? The defense was credited for carrying the USWNT through the 2015 World Cup until the offense found itself. This is a case of if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.
Ellis, however, wrote herself into a hole when it came to her fullbacks. She’s gone on record more than once calling Klingenberg the ‘prototypical fullback’, and prior to the Olympics hammered home the point that O’Hara was her starting right back. Any sort of change would have forced her to eat her words, and as more than one game has proven, without yellow card suspensions to force her hand, she’s not the most adaptable of coaches.
Ultimately the USWNT’s abbreviated Olympic campaign was a result of many factors. The blame cannot be laid entirely at the feet of one person or one decision. What should be clear is that Ellis knowingly took risks, and they didn’t pay off.
The biggest question is: will she learn from them?