Numbers can be deceiving. Case in point, for those that haven't watched the game, the United States would seem like they're on schedule: two wins and a tie in the "Group of Death" seem like results that anyone would be happy with.
Problem is that the United States have not looked good. When you look at deeper stats the team looks worrying. One complaint has been the USWNT's dependence on the long ball. The USWNT used to be the premier soccer side in the world, and now we're dependent on the long ball. As Devin Pleuler, the head of analytics for Toronto FC and MLS Contributor the Central Winger, points out:
And here's the weird part: #USA vs. Australia: 70 Long Passes Attempted #USA vs. Sweden: 77 Long Passes Attempted— Devin Pleuler (@devinpleuler) June 16, 2015
The United States was once the the side that other countries were trying to copy, but now its almost clear we're being surpassed by much more technical sides. The high number of long balls shows how the USWNT is just throwing it up there and seeing what happens. You only need to look to the last Women's World Cup and Olympics to see this. The US won on two Hail Mary passes. There was the famous Wambach goal against Brazil in 2011, and the handball in 2012 against Canada that only happened because Erin McCloud got called for holding the ball for too long in the box. Essentially the USWNT had to rely on a professional referee counting to 6. In fact in 2011 the United States lost to a more technical and tactically advanced Japanese team.
As Brian Phillips wrote at Grantland "[c]asual fans, not prone to checking Algarve Cup results, mostly don't know the extent to which the rest of the world has caught up with American women's soccer. Diehards worry about it in their sleep." The problem right now seems to be team is getting tactically left behind.
Once again it comes back to Abby. When Abby Wambach is at her best, she is running at defenders out jumping them and quite simply scoring. Peak Abby is what we saw in the first goal against Australia, going up and out muscling players for the ball. Peak Abby draws in two central defenders and makes space for the everyone to play and lets the US play the long ball successfully and get away with a less tactically advanced system.
However, it is becoming increasingly clear that Abby isn't at her peak. In 2013 against South Korea, Wambach scored 4 goals as she broke Mia Hamm's record. Two years later Abby scored 0 goals against South Korea. Is it age? Maybe. Part of it at the Women's World Cup could be the turf, as Abby previously explained to ESPN W. Abby isn't the target forward that she once was. Part of it could be Abby saving herself for the knock out stages. But to those watching the games one thing is clear: the USWNT is playing the long ball like it has 2013 Wambach in the lineup.
Jill Ellis is insistent on playing a 4-4-2. While that itself has its own issues, the bigger problem is that the team is not adapting to what the opponent is doing.
Above is the first game. Jill Ellis conceded that the team's performance was due to nerves. In a seemingly perfect circle the USWNT is surrounding the midfield pair. Lloyd and Holiday are equally separated from the defenders and the attackers, leaving them isolated. There's not a lot of width in the side. All three goals from the US came from wide midfielders abandoning their wide position and cutting in. The problem with the wide players cutting in is that there's no rhyme or reason. The players are cutting in strategically to shoot or to make far post runs. Instead they are constantly cutting in. What that means is that there isn't enough space for the strikers to operate.
In the second game, the United States switched out Wambach and brought Press in as a striker allowing Morgan Brian to play right midfield. Wondering why there only 10 circles on the field? That's because Lloyd's circle is directly underneath Holiday (#12). The two of them are not bumping into each other, they're literally standing on top of each other.
In the third game it's more of the same, Carli Lloyd and Holiday are once again tactically in the same place and the width has actually gotten worse from the second game. Ellis claimed that both Holiday and Lloyd were playing as holding midfielders, the issue is that neither of them were.
"We had Holiday and Lloyd play as two No. 6s today" pic.twitter.com/OUFDwaMNJ5— Kevin McCauley (@kevinmccauley) June 17, 2015
The fact that their median positions were on top of each other are very similar could be the fact that it's the average position of a double pivot: alternating one of them being high while the other one was holding. The issue is that both of them were going forward. As the image above shows, one of them isn't staying deep. Both of them are attacking without regard to what's happening behind them.
There's a quote attributed to Albert Einstein: insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different. Well the USWNT in the group stage has been pretty insane. From game one the USWNT midfield has been struggling, however Ellis has not given Lloyd or Holiday any help. In the second game, when the fan base saw Ellis give Morgan Brian, a central midfielder, the start the assumption was that she would tuck in and help the team with possession. Instead Morgan Brian played wider than any other midfielder has played so far.
In the first and third game Ellis insisted on playing Wambach as a false 9, an idea that 5 years ago would seem insane and is just as crazy now that Wambach has lost a step and has never been great with the ball at her feet.
The positive has been that Alex Morgan has come back. While the team has looked static at times and the midfield is a mess, an in-form Morgan creates opportunities for the rest of the team. Her dynamic movement creates more space for Wambach to operate so she doesn't need to rely on her technical ability as much. Morgan is also adept at drifting into wider spaces allowing more centrally minded midfielders like Heath and Rapinoe to cut inside and try things. Peak Alex Morgan does similar things that peak Abby does: make everyone around her better.
The USWNT needs to make some changes. While the fans have looked on, we've called for Ellis to try personnel-based changes, we've called for tactical changes. It is clear that Ellis is not a tactical mastermind (or maybe she is and is just smarter than all of us) but she must have a plan. Maybe the plan was waiting for Alex Morgan to get healthy, bringing personnel and tactical change with her. The only thing we know, is that if something doesn't change its very unlikely that the USWNT will win the 2015 Women's World Cup.