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Space proves to be the key as US defeats China 1-0

Head Coach Jill Ellis didn't change her team shape, but her personnel choices proved to be the key.

Michael Chow-USA TODAY Sports

Yellow cards threatened to be the story going into the United State's quarterfinal match up against China. The US was missing their creative spark in Megan Rapinoe and the love her or hate her presence of Lauren Holiday, out because of yellow card accumulation. The team ensured that their play on the field, not the controversy off was the story.

In their 1-0 win over China, Jill Ellis stayed true her team's formation, but instead changed the personnel.

Ellis gave two players, Sky Blue's Kelley O'Hara and the Houston Dash's Morgan Brian, their first World Cup starts and started Amy Rodriguez in place of Abby Wambach. The three changes gave the United States a new spark, and were integral to the United State's 1-0 victory over China. Each player individually brought a different skill set and helped the US create space and better spacing against a compact Chinese defense.

Kelley O'Hara Provided Width

China is a team that's known for its team defense and defensive shape. The concern would be how could the United States breakdown such a rigid defense. So far this tournament the United States has struggled in that regard, along with struggling to score in general.

The United States beat China with something that they were missing for the last few games, efficient spacing. Kelly O'Hara was a surprise start for many fans, but mostly because many anticipated Ellis to continue her usual tactics. So far this tournament Ellis has insisted on playing strikers and midfielders out wide who want to drift inwards. While O'Hara has primarily been a fullback for the United States and she played as a striker for Stanford and has played as a winger and fullback for Sky Blue.

O'Hara played as a traditional winger, with keeping the chalk on her boots, O'Hara stayed by the byline beat her marker and send in crosses. She combined well with right back Ali Krieger as seen by O'Hara's Heat Map below.

Courtesy of Opta

Courtesy of Opta

Compare this to what Tobin Heath did the previous game at the right midfielder position. Tobin Heath, for all of her playmaking abilities and trickery is not a traditional wide midfielder. Heath looks to beat her man inside and shoot rather than stay wide. Her Opta heat map shows a tendency to play make rather than cross.

Courtesy of Opta

Courtesy of Opta

The difference is that with an organized team like China, a player like Heath or Press makes it easier for the opposing team to counterattack and steal possession from the United States. By drifting inwards, fullbacks have more help available in the form of central defenders and midfielders. By staying out wide and effectively overlapping and spacing with Krieger, O'Hara created more 1v1 match ups and also created space by forcing the Chinese defenders to defend out wide, thus opening up the backline.

HOLD UP

Amy Rodriguez got the start over the much-maligned Abby Wambach. While some may look at this as an indicator of Wambach's postgame comments, this could be seen as an effective tactical decision.

To many casual viewers, the concept of Amy Rodriguez as a hold up player seems silly. Abby at 5'11'' is the prototypical hold up striker. Her prowess in the air and strength makes her abilities to hold up the ball quite apparent. Amy Rodriguez is something more of a puzzle. At 5'4'', A-Rod is a more dynamic player than Wambach. She's speedier and more effective with her feet making up what she lacks in size in lower body strength. Rodriguez uses her low center of gravity and leg strength to hold up the ball.

As Devin Pleuler, Head of Analytics of Toronto FC, pointed out: Ellis wanted Wambach to play as a false 9. Specifically, Wambach's role was to come into the midfield and hold up to the ball. Wambach's technically ability with her feet limited her effectiveness in this role. However, Rodriguez is a more natural fit. Rodriguez not only was able to combine with her back to the goal and hold the ball up, she also was able to create more space with her runs than Wambach. Rodriguez's movement and less stagnant style of play allowed players like Morgan and Lloyd to find more space.

Courtesy of Opta

Courtesy of Opta

Rodriguez's heat map (above) shows her ability to be dynamic all the field. Compare Rodriguez's to Wambach's (below),  Rodriguez is not only more active but also more involved in the game. The team may lose Wambach's ariel ability, but Rodriguez brings more in helping the team keep possession and with pressing the Chinese backline.

Courtesy of Opta

Courtesy of Opta

I Got Your Back

The most consistent gripe against Ellis was her reluctance to assign strict responsibilities to her central midfielders. Lloyd and Holiday have both been playing box to box. This has led to some spacing issues with the team. Lloyd is a midfielder who at her best when she gets the freedom of roam and find space, Holiday is a natural striker who was converted to an attacking midfielder by Pia Sundage at the last World Cup. The two players both want to be the top of the box and make runs into the box, and in this tournament there has been an issue of communication between the two.

With Holiday suspended, young Morgan Brian came into the team. Many wondered how Ellis would accommodate Brian's relative youth and inexperience in World Cup quarterfinal. Brian was than the tempo setter for the team.

Courtesy of Opta

Courtesy of Opta

Rather than try through balls, Brian kept it relatively simple. Brian sat much deeper than Lloyd and kept her passes simply as well. Looking at her Opta passing chart, her chart is filled with shorter green passes. Brian is also relatively central throughout this.

Compare this to Holiday, this is the Opta chart from her last game against Columbia. Holiday is a much more aggressive passer, perhaps this comes from her history as a striker or perhaps it comes from her confidence as an established national team player. Or maybe this comes from watching her husband sling defender splitting passes for the Pelicans.

Courtesy of Opta

Courtesy of Opta

Holiday's passing chart looks more like that of an 8 or a 10 rather than a 6. Holiday's passes are not only longer and less frequent but also come from all over the field. While Lloyd and Holiday are both tactically smart enough players to work in Ellis's double pivot spray happy system, it's not where they both excel.

With the knowledge that Morgan Brian was going to be behind her, Carli Lloyd had the confidence to roam the field rather than look over her shoulder. Jill Ellis has talked about how she wants both of her central midfielders to be able to spray the ball as well as defend, but maybe its time she reconsiders this. Holiday is two years removed from being the NWSL top goal scorer and Carli Lloyd is playing some of her best soccer. Ellis has been trying to get the two of them to tap into that form since the beginning of the World Cup. Holiday's eyes, and all of WoSo twitter, lit up against Columbia when Ellis brought Brian and the team temporarily shifted to a 4-2-3-1/4-3-3. Holiday told reporters after the game "I had so much fun. Obviously, I didn't get the ball as much as I wanted to, but it was fun. It was fun to play in that 10 spot and to be higher up the field." Maybe the secret to unlocking the potential of these two dynamo midfielders is to have someone mind the store.

Here is the goal Lloyd' scored against China. She makes a great run into the box on that ball and does a great job heading it. She's focused on scoring that ball. What she's not doing is looking over her shoulder, but if she did she'd see what so many of us have wanted to see. One of her midfield partners at the top of the box telling her, I've got your back.