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USWNT notebook: Ellis on evaluating subsets, Naeher the No. 1, and Dunn at left back

(Photo Copyright Joerdeli Photography | Daniela Porcelli)

The dichotomy of two 1-1 draws that came less than five months apart provides an interesting lens into how the United States women’s national team feels about its progress.

On March 4, the scene at Red Bull Arena after splitting points with France in the SheBelieves Cup was one of pure frustration from the Americans. Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan and Julie Ertz were among those who made that clear in the tunnel that day. Coach Jill Ellis was transparent about some players being exposed. The U.S. had to scrap for a 1-1 draw despite scoring first.

Fast forward to Sunday, when Lindsey Horan’s 90th-minute goal salvaged a point against Australia in the Tournament of Nations, and the mood was much lighter. Ellis was ecstatic about the performance, which saw the U.S. look comfortable even if lacking in execution in the final third. The mood amongst players was much lighter as well, a feeling that this was an important step forward on the road to France 2019.

Here are some talking points from the weekend in East Hartford, Conn.:

Looking at lineup subsets, not just straight lines

Something to keep in mind is the nuance in how Ellis and her staff are evaluating players. We often get caught in the mind of evaluating the midfield as an independent set of three players. But Ellis made the point this weekend that she’s looking at each player in relation to the forward and defensive lines. Imagine plotting the formation on a grid, and looking at each square individually. The relationships are more than linear.

“We talk a lot about subgroups, and looking at how, perhaps, the other day, a [Christen] Press, a Lindsey [Horan] and a [Emily] Sonnett play together. We look at those subgroups. So, it’s not just the relationship they [the midfield trio] have to the midfield, it’s also, ‘Who plays well on that left side? Do we want a left-footed player out there on the left side, or do we want them on this side going in?’ So, there’s a lot of thought that goes into it. I think where we are at this point, is looking at players and starting to see who plays well with each other.”

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Looking for a tangible example of subgroups at work? Check out the opportunity the U.S. had in the 17th minute against Australia, when Megan Rapinoe’s shot went wide. Crystal Dunn starts the play on the left flank, finding Morgan Brian, who hits Alex Morgan on her check-down run. As this is developing, Rapinoe is in motion to get behind Australia defender Ellie Carpenter, and Morgan finds Rapinoe with a through ball. We’ll talk about the 16 goals in the last 17 U.S. games for Morgan, but this is an element of her game that has progressed through the years without as much credit. Her movement is no longer as one-dimensional as it was even two years ago.

Naeher is the No. 1 goalkeeper

Ellis confirmed prior to Sunday’s match that Alyssa Naeher will play all three games in goal for the U.S. at the Tournament of Nations.

“She’s a keeper that we’ve really invested [in], in terms of getting experience. I think she’s grown in that, just her — when you’ve got a player who hasn’t played a lot, to play against these good teams, you get a lot of questions asked, and I think we’ve exposed her to that more and more. Now, I think her distribution with her hands is phenomenal. I think her feet have gotten much, much better. Her choices, her selection, her confidence on the ball – I think all those things have improved.”

It’s difficult to argue with this rationale at this stage of the process. I’m on record as saying that Portland Thorns goalkeeper Adrianna Franch — in camp again with the U.S. for this tournament — was the best American keeper in 2017 and has largely maintained that status in 2018. That she remains uncapped is disappointing. But at this stage, you’re looking at one of the best opportunities for Naeher to establish herself with the potential back four against this quality of opponents. Ellis has made the commitment to Naeher, so getting her reps in World Cup-like simulations is important.

Ellis praises Horan, fullbacks

Ellis said Horan’s 90 minutes in the midfield on Sunday her “best performance I’ve ever seen in a national team jersey,” adding that it was “a really complete game.” Asked to explain Horan’s role further, Ellis said:

“She’s really evolved into a box-to-box midfielder.  I think tonight, she was helping us build out when we were low and she’s getting on the end of things; she’s winning balls in the air. So, no a really complete game.”

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Ellis also said postgame that she was pleased with how Sonnett played at right back and combined with Tobin Heath. She was similarly happy with the Dunn-Rapinoe combination on the left, noting Dunn’s ability to get forward and connect.

Those only reinforced the feelings Ellis had coming into the game against Australia. When I asked her if she has gotten answers at fullback, she said she has. Ellis said Dunn has done “a fantastic job” and was happy with Sonnett’s performance, while acknowledging she’s a different profile as a center back for Portland Thorns FC.

Prior to Sunday’s match vs. Australia, I spoke with Dunn about her versatility for, as she laughed about, the umpteenth time. She’s used these questions by now as perhaps the most quintessential utility player this team has seen (at one point this year she played three different positions in the same game). With Kelley O’Hara (hamstring) still injured —  Ellis says she hopes to have her back for World Cup qualifying in October — Dunn has, for now, carved her place as the choice left back.

Her time in England taught her how to break down opponents in tighter lines, she said, and North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley has allowed her the freedom to play in a hybrid No. 10 role which has brought out the best in her going forward. I’d actually argue that, combined with improved defensive discipline, that has dramatically helped Dunn make the transition back to fullback for the U.S., since Ellis wants her combining and getting forward. The current U.S. setup also provides Dunn some extra freedom to do so, because the more conservative play of Sonnett sees Sonnett tuck inside and give the U.S. three in the back for cover. (Which, is that actually a better solution than when Ellis asks both fullbacks to be high and wide, and thus demands her No. 6 drop to fill space with the center backs? The tradeoff is too steep, since that assumes a scenario without O’Hara, but it has to be a thought crossing her mind.)

Ellis explains Hinkle call-up

Fullback brought perhaps the most controversial U.S. call-up in recent history. Below is what Ellis said when asked about why she called up Jaelene Hinkle for this camp (Hinkle and Kealia Ohai were cut from the final roster):

“I can’t speak for the federation; I can speak for me. I think what I tried to do was to look at a situation – look at a player based on soccer. I think I look at — I have to make challenging decisions. Sometimes it’s cutting players, it’s taking them off contract. So, I have to have a very clear compass to be making decisions about soccer. I think she had done well in the league. I think we have a world-class team in terms of understanding different viewpoints, expressions. I have a daughter and I think that setting an example of being tolerant and understanding that people have different opinions — I don’t necessarily agree with those opinions — but that people can have different opinions, and [I’m] looking at this purely on soccer. That’s for me; I’m not talking for the federation.”

Rapinoe-vs.-Carpenter: Generations collide

Megan Rapinoe vs. Ellie Carpenter has been one of the most entertaining 1-v-1 matchups to watch in women’s soccer in 2018, at the professional and international level. Rapinoe is the savvy Seattle Reign FC winger who at age 33 is in the best form of her life and might be the best player in the world right now. Carpenter had to wait until she turned 18 in April to officially sign for Portland, and she has already played in an Olympic Games.

Carpenter has been tasked with defending Rapinoe in a Portland-Seattle derby already, and the two met again Sunday on the international stage for the second straight year. Rapinoe’s delivery in the final third on Sunday was poor by her standards, but she again enjoyed ample space on the wing to isolate the young Australian defender. Carpenter has a very high ceiling and bright future ahead, and she’s getting plenty of high-level reps against the world’s best. Seattle’s 1-0 win over Portland on June 30 provided edge-of-your-seat entertainment in this 1-v-1 matchup, capped off by the 89th-minute winner created by Rapinoe on that left side.

I asked Rapinoe after Sunday’s U.S.-Australia game if she had been enjoying the matchup after several meetings, and she somewhat playfully answered with a smile:

“Yeah, I’m not exactly sure the strategy in defending me. I would change it up, if I was her. She’s young and maybe not as savvy as some defenders, but I felt like she was just giving me too much of what I wanted and what was comfortable for me, so she should switch that up. I think her teammates will probably go back and tell her when we play her again to switch it up a little bit.”

Context is needed: Rapinoe’s answer was honest and in good faith — it did not at all come off as malicious.

Australia coach Alen Stajcic spoke to U.S. media after the game and sounded generally happy with Carpenter, who has now been asked to mark Rapinoe and Marta on multiple occasions for both club and country. “To be marking probably two of the best wingers in the history of the game, I would think, she’s really shown that she can compete at this level,” he said.

Carli Lloyd on her role going forward

Much has been debated about what Carli Lloyd’s role will be going forward. She has played in all 10 U.S. matches this year, starting three. One of most important layers of context to the conversation is the system that Ellis is now using. It demands significant mobility and defensive responsibilities of the three midfielders. Lloyd’s incredible 2015 World Cup was a product of her playing a free role just under Morgan. Lloyd can still thrive in that setup.

Ellis, however, has shaped the system around her dynamic front three — Morgan and Rapinoe as locks, with Heath and Pugh (when either are healthy) fighting for the starting job on the other side. Where Ellis can still look to Lloyd is as the backup to Morgan in the No. 9 role. That would be a significant change from Lloyd’s starring role in 2015, but the potential importance of it while chasing a game late at the World Cup – or, if Morgan is injured – is still of value.

Lloyd said this Sunday after the match:

“I’ve had loads of talks with Jill. I respect her decision, being the coach. But I also know that this is the fittest I’ve ever been. People want to talk age; they can talk age all they want, but I feel super fit and healthy at 36. I’m continuously developing my game. I know she’s playing other players and I respect that. But I know that I still have a lot left to give to this team, and I want to win another World Cup; I want to help the team win another World Cup. I know how to do that, and I think that I still can totally impact this team. The things that I can control is doing what I’m doing – continuously developing my game and continuously getting better. Continuously working hard each and every day. That’s really all I control at the moment, and we’ll see what happens.”

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