And Why the USA Didn’t Go for the Win Against Colombia
By Tim Nash
So the USA is tied with Colombia in extra time of the second half. It’s the last game of Olympic group play. A tie is enough to win the group and move on to the quarterfinals.
The game had been frustrating. The U.S. seemed to have done enough to win, but two reckless fouls led to two very well hit free kicks by Colombia’s Catalina Usme. The first one inexplicably made it through Hope Solo’s legs to give Colombia a 1-0 lead in the first half. The second, a left-footed missile from the right flank sailed over Solo’s punch and under crossbar to tie the game 2-2.
Then, with 2:07 elapsed from the three minutes of injury time given by the referee, the U.S. got a corner kick. Here it is. The chance to win the game and bring some of that drama we’ve all come to expect from the USA in the Olympic games. One last-gasp ball into the box, where surely another last-second Olympic miracle awaits.
But wait. Alex Morgan, the one U.S. fans are expecting to put home the dramatic game-winner, is by the corner flag where Mallory Pugh is preparing the take a short corner.
Pugh and Morgan maneuver along the sideline deep in the corner and knock another 40 seconds off the ref’s watch. The U.S. leaves with a 2-2 draw and the one point they needed to move to the quarters.
So why didn’t the USA go for the win? Why didn’t they send the corner kick into the box and go for it? The answer is that Jill Ellis and her coaching staff have been working on the way the USA closes out games.
“Game management is not stalling,” Ellis told Four Four Two before the Olympics. “It’s tactical management. That’s where I think we have to grow.”
So that’s what you saw – growth and game management.
“This is an evolution our team had to go through,” said Ellis. “I don’t think we were very good with game management. I actually think game management cost us the 2012 World Cup.”
When faced with the moment against Colombia, the players chose not to launch a ball into Colombia’s box and risk a header, a bad bounce, a ricochet or a goalkeeper punt that might lead to a Colombia counter-attack. The U.S. players chose to make sure they accomplished the most important objective for the game – win the group.
The U.S. players took a step toward learning that lesson on February 13, 2015.
“When we were playing England in England, we were up one-nil, and we got a set piece with about three minutes left in the game,” Ellis explained. “We should have just played it short, but we banged it into their box. England won it and were off to the races. Then they banged it off the crossbar. That was lesson for our players. You have to look at this as a tournament and not just one game.”
A month after Ellis and her staff hammered home that lesson, the USA was faced with a similar situation at the Algarve Cup in Portugal. The players followed Ellis’ instructions, even though they didn’t like it too much.
“In the Algarve Cup, we needed one point to go into the championship game against France,” Ellis said. “We were tied 0-0 with Iceland. We had mixed up the lineup for that game. We were resting legs and preparing for France, and Iceland weren’t troubling us. We didn’t want to get exposed, so we told them just to keep possession, manage the clock and manage the game.
“After the game, our players were upset that we didn’t go for the win,” Ellis explained. “What we said to them was ‘Do you want to win a game or do you want to win a championship?’ If we would have gone for it, we could have opened ourselves up to more transition. We needed one point, and Iceland weren’t going to break us down.”
After the Iceland game, the U.S. settled for the goal-less draw, advanced to the final and defeated France 2-0.
Tim Nash is a freelance writer and author of the new book, “It’s Not the Glory, the Remarkable First Thirty Years of U.S. Women’s Soccer.” For more information, click here