By Tim Nash
There are three distinct moments in a soccer game. They are simple and obvious, and they are repeated over and over and over.
First there are the moments when your team has the ball. Second, there are the times when your opponent has the ball. Then there are periods when both teams are fighting for the ball.
Jill Ellis and her staff have taken those parts of the game and tried to perfect the way the U.S. women’s national team plays during each. It is, of course, a work in progress, and always will be.
Heading into the 2016 Olympics, Ellis took the time to explain the USA’s style of play and how it has evolved.
“With such a diverse history and culture, it’s difficult to summarize or gain a consensus on a style of play for our country,” she explains. “What we should embrace is being authentic to who we are. If you ask around the world, the U.S. are described as mentally tough, hard workers, athletic. They’re not descriptors we want to disown. We are all those things. But we also have very skillful and thoughtful players. We want to be brilliant in combination play. We want to be the best in the world in attacking transition. Finding a way of playing that blends all these qualities is the exciting and challenging part of any coach.”
Ellis took over as national team coach a little more than a year before the start of the 2015 World Cup in Canada, replacing Tom Sermanni, who replaced Pia Sundhage. She knew what she had, having served as an assistant for Sundhage and a staff coach and development director for US Soccer.
She was certainly aware she had a team featuring possibly the best goalkeeper in the world, a group of solid defenders, and a collection of some of the best attacking players in the women’s game. And she understood the perpetual high expectations — from fans, media, players and her bosses — surrounding her group. For the USA, second place is considered a failure.
“I had some insight into the players,” she says. “The initial thing that struck me was the experience we had. The team had been heavily built around the combination of Alex (Morgan) and Abby (Wambach). What was challenging was that Alex had been injured for so much of that period, and I knew potentially that Abby was not going to be able to play 90 minutes every game, but the experience she could bring to the team was necessary to win the World Cup.
“We had been a good defensive team, but other teams were so much more sophisticated. We just needed to be more cohesive. We thought that organized defending was always going to give us opportunities to go into transition. Our transition attack was something we focused on as well.”
Given what she knew and what she had, Ellis had decisions to make. How do we play? What is our style?
“Often times how a team plays is determined by two things, the ‘Who’ and the ‘How,’” says Ellis, who will turn 50 in September. “Who you have determines how you play, or how you play determines who you select. When our staff first came on board, we had a very limited time to get new players experience, so, we took the very experienced group we had in front of us and figured out how to maximize their specialized skill set. What we knew going into 2015 was evolution is critical in the modern game. To be successful in 2019, we understood development would be a major part of our plan beyond 2015.”
Ellis and her staff had to decide how to put the team in the best position to compete for the World Cup title that had eluded the team for 16 years. After that, keep winning world titles. She didn’t waste time stewing over which formations to use, believing a team’s formation says little or nothing about its style. She points to the Italian men in the recent European championship as an example.
“Everyone talked about Italy playing a three-back, but they defended most of the game so they were really playing a five-back,” she says. “People were praising them for playing in a three-back when they were really playing in a five-back. Everyone gets hung up on it. If you look at (outside back) Megan Klingenberg, where does she spend most of her time? Up high and wide. It’s called a system or shape, but it’s really just how you line up to start the game. After that, it should be fluid. It’s just filling spaces.
“What people have to understand is your formation is determined by whether you are attacking or defending.”
Time better spent was determining what was important to winning and how to go about it. Her players, she says, had the necessary trifecta – Technique, Athleticism and Mentality. The physical and psychological aspects of the game had long been strengths of the U.S., and served the team well. The technical ability of American players, relative to the rest of the world, came later.
Finding the right balance was the key. The staff settled on a style of play that focused on aspects of the game — find the right mixture of possession and penetration; be smart about position and pressure; balance patience and pace; know when to pass and when to dribble. And equally important was the balance between focus and fun.
If the style had to be boiled down into a sentence, it would be this — through organized defending, transition and organized attack, the USA wants to attack as much as possible.
When the U.S. Doesn’t Have the Ball: “Regain if we can, reorganize if we need.”
Confident her group would be able to score goals, the coaching staff chose to work on defending during a trip to Brazil six months before the World Cup.
“As it turned out, it was a really good place to start because going into the World Cup, we thought were only be able to have Alex by the quarterfinals because she had been out so many weeks,” Ellis says.
It’s not entirely accurate to say Ellis wanted to create a better defensive team. It is accurate to say she wanted her players to defend better individually and as a group. In fact, in explanations of how her team defends, rarely does she mention her back four.
“I didn’t think that we had to change philosophically, but I felt we had to improve some of the areas that would be necessary for us to be able to win with the personnel we had,” she says. “We wanted to be more organized defensively and more aware of our attacking transition.
“Part of it was telling the players that if the person in front of you isn’t doing their job, it’s okay for you to tell them that. One person can’t be off when you are defending.”
Ellis and her staff studied video of the USA’s performance in the 2012 Olympics, and came away with some areas in which she thought the team could improve its overall defending.
“We are always going to be a team that hunts the ball, but at times in our (Olympic) game against France we were hunting it with one individual,” she says. “Abby would go and pressure a player. Teams are getting more sophisticated and can solve individual pressure. We weren’t reading things collectively.
“We started talking about spacing and relationships, and we trained it,” Ellis adds. “We talked about the importance of our 9 (striker) and 10 (center midfielder). It was a simple principle – if we can’t get pressure on the ball, drop and cover. You have to be able to cut off passing lanes, because teams are so good.”
Using solid defending to create attacking was not a new concept to the U.S. players, but Ellis her staff improved it by using video, classroom sessions and training sessions, talking with consistent language about triggers when to press and when to drop off and regain their shape. Helping matters was that the team’s organized defending utilized characteristics of American players that have allowed the team to be consistently at the top of the women’s soccer world.
“Our defending is an add-on to our attack,” Ellis says. “We take great pride in desiring to be in control of the game, even without the ball. Making an opponent uncomfortable and forcing them to give us the ball back is our objective. Our organized defending is predicated on reading our pressing triggers and being aggressive within our shape. We train this so we truly understand collective defending. Many of our best scoring chances come from our regaining the ball and then transitioning to attack.”
When a team is in their attacking shape, spread out and looking to go forward, they are exposed to counter-attacks, Ellis says, and she wanted to be able to take advantage of that vulnerability. When a U.S. player wins the ball from an opponent, the first thing they do is look to get it forward, if possible. The staff often talks about “countering the counter.”
“If they are in their big attacking shape, the best and quickest way to hurt them is find the highest option.,” she says. “We say ‘on the ground if we can, in the air if we have to.’ We are an attacking-oriented team, so try to find a high option and make sure we have support underneath. Or if we play the ball behind their defenders, we have to make sure we have runners in the box.
“It all comes down to choices, and that’s why it is very much a players’ game. We can drill them or instruct them on what to do in certain situations, but ultimately it’s their decision.”
When The U.S. Has the Ball: “Forward if we can, back if we need. Penetrate if we can, possess if we need.”
Here’s where the characteristics of U.S. players are showcased. Whether it’s the flair of a Tobin Heath or a Megan Rapinoe, the athleticism of an Alex Morgan or a Crystal Dunn, or the mentality of a Carli Lloyd or a Megan Klingenberg — or any extraordinary piece of skill or effort from all rest.
“Ultimately, we want to be a creative, dynamic, attacking-minded team,” says Ellis. “Whether it’s a first-time precision pass in behind our opponent’s back line, individual flair, or collective passing, we want to beat lines and score goals. Getting to the Goal Zone (defined as the area that includes anywhere from which the team is likely to score) with control is our end point, so we place high emphasis on penetration. We now feel we have many tools to accomplish this, including possession.”
Once the U.S. settled on the most important components of the way they approached the game — elements they call Super factors — the coaches tracked them. For the players, the data served as reminders, challenges and benchmarks.
The Super factors are:
- Set pieces
Data from a 2016 friendly gives a glimpse of what the U.S. values and what players were shown after the game.
For Competitive, the staff tracked 50-50 balls, breaking it down into four categories – Challenged, Won, and Possession Won. In this particular game, of all the balls considered 50-50, the U.S. competed for 85 percent. They won 74 percent and keep possession on 66 percent. Taking it step further, of 34 loose balls in the USA’s attacking box, the Americans were first to 21. At the other end, in the USA’s defensive box, they were first to a loose ball five of five times.
Tracked in the Defending category are “Tackles Won’” and “Final Third Regains.” In this friendly, the U.S. scored 63 percent in Tackles Won and 74 percent in Final Third Regains at the defensive end.
Possession is measured in terms of passes completed, and he U.S. scored 89 percent. Penetration is scored by the number of Attacks (132), Attacking Third Entries (54), Goal Zone Entries (27), Quality Chances (18) and Quick Counter Conversions (38%). Obviously, the U.S. had a good day.
Heading into the World Cup, Ellis and her staff started talking more about valuing possession and used statistics to emphasize just how important it was to keep the ball.
“We agreed that as part of our core values, possession was very important part of our game,” Ellis explains. “We did it as an effort to make them value the time we had the ball. So we started tracking unforced turnovers. When we played our first World Cup qualifying game against Trinidad, we had something like 41 unforced turnovers. When we got to the World Cup, we were at 16, 18, 20. We thought 16 was a good target. And we if there was a good throw-in to a runner and we didn’t keep possession, we didn’t want to dissuade them from making that aggressive choice so we didn’t count those. We count errant passes or bad touches, things that are just bad turnovers.
“We even tracked throw-in possession,” she says. “Honest to God, when we had a throw-in, we would only gain possession about 25 percent of the time. That’s 35 to 40 throw-ins a game, so think about all those possession opportunities. We started tracking them to make them more cognizant of it and more prideful in throw-ins. There was one game not too long after we started tracking them, that we were 100 percent possession on throw-ins. When we told the players, they stood up and gave themselves a standing ovation.”
Deciding what the team valued, what the players and coaches thought was important, helped the U.S. not only determine their style of play but narrowed the players’ focus to a manageable level.
Add speed of play, perhaps the most important quality of an attacking, to the list.
“Coming out of the World Cup, one of the things we talked about was how fast we can play in control,” Ellis says. “We started to track the time on the ball, mainly for our central players. We started tracking from their first touch to their delivery. Are they dwelling on the ball? Are they taking too many touches? If we want to be a team that is attacking-oriented, we don’t want to be doing pirouettes in the midfield and slow down the game. We want to be efficient. We measured all the midfielders, and Lauren Holiday averaged 2.1 seconds. I did the same thing for the 2012 Olympics, and the lowest time was 2.6 seconds”
Holiday, in fact, was the second-most efficient midfielder in the 2015 World Cup with a pass completion rate of 86.3. Japan’s Mizuho Sakaguchi was the best with 87 percent.
Another area in which Ellis tried to improve was what happens immediately after the U.S. wins the balls. She would like her team to be a bit more optimistic.
“When I watch the men’s game, I am always amazed that when they get the ball, they have three players sprinting ahead of the ball,” she says. “I always felt that in the women’s game back in the day, teams were afraid of getting caught out. They weren’t as optimistic with the ball. Then I watched Japan. When they won the ball, they would have two or three player bombing forward in advance of the ball.
“With our players, I think we were waiting on that player with the ball. Now I think we have players willing to make selfless run, knowing they might not get the ball.”
During more patient attacking sequences, the players move the ball in hopes of finding an entrance into the box, or into their Goal Zone.
“One of the things we talk a lot about is Gates along the other team’s back four. Between the center backs is Gate 1. Between the center back and the outside back is Gate 2, and obviously there is one on each side. Between the outside back and the sideline is Gate 3. One of the things we’ve really worked hard at is how to get into our Goal Zone in control. We don’t talk about just crossing. Now, instead of just lumping it, we talk about the final ball.”
The Whole Thing in 43 Seconds
The first goal in the July 22 send-off game, a 4-0 win over Costa Rica, illustrates everything on which Ellis and her staff had worked.
“We had it in attacking organized,” said Ellis. “Then we turned it over. Then we won it back. Now we are in transition. Mallory Pugh won the ball and started to go forward, then she cut back and played the ball laterally. That’s what we mean when we talk about controlled transition. Then we turned it over again. We won it back, then we slowed it down, found an entry pass, and it ended up in the goal.”
Starting at the beginning of Ellis’ example, here’s how it happened. The USA was in possession of the ball on the right flank. They turned the ball over with 14:14 on the clock, and the U.S. quickly got organized defensively. Costa Rica played the ball wide to the to the far side, where Pugh pressured and won the ball back at 14:30.
Pugh played the ball to Lloyd in the center of the field. Lloyd had the ball for two seconds. Then played to Alex Morgan on the left. Morgan lost the ball and the U.S. tried to win it back immediately. Morgan got the ball back and instead of trying to go forward, she opted for possession and played the ball to Lindsay Horan and moved centrally. Morgan received the ball back from Horan. She took two seconds on the ball, played it through Gate 2 to Klingenberg in the box. Klingenberg played it across the goal to Dunn, who had done the work early to get in the box and was ready at the far post.
All of that took 43 seconds.
Obviously, a major part of any success the U.S. has enjoyed or will enjoy is due to the group being all on the same page, chasing common goals in an organized, logical manner. And that is not limited to just the players.
Ellis counts heavily on her staff, which includes assistants Tony Gustavsson and Steve Swanson, goalkeeper coach Graeme Abel, and fitness coach Dawn Scott. She gives them ample credit for their efforts in refining the way the USA plays.
“I feel I’m very collaborative,” she says. “I have head coaches around me. Steve and Tony are both head coaches, and I enjoy that. My staff is tremendous. I can’t tell you how important they are to what we do.”
Gustavsson, who will celebrate his 43 birthday during the World Cup, coached professionally in Sweden before joining US Soccer in 2004 as Pia Sundhage’s assistant. Swanson, 53, is the head coach of the U.S. Under-23 national team and the University of Virginia. In 25 years as a collegiate coach at Dartmouth, Stanford and UVa., Swanson has a 358-139-49 record.
“We feel our players, our team, and certainly our staff are invested in not just what happened, but how it happened. We are by no means a finished product, but we feel we are adding to the narrative of a US style of play.”
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