After toiling in mediocrity for the whole tournament, with players playing out of position, no organizational structure, and no defined individual roles, the USWNT finally came out last night looking like the World Cup favorites we all thought they’d be. Because of that, we’re left with one question: the hell took so long?
But first things first: HOW YOU LIKE US NOW, GERMANY? LITTLE DIFFERENT WHEN YOU AREN’T GETTING CHANCE AFTER CHANCE AFTER CHANCE AGAINST A DEBUTANT LIKE CÔTE D’IVOIRE, ISN’T IT? WHAT, WERE WE SUPPOSED TO ROLL OVER AND TAKE THE L LIKE SWEDEN? DID YOU THINK FRANCE—FRANCE—WERE GONNA BE THE ONLY TEAM UNAFRAID TO STEP TO YOU AND PUNCH YOU IN THE MOUTH? WELL SORRY! AY, WE’RE PRESSING EVERY BUTTON ON THE ELEVATOR JUST SO YOU CAN SEE OUR FACES! HAHAHAHAHAHA!
That felt good. With that out of the way, we can look at that colossal semifinal with a clearer head. The U.S. dominated. Germany had about two short stretches at the start of each half where they looked competent; the entire rest of the match was America doing exactly what they wanted, when they wanted. What was the big secret that unlocked their potential? Jill Ellis’s genius, revolutionary strategy of...playing players in their proper positions, and telling them to go fight for the ball.
Ellis has rightly come in for a whole heap of criticism, including from us, for squeaking through matches that the world’s power in the sport should breeze by with flair and finesse while bellowing into a bullhorn “TAKE NOTE WORLD: YOU CANNOT WIN. TURN BACK NOW.” But to be fair to her, she has been gifted a side with a nigh-unfathomable amount of depth on the forward line and not too much in the way of true central midfielders. (She also hand-picked this squad herself and could’ve brought along a non-decrepit CDM or two, but she made the final; we’ll focus on the positive.) It’s not completely unreasonable of her to try to shoehorn as many strikers onto the pitch as humanly possible. Just ask Argentina’s managers over the years.
However, when things weren’t working, Ellis needed to be able to adapt and try something new. And she did! And it wasn’t too late! Both of the big changes were first made evident in the China game: playing a new formation that puts players in their natural(ish) positions and encourages intense, high pressing. The formation was the less important factor, but it proved very effective to switch from that awkward 4-4-2 with the immobile Abby Wambach as one of the strikers and often another forward playing out wide to something like a 4-4-1-1 with two natural wide players (Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath), a central midfielder to sit back and try to link play rather than push forward all the time (Morgan Brian), and an attacking midfielder to connect the midfield with the attack (Carli Lloyd).
The real game-changer, though, was the pressing. We spoke after the USWNT’s Round of 16 win over Colombia that the women’s team needed to evolve along with the sport or risk losing their advantage. This was not that. It was, though, the U.S. finally maximizing their existing talent—their physical superiority—to the degree they should’ve been the entire time. From now until the end of time the USWNT should be a high-pressing team. For all the speed and fitness and strength we’ve gamed in attack for so long, we should be putting that same energy into the defensive end. The U.S. should be able to run teams right off the pitch.
The team still looks lost when trying to build play up from the back. The center backs usually ping the ball between themselves in the defensive third as only one of the front six drops back to present an option to move the ball incrementally between the lines of play, and when that easy passing lane is cut out, as it so often is, one of the center backs just hoofs it towards a forward. The inability to keep the ball and play it safely from their box to the opponent’s without the cheat code that is Wambach’s magnetic forehead has been the crucial flaw in the team this tournament.
There is a way to get around having to patiently build up attacks: pressing. Almost every single dangerous move in the game against Germany came after the midfield won the ball back with their pressure. Starting a new possession higher up the field where it is already at the feet of a midfielder who is also usually in loads of space thanks to the opponent still being in attacking position means the USWNT players don’t have to worry about supportive runs or high-percentage passes; all they have to do is run into space, accompanied by some of the world’s most dangerous players with the ball at their feet, thinking on the fly about how to jam the thing past the keeper.
America’s pressing was a thing of beauty. There was hardly a single pass our ladies didn’t harry, with nary one German allowed time and space to think about what she wanted to do with the ball before an American rolled up and gently persuaded her to aid the American cause. You can’t do that with old-ass Abby lumbering around. Both USWNT goals, from the (terrible, in no way should it have been a) penalty to Kelley O’Hara’s coup de grâce, originated from dispossessions of the ball in the midfield. It would be an exaggeration to say pressing solved all our problems, but it did mask our biggest one and in doing so, made us immeasurably more dangerous.
So what now? Is the title ours for the taking now that America are looking like THE GODDAMN UNITED STATES OF AMERICA again? Not quite. As deserved as the win undoubtedly was, it was also just as lucky. Nine times out of ten, Julie Johnston is sent off for so obviously pulling down Alexandra Popp right as she was about to get to the ball in a 1 v. 1 situation with Hope Solo. The ensuing U.S. penalty was just as lucky, in that Alex Morgan was quite obviously outside the box when her run was obstructed, and even then you could argue that it wasn’t even a foul. And it did take Germany selling out in attack for the U.S. to beat the keeper from open play.
Germany looked absolutely gassed coming off the France match, and only made a half-hearted attempt to hit the U.S. where they’re weak by pressing them collectively, forcing them back, and making them build play from deep. The absence, too, of the injured Dzsenifer Marozsán from the starting lineup was pivotal, as she was so instrumental in orchestrating the attack that had looked the best in the world. This was in no way the same German team we saw earlier in the tournament, and not just because they faced stiffer opposition.
A likely finals matchup against Japan is ideal for the spectacle of it all, which would be the third consecutive major tournament final waged between the two. Japan would present a much different threat, as pressing is also their defensive calling card—one they can’t afford to abandon as easily as Germany did. Nevertheless, we’ve made it to the big show, and if this team has proven anything over the years, it’s that even when things have looked grim, they tend to show up when it matters.
Photo via Getty