USWNT: The curious case of the ladies in stars and stripes
Written by: Shriman Visahan
From their worst loss in history in 2007 to building a World Cup-winning team within a decade the women's game in the USA has come a long way.
"Patience and perseverance can overcome mountains."
And persevere, they did.
The fortress which the USWNT have built is a result of a brick being laid each passing day. The only anomaly would be that the bricklayers themselves were unsure whether they were building a Colosseum or just piling the bricks only to fall altogether on their heads.
The football (or soccer, as they call it) they play today is a product of progressive team building over the past decade or so. What would intrigue anybody is their bohemian journey to the top of the game. Their underdog ascent to the top began when they hit rock bottom in the 2007 World Cup in China.
Losing out in the semi-finals against Brazil was their worst defeat in the tournament ever since 1991. This had come as a shock to everybody under the sun as the "Star and Stripes" were a juggernaut throughout the tournament and had a spotless run.
That loss in Hangzhou was an amalgam of bad decisions through the match. Greg Ryan, the team coach came under fire for deciding to go for the veteran Briana Scurry over the regular and younger Hope Solo in the goal. Deciding to start with an older goalkeeper in a crucial match raised many eyebrows and the team paid the price.
When questioned, Ryan said he picked Scurry because of her quick reflexes. However, this explanation wasn't convincing enough to the critics and it was judged as a blunder. Already out of favour, he had made matters worse with Hope Solo after he allegedly pushed her after the match. He rubbished such claims, but a sourness had developed between him and the team, his time with them was over.
Ryan had parted ways with the team after 5 years and the USWNT were in the market for a new coach to lead them.
It was then at this point of time, the team roped in Pia Sundhage. The Swede had been coaching teams for nearly a decade and had experience coaching in the US. She was a natural fit and already had dealt with various players of the team in the past.
She had infused the team with solid tactics, particularly in the defense. She had promoted conservative playing in the back and with Solo in the goal, the team had become indomitable. The only chink in the armour of Sundhage was the absence of a lethal attacking play which unsurprisingly didn't grow under her conservative gameplan.
The team didn't exactly fire the attacking cylinders but had a brilliant defense. She could arguably be the most tactically aware coach to have taken the reins of the team.
The psychological comfort of woman leading woman had fallen in their favour as well. They had won the Algarve Cup in 2008, 2010 and 2011 and clinched the Gold in the 2008 Olympics as well (they had beaten Brazil in the final and ironically, Hope Solo was at the goal).
Sundhage had also introduced the likes of Alex Morgan, Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe in her regime. These players are to become the pillars for years to come and her strategy of a "player conveyor belt" seems to have paid off.
Sundhage had made doctrine of the concept of introducing new players each WC so as to sow the seeds for the next one and so on. Though these players didn't get significant playing time and had occupied the spot of a few players who still had football left in them, this was paying off as the new players in the team were forerunners in the next WC.
The primary reason that this had worked like clockwork could probably be credited to two factors. One could be that the USWNT is generally a tad bit older than its competitors and have always traditionally relied on experience over physical prowess.
The second is that America has the most encouraging domestic system for the women to play football; all the women in the current USWNT have played in the same national domestic league and are very well aware of the style of play in the country. With a neat setup of influx of professional players to back the "conveyor belt", the USWNT had the luxury of always having seasoned players in the roster no matter what.
However, the coveted World Cup still remained a distant dream. The women went down fighting in the penalties to a determined Japanese team in the 2011 edition. The tournament was run on the shoulders of Abby Warmbach, Christie Rampone and Hope Solo; and with their performances, it was safe to say that the next World Cup had their stars ready. Losing out in a game of possession, the USWNT could now walk with their heads held high, they figured out the recipe for success and were ready to replicate it.
Sundhage left the team in 2012 on a high after bringing home the gold from the London Olympics. The "godmother" of American football had left the USWNT for going back to managing teams in Sweden. However, her guidance and the system which she had established was to stand for years to come.
USWNT 2011 / 2015 / 2019 pic.twitter.com/DvUyiGsnlT— Raíssa. mundinho Tobin Heath (@lostmyhead102) July 15, 2019
Like 5 years back, the USWNT were again looking for a coach, but this time they weren't a dysfunctional machine as they were in the past.
Jill Ellis comes into the picture at this point of time. An all-American coach who has coached American college teams throughout her career and has played an active hand in the development of youth soccer. She had been an interim coach for a few months after the Olympics before being succeeded by Tom Sermanni.
The team had gelled well with her and she handled a series of international friendlies with a great track record. However, she didn't have any prior experience with clubs which was a primary reason for the gig going to a more "experienced" Sermanni.
When Sermanni took over, he didn't agree with the team's style of play seasoned under Sundhage. He wanted an effective attack with technique rather than relying on the individual prowess of players and a conservative play. Sermanni was not afraid to experiment with new lineups and formations in international competitions.
He was a forward thinker and he was working to develop the team for the future with older core players like Christie Rampone, Abby Wambach, and Carli Lloyd in the system. This idea was a stark contrast of that Sundhage's methods. Sundhage would have benched these senior players and let the newer players come in rather than building the team around them.
The USWNT is one of the most experienced teams and for seasoned veterans and starters on the team, these radical changes in personnel and line-ups may have led to frustration as this often led to a lack of consistency.
The loss in the 2014 Algarve Cup was the final straw for the USWNT to fire him within a span of less than 24 months. His appointment had taught the team the lesson to stick with the existing game plan and carry it forward from there.
Back came Jill Ellis, this time as an interim manager who became permanent later. Now, when she took over the team, the World Cup of 2015 was just around the corner. The problem with Ellis was that her strategies weren’t really strong, bluntly put. Her choice of substitutions, gameplan were questioned right from the start of her stint to this day, yet managed to win the WC.
The reason for the victory in 2015 is to be wholly given to players. Ellis makes stuff up on the fly. She has no sound hypothesis. There is no method to her madness. But it doesn’t even matter most of the time because the USWNT is arguably the best team in the world. Bad player selections aren’t punished because all 23 players on the roster are world-class.
Jim Ellis hadn’t made many changes in the 2015 World Cup game plan, primarily because of the lack of games in her hand to experiment those changes on. She had left the players to themselves and had given them a freer hand to play in their comfort zone. The senior players had mentored the new entrants as Sundhage would’ve wanted in her ‘conveyor belt’ and it brought the results.
The USWNT lifted the trophy after more than a decade by defeating the defending champions Japan.
The USWNT had plied the same tactics of that employed in 2015. Interestingly, Ellis had flopped big time in the 2016 Olympics with terrible tactics, most of which were playing the players in alien positions. When I mean alien, completely alien.
It was after this terrible run that Ellis had stopped to meddle with the positive efforts of the team and rather let them be. She had gradually morphed from an eccentric to a composed mentor whom the girls trusted and believed in. It wasn’t an easy task to keep players behind the line, especially when players like Rapinoe make the ranks. (Rapinoe had knelt on the U.S. anthem much before Colin Kaepernick and Ellis had managed to get Rapinoe to apologize. This is definitely not an easy feat.)
By now, the team had made all the mistakes to be made in the past decade and had learnt from it as well. With the players, was a coach who herself had learnt about managing in that period. Their journey had taken all the wrong turns but did end up on the right track. Each coach taught them the game, either by success or failure.
When 2019 WC had kicked off in France, the girls had finally seen it all. The good, the bad and the ugly.
Winning the trophy was just a formality by then and on 7th July 2019, the formality etched them in history.
Published: Sun Jul 21, 2019 01:31 PM IST