PARIS — Even before the U.S. women’s national team arrived in France to defend its World Cup title, coach Jill Ellis was asked ad nauseam how she would manage the Americans’ roster over their three group stage games.
Every time, Ellis would give a different version of the same answer: She would wait and see how the first match against Thailand shook out before determining who would play in Sunday’s second group stage tilt against Chile, saying it would be a mistake to look too far ahead.
That’s sound advice for any coach. After all, the most successful managers — and Ellis is a world champion — are able to adapt on the fly to changing circumstances. But planning for every eventuality is also a key to the job. Barring something completely unforeseen, of course Ellis knew more or less what she wanted to do.
History could provide some clues ...
During the first two games at both the 2015 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, Ellis stuck with mostly the same starters. She made just one change after the opener four years ago in Canada, and two in Rio de Janeiro the following summer.
Ellis might be tempted to go even more conservative this time around. After all, nobody would blame her for rolling with the same 11 that kickstarted the record-smashing 13-0 victory against Thailand in the Group F curtain-raiser.
It’s possible that Becky Sauerbrunn returns to her spot in central defense after sitting out in Reims with a minor injury, with Julie Ertz moving back to her midfield destroyer role against the Chileans. Then again, Sam Mewis deserves to stay on the pitch after scoring twice against the Thais – not that the World Cup newbie would grumble if she went back the bench.
“I totally trust the coaching staff,” Mewis said this week. “I think all 23 of us are prepared to step into a game and make a difference.
... But don’t be shocked if Ellis flips the script
Still, sticking with a winning lineup isn’t always the best option. (Just ask former U.S. men’s coach Bruce Arena.) Unlike in 2015 and 2016, when the second group game was the toughest of the three, the opponents will get progressively more difficult for the USWNT in France. After Tuesday’s confidence-building rout – one that included goals from substitutes Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh – Ellis might be tempted to try something different.
It’s a long tournament. The U.S. fully intends to participate in the July 7 final. So resting the preferred front three of Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe would have the dual benefit of keeping the trio fresh for the group finale versus Sweden and the knockout stage while getting Lloyd, Morgan and Christen Press a form- and fitness-building chance to play from the beginning.
“I know that my ability is there and if called on and needed to play 90 minutes, I can do it,” 2015 hero Lloyd said Friday. “There’s honestly nothing there that’s holding me back other than the coach’s decision.”
Youngster Pugh, 21, insists that there wont be any danger of a letdown against Chile if changes are made.
“I think on the bench we have a lot of fire in us,” she said. “We’re ready to take on anything. We can put anyone in and they’re going to get the job done.”
Carli Lloyd remains the wild card
The 36-year-old former FIFA World Player of the Year hasn’t exactly embraced her new role, but she has been a good soldier so far.
“If I was satisfied with that then I really shouldn’t be here,” she said. “I haven’t sat here and pouted around and been a horrible teammate. I’ve showed up every single day at training and been the hardest-working player I can be and I’ve been respectful of that decision. But also, when my chances have come, I’ve tried to seize those and take those opportunities.”
The most recent example came when Lloyd netted goal No. 13 against Thailand in stoppage time. “I think it was massive to get Carli a goal tonight,” Ellis said afterward. “She’s a player as well that you want to get hot.”
Despite Lloyd’s unwelcome transformation from star forward to super sub, she does’t appear to hold any grudge against her coach. The pair shared a warm embrace and a few words on the field after the final whistle in Reims.
“I just thanked her for continuously giving me opportunities because at the end of the day that’s a decision that she and the coaching staff have to make,” Lloyd said. “We both know I can help this team.”
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