Soccer writers, sports talk show bloviators, columnists, commentators, and fans on social media have all had their say about how Jill Ellis is coaching the U.S. team in this World Cup.
Most of what they’ve said has not been flattering. Ellis has been called timid, unimaginative, predictable. Incapable of making adjustments on the fly. Set in her ways. Controlling. Too worried about losing to let her team play with swagger and verve.
Coaches can’t allow themselves the vanity of heeding such gripes and second-guessing. They can’t make decisions by voice vote. They can’t run their teams by public committee.
As Billy Cunningham, a long-ago coach of the Philadelphia 76ers, once said: If you listen to the people in the stands, you’ll end up sitting with them.
But the disapproving voice might be just a little harder to ignore when it comes from one of the greatest and most respected players ever to wear the U.S. jersey.
“The coach isn’t handling the personnel right,” Akers said. “The lineup sucks. The subs are sketchy. We’re not all on the same page.”
She went on: “We know the U.S. can overpower, and be more talented, more physical, and be the best team, hands down, on any given day. We know that. … So to see us struggle, again, is frustrating.”
And on: “We don’t have all our pieces together. We aren’t performing at our best. Some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable.”
Akers then delivered this haymaker:
“If she’s pleased with the way we played tonight, then what the hell is she doing coaching our U.S. team?”
In fairness, it must be noted that Ellis and Akers have an acrimonious history. Earlier this year, Akers told SoccerWire.com that she’s repeatedly offered to help coach the U.S. women, and that she’s been rebuffed by Ellis and Sunil Gulati, the president of U.S. Soccer.
On social media and elsewhere, Akers has opined that the person who should be running the team is her former coach, Tony DiCicco, the last U.S. coach to win a World Cup, in 1999. She’s continued to lobby for DiCicco, even after Gulati’s hiring of Ellis.
Whatever grudges she may bear, Akers is hardly alone among soccer intelligentsia in expressing bewilderment at the way Ellis is approaching this World Cup.
• Between them, Eric Wynalda and Alexi Lalas have 19 years’ experience, 202 caps, and 43 goals for the U.S. men’s team. Lalas, in addition, was the general manager of three Major League Soccer franchises, the San Jose Earthquakes, the New York Red Bulls, and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Both are now studio analysts for Fox Sports. Both have been blunt and relentless in their criticisms of Ellis.
(In this short radio interview, for example, Wynalda says Ellis doesn’t trust her players and is “terrified” of losing. He likens her to Henry Winkler’s mousy, pitiful character in The Waterboy, Coach Klien.)
• DiCicco, a color commentator on Fox’s World Cup broadcast team, has hammered at the U.S. coaching staff for not utilizing the team’s speed to advance down the flanks and for not pressuring opponents more aggressively. During the Colombia game, DiCicco said over and over that Ellis should switch immediately from a 4-4-2 formation to a 4-3-3 to shore up the weak U.S. attack and put more speed around Abby Wambach.
“Jill is locked on a system that’s not working,” he said.
• DiCicco’s fellow commentator, Cat Whitehill, who played for the United States for 11 years (and for the storied Anson Dorrance at the University of North Carolina), has noted a troubling lack of teamwork and communication along the U.S. front line. Except when Alex Morgan and Wambach are paired up, the forwards seldom pass to one another. This has contributed to the team’s offensive stagnation and to a dearth of easy scoring opportunities.
• Over at ESPN, Julie Foudy and Kate Margraf, former teammates of Akers’ and members of the ’99 World Cup championship team, echoed DiCicco in saying Ellis should switch to a 4-3-3 to create more scoring options.
“The 4-4-2 is not working. It’s not working,” Foudy says in this video. She adds: “It’s asking too much of Abby Wambach, in a forward position at 35 years old, to carry that load. I don’t think she has the legs for it, nor the pace for it.”
It’s telling that Foudy, Margraf and DiCicco, among others, said Ellis should put in a third forward.
They didn’t say they thought she would.
The biggest problem with Ellis’ offense may be the one that Foudy alluded to: For the most part, it runs through Wambach.
Wambach is on her final lap, and it shows. She is no longer an imposing, explosive presence in the final third.
Too often when she’s is in the game, the U.S. attack is reduced to: Cross the ball to Abby and hope she can get a head on it. That was a reliable, if uninventive, approach in 2012. Now, it’s one-dimensional — easy to spot, and easy to stop.
She isn’t getting to balls that she used to get to. She isn’t getting the elevation she needs to give her headers direction and snap. She hasn’t been able to muscle past younger, more agile players to create space for herself in traffic.
At 5-11 and 180 pounds, Wambach was never speedy. These days, she runs like she’s wearing snow skis.
The cross-it-to-Abby offense has stifled more creative, more athletic attackers like Sydney Leroux, Christen Press, Carli Lloyd, and Amy Rodriguez — when it hasn’t crowded them out of the lineup altogether. (It hasn’t stifled Megan Rapinoe, but what can?)
Ellis’s belief in the Ghost of Abby Past isn’t her only stubborn eccentricity.
The coach insists on playing Press, a natural forward, in the midfield — maybe because in a 4-4-2, there’s no place else to put her.
Lloyd is most effective as an attacking midfielder, playing up and in the middle, where she can pounce on opponents’ mistakes, maneuver for just a sliver of daylight and fire cannonballs at the net. That’s her game.
But at times this year, Ellis has stationed her on the wing, or in a largely defensive holding position.
Hard-nosed and fearless, Lloyd is a good defender. But using her in that role is like putting a thoroughbred in a plow harness.
Ellis’s decision to grant a roster spot to 37-year-old Shannon Boxx — hoping against hope that age, injuries and a long hiatus from the game hadn’t done Boxx in — was, in hindsight, a waste of a roster spot.
Boxx, once one of the game’s top holding midfielders, played 16 minutes in one group game before hurting herself the next day in training. She might not see the field again, even with two mids, Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, suspended for Friday’s quarterfinal against China.
Had Boxx not tagged along to Canada, her roster spot would have gone to Crystal Dunn, a young, quick, tireless defender who brings an intense energy onto the field.
Given how well the U.S. back line is playing, Dunn might not have gotten much playing time (though she was a forward at the University of North Carolina and she plays on the wing for her club team, the Washington Spirit).
At a minimum, though, she would have gained from the experience of taking part in a World Cup, experience she might have been able to draw on four or eight years hence.
And finally, the U.S. substitutions have been mystifying.
Where, for God’s sake, is Heather O’Reilly? Where’s Kelley O’Hara?
Where, for that matter, are Leroux and Rodriguez?
Leroux started the first two group matches, while Morgan was still being brought along slowly as she recovered from a bruised knee. But in the third and final group match, against Nigeria, Leroux didn’t get on until the 66th minute. She didn’t play against Colombia.
Rodriguez came on in the second half against Sweden, logging 32 minutes. That’s it.
Rodriguez has yet to take a shot. Leroux has taken three, none on goal.
It’s not like they’ve been squeezed out by other, more potent strikers who keep filling the net. In four World Cup games, the United States has scored just six times.
In a 4-4-2, Leroux or Rodriguez will only take the field if Morgan or Wambach sits.
But in a 4-3-3, one or both could be called on to augment the attack.