Jill Ellis’ gamble: Team can win now, while youngsters learn how to win later

Jill Ellis in Winnipeg for the World Cup, June 12, 2015. (Getty Images)

Jill Ellis in Winnipeg for the World Cup, June 12, 2015. (Getty Images)

Graham Hays of ESPNW, writing about the U.S. team’s much-noted youth movement,   says coach Jill Ellis is in a predicament.

Ellis needs to find the next generation of stars — and not just for this summer’s Rio Olympics, but for the 2019 World Cup, and beyond.

jill si coverThe women’s world coach of the year made soccer history in 2015, when the United States won the World Cup for the first time in 16 years. It’s the only team that’s won it three times.

But this is the U.S. Women’s National Team, the team of Akers, Hamm and Foudy, Lilly and Chastain, Wambach and Lloyd and Solo and Morgan.

Winning is the expected result; a silver medal represents failure. Fans don’t care how many games the coach won last year, and neither do her bosses at U.S. Soccer. They just want to know how she plans to win the next one.

For Ellis, there’s no living in the glorious past. Not unless she wants to become a part of it.

She must seize the future.

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Ellis is trying to do that with a team that’s young, energetic, young, talented… and young. Eight of the 20 players on the current roster have eight or fewer caps.

The U.S. team was the oldest in the World Cup, with an average age of 29.2.  Seven months later, the team’s average age is 25.7.

It’s not like Ellis had much choice but to go with younger players. A lot of her old ones are gone, or sidelined.

To paraphrase Rick Pitino, who coached the Boston Celtics through four miserable losing seasons after the Golden Age of Bird and Magic:

Abby Wambach‘s not walking through that door, fans.  Lauren Holiday‘s not walking through that door, and Christie Rampone’s not walking through that door. Not unless she’s  on  crutches.”

 

The retirements of Wambach, Holiday, Lori Chalupny and Shannon Boxx came as no surprise to Ellis. (Many fans were stunned by Holiday’s announcement, given that she was 28 and at her peak, but she shared her plans with her coach and teammates before the start of the World Cup.)

But elsewhere, there were surprises aplenty. Who knew that two pregnancies (Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux) and a torn ACL (Megan Rapinoe) would sideline players with a quarter-century of combined experience, more than 300 caps and almost 100 goals?

Life, as John Lennon said, is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.

Lindsey Horan vs. Brazil, Oct. 25, 2015. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

Lindsey Horan vs. Brazil, Oct. 25, 2015. (Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)

To restock by this summer, and certainly before 2019, Ellis must evaluate her options.

That, says Hays, means giving meaningful playing time right now to her best and brightest prospects — Mallory  Pugh, Lindsey Horan, Stephanie McCaffrey, and Crystal Dunn, among others — even if they’re not quite ready for prime time.

In assembling this roster, he notes, there were places where Ellis had a choice: Go with  youth, or go with experience. She picked youth.

 Mallory Pugh and Denise O'Sullivan and Louise Quinn of Ireland, Jan. 23, 2016. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

Mallory Pugh vs. Ireland, Jan. 23, 2016. (Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)

She brought on Pugh, who is 17 — the youngest American ever on an Olympic qualifying roster — while cutting 31-year-old Heather O’Reilly.

She kept Jaelene Hinkle and Emily Sonnett, both 22, and cut 28-year-old Whitney Engen.

Right now, you could make an argument that Engen and O’Reilly are the better players.

But will that be true three years from now?

Probably not.

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Ellis’ present approach contrasts sharply with what she did in putting together last year’s World Cup roster. Hired in May of 2014, she had barely a year to prepare her team for the big event. It was no time for bold experiments, for learning by trial and error which young stars would embrace the pressure, and which would be crushed by it. So  for the most part, Ellis stuck with familiar, reliable veterans.

In order, these were the 10 Americans who had the most World Cup minutes.  In parentheses is the number of years between that player’s first cap and the 2015 World Cup. Those in blue had fewer than five years.

1. Hope Solo (15)
2. Carli Lloyd (10)
3. Julie Johnston (2)
4. Meghan Klingenberg (4)
5. Becky Sauerbrunn (7)
6. Ali Krieger (7)
7. Lauren Holiday (7)
8. Megan Rapinoe (9)
9. Alex Morgan (5)
10. Tobin Heath (7)

Sliced differently, here was the starting lineup for the final against Japan, listed alphabetically. Again, blue denotes those who’d been with the team for fewer than five year:

1. Morgan Brian (2)
2. Tobin Heath (7)
3. Lauren Holiday (7)
4. Julie Johnston (2)
5. Meghan Klingenberg (4)
6. Ali Krieger (7)
7. Carli Lloyd (10)
8. Alex Morgan (5)
9. Megan Rapinoe (9)
10. Becky Sauerbrunn (7)
11. Hope Solo (15)

The pattern is apparent. That was a veteran team.

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The emphasis on experience in  was most evident in the last selection Ellis made before the World Cup. With one spot left to fill, the coach chose Shannon Boxx over Crystal Dunn.

Boxx, at the time, was 37; Dunn, 22.

In her day, Boxx was an imposing defensive midfielder and a brilliant all-around talent — a three-time Olympic gold medal winner, and a finalist for the 2005 FIFA World Player of the Year award.

But by early 2015, her day had well passed. A new mom, she’d been gone from the U.S. team for more than a year. In 2012, she’d  revealed that she had lupus, a chronic inflammatory disease of the autoimmune system. Its symptoms, which can flare up at any time, include fatigue, muscle soreness and joint pain.

Boxx brought intangibles to the World Cup experience, contributions that don’t show up in game stats: A fierce work ethic, perseverance,  knowledge of the game, familiarity with opposing players and coaches, and a calming, nurturing way in the locker room..

But on the field, her impact was negligible: She was used just once in the World Cup, subbed in for 16 minutes against Nigeria.

Left behind, Dunn took out her frustrations on the National Women’s Soccer League.

After being cut by Jill Ellis, Crystal Dunn (in white) shredde defenses throughout the National Women's Soccer League. (Don Ryan/AP)

After being cut by Jill Ellis, Crystal Dunn (in white) shredded NWSL defenses. (Don Ryan/AP)

The Washington Spirit striker led the league in scoring and was its Most Valuable Player.

Shannon Boxx is introduced before her final game, against Brazil in Seattle on Oct. 21, 2015. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Shannon Boxx is introduced before her final game, Oct. 21,  2015. (Elaine Thompson/AP)

Boxx announced her retirement right after the World Cup.

In September, Ellis invited Dunn to join the U.S. team’s Victory Tour.

Dunn has been a fixture in the lineup ever since, and most people think she’s a lock to make the team that Ellis will take to Brazil this summer.

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On Wednesday (Feb. 10), the U.S. women easily brushed aside Costa Rica in the opening round of the Olympic qualifying tournament taking place in Frisco, Texas. The final score was 5-0, but for all intents, the game was over after 15 minutes, thanks in no small part to Dunn.

Duun, who is speedy and clever, advanced  relentlessly on Costa Rica’s backline, and the pressure paid quick dividends.

In the ninth minute, while dribbling into the box, she drew a foul, and the United States was awarded a penalty kick. Carli Lloyd converted it to give her team a 2-0 lead.

The PK was a gift. Replays clearly showed that Dunn was brought down just outside the penalty area. But that’s not how the officials saw it, and the only way any player gets that call is if she forces the issue with her aggressive play..

Six minutes later, Dunn made it 3-0 when she pounced on a rebound — actually, on two successive rebounds — off the hands of Dinnia Diaz, Costa Rica’s goalkeeper,

All night long, Dunn looked at ease on the pitch, playing with pace and a remarkable poise. And not just remarkable for someone her age. Remarkable at any age.

It will be a good long while, I think,  before she has to worry about being left behind again.

Crystal Dunn vs. China, Glendale, Ariz., Dec. 13, 2015. (Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports)

Crystal Dunn vs. China, Dec. 13, 2015. (Joe Camporeale/USA Today Sports)

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It’s silly to pretend that one game reveals much about whether Ellis’ gamble will pay off next August in Rio.

That’s especially true of a game against a careless, poorly organized opponent. For Costa Rica to have had the thinnest chance of winning  on Wednesday, it had to avoid falling behind early; and it couldn’t let explosive scorers like Morgan, Lloyd, Dunn and Christen Press have their way in the final third.

Plenty to celebrate: Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Frisco, Texas, Feb.10, 2016. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Plenty to celebrate: Ali Krieger, Crystal Dunn, Carli Lloyd, Alex Morgan, Frisco, Texas, Feb.10, 2016. (Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)

Los Ticos failed on both counts. On top of that, their offense was woeful. They couldn’t break down the U.S. backline to save their lives. And most of their few attempts were half-assed.

Even so, after watching this early edition of USA ’16, you get the sense that Ellis is onto something. Horan and Dunn could develop into world-class talents who rule the game for years. Sonnett, Sam Mewis, and Stephanie McCaffrey have all shown that they can play at the highest level. Young Ms. Pugh, who scored in her debut with the team, is a fascinating work in progress.

The older U.S. players say one thing they love about their new teammates is their zeal to learn. They’re eager for instruction. They ask a lot of questions, because they want to get better. Now, they’re being taught at the feet of the the best in the world.

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It’s an intriguing recipe:

•Take a bunch of gifted, tireless, committed young guns.
• Blend with seasoned pros like Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan, Ali Krieger, and Hope Solo.
• Shape with the hands of Jill Ellis. Gently but firmly.
• Let it rise.

Something very good may come of it.

Sam Mewis and Alex Morgan, Jan. 23, 2016. (Gregory Bull/AP)

Sam Mewis and Alex Morgan, Jan. 23, 2016. (Gregory Bull/AP)

There will be stumbles. The new kids aren’t going to pile up goals like Wambach and Holiday, Rodriguez and Rapinoe. Maybe someday, but probably not yet. That means fewer second-half leads of three or four goals, the kinds of ample cushions that can hide beginners’ mistakes.

You wouldn’t know it from the Costa Rica blowout, but offensively, this squad is USA Lite.

From Hays:

When the national team arrived in Winnipeg less than a year ago in advance of its first World Cup game, it brought a combined 538 career international goals. The team that will show up in Texas has just 201 career goals spread amongst the roster.

By investing now in her team’s future, Ellis is showing uncommon patience and wisdom. But the strategy has its risks.

By playing the youngsters now in hopes of getting them battle-tested for later,  “Ellis necessarily diminishes her margin for error in the present,” Hays writes.

That shouldn’t matter in this qualifier. But it could in August, when the new kids gaze across the Brazilian grass and see the women of Germany, France, or Japan.

Or their disquietingly spirited hostess:

Marta. (AP)

Marta. (AP)

 

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