Jill Ellis was the Women’s World Coach of the Year for 2015. But that was back when she was winning.
With her team’s embarrassing loss to Sweden on Friday (Aug. 12), the critics have already started to wonder aloud if she knows what she’s doing after all.
This headline from Fox Sports is fairly typical:
Manager Jill Ellis got a lot wrong in the USWNT’s Olympic failure
The story, by Caitlyn Murray, says Ellis’ game plan “didn’t set the players up to succeed.”
It was too predictable:
When in doubt, just loft the ball into the box and push up field. Crosses from the flanks. Long balls from the back end. Just get the ball up the field and hope that Alex Morgan or someone can do something with it.
Ellis was outcoached by Sweden’s Pia Sundhage, Murray says — even though Sundhage’s game plan was even more predictable:
If anyone knows about the USWNT’s athleticism and how to deal with it, it’s Pia Sundhage, who benefited from it when she coached the USWNT to back-to-back Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012. Her game plan was a defensive one: Have the Swedish players sit deep in their own half and jam up the midfield. …
The most disconcerting part for the Americans is that they knew what Sweden was going to do.
The day before the game, Ellis said Sweden “will park the bus. They will sit as low as they possibly can,” then wait for openings to counterattack.
“It happened just as Ellis predicted,” Murray notes.
A second piece by Murray poses
4 questions for the USWNT after their Olympics failure
Two of the four questions are “Will Jill Ellis be fired?” and “Should Jill Ellis be replaced?” (Very doubtful and probably not, the writer benevolently concludes.)
Ellis is also getting blistered for including Megan Rapinoe on the roster. The midfielder is recovering, but not recovered, from ACL surgery just seven months ago. She hadn’t played since October.
Rapinoe and her coach both knew she wasn’t ready to go 90 minutes. In truth, she was barely able to go 30.
Against Sweden, that cost the United States. Rapinoe was brought on in the 72nd minute with her team trailing 1-0. Ellis hoped Rapinoe might set up the equalizer with a corner or cross, at which she excels.
But the substitution took Kelley O’Hara, a versatile defender who’s good at pushing forward, off the field. Tobin Heath, one of the team’s most creative passers and dribblers, was pulled from her midfield position — where she, like Rapinoe, could have helped press the attack — to the backline to take O’Hara’s place. That made little sense.
Worse, Rapinoe wasn’t fit enough for 30 minutes of extra time — not even close. Ellis had to use her only substitution in extra time to pull Rapinoe off in the 99th minute.
So the coach wound up twisting her lineup out of shape and burning two substitutions to get 27 unexceptional minutes from Rapinoe.
Grant Wahl of Sports Illustrated, one of the country’s most knowledgeable, least bombastic soccer writers, questioned Ellis’ decision to start Allie Long instead of the much more dangerous, disruptive Crystal Dunn.
After Sweden went up 1-0 in the 61st minute, Dunn was brought on for Long “to spark the U.S. attack,” Wahl writes, and she did exactly that, “bringing energy and creativity to the team.”
But knowing that the Swedes planned to pack it in, and that it would take some nifty play up front to penetrate their clogging defense, why, Wahl wonders, didn’t Ellis just start Dunn in the first place?
Asked about that after the game, Ellis said Long is better in the air and was more rested. Just three days earlier, Dunn played 90 minutes against Colombia in the oppressive tropical heat and humidity of Manaus. Long was only used in the final 25 minutes of that game.
Plus, the coach said, she thought Dunn would be “a trump card” coming in off the bench against Sweden.
The questions being asked about these judgments are valid. And even if they weren’t, Ellis knows, she’d have to face them.
She coaches the royalty of women’s soccer, a team that thinks winning a silver medal means failure at the Olympics. And she couldn’t find a way to lead this royalty past a plodding, unimaginative Swedish team that could do little but plant as many bodies as possible in front of its goal and hope for the best.
Hope Solo, while making an ass of herself by labeling the Swedes “a bunch of cowards,” also said something after the game that was inarguably true: “The best team did not win today.”
By definition that’s the fault of the coach, because the coach’s job is to figure out how to win.
But a baseball manager can’t pitch the ninth inning. A basketball coach can’t shoot his team’s free throws. And a soccer coach can’t run onto the field and drive the ball into the net. The American players had plenty of opportunities to beat Sweden. They squandered those opportunities.
In the first half, the Americans controlled possession 64 percent of the time, but managed just one shot on goal.
For the game, they launched an astounding 27 shots. The only time all year when they had more (32), they beat Puerto Rico 10-0. Against Sweden, only six of their shots were on frame. The other 21 were … everywhere else.
“Our problem was not even hitting the frame,” Alex Morgan said. “We didn’t even really test the goalkeeper as much as we should have.”
Carli Lloyd, who has cast herself as the player who always comes up biggest in the biggest moments, had a chance to seal a victory late in the second half. With the score tied at 1-1, Lloyd had a clear shot from close range. The ball caromed off a Swedish defender.
She also had a great look in the 50th minute, when a goal would have given the United States a 1-0 lead, but she pushed the ball wide.
Alex Morgan’s equalizer in the 77th minute saved her team from defeat in regulation time. But in the shootout, Morgan led off and put her kick right in the arms of Hedvig Lindahl, Sweden’s goalkeeper.
Christen Press — described by Julie Johnston before the Games as “the most clutch player in women’s soccer” — sent her PK sailing over the crossbar.
Maybe Ellis could have overcome these and other stumbles with a different formation, a different lineup, a different roster.
Maybe all the Americans needed was a break — one lucky bounce, one lucky touch, one lucky call — to survive a bad day and come roaring back in the next game like the champions they are.
But good coaching or good luck can only carry a team so far.
It’s the players who play the games.
A philosopher of sorts, Rocky Bridges, said as much more than 40 years ago.
A journeyman infielder in the major leagues from 1951 to 1961, Bridges went on to a long and undistinguished career as a minor league manager in the Angels, Giants, Padres and Pirates organizations.
Over 21 seasons, his teams won 1,300 games and lost 1,358.
Bridges’ explanation for this spectacularly mediocre record became the title of a collection of baseball stories published in 1973:
“I Managed Good, But Boy Did They Play Bad.”