Jill Ellis got her first inkling that something major had to change in 2016.
One year earlier, the Ellis-led U.S. women’s soccer team had won the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup, riding a dominant performance from the back line. But by the quarterfinals of the Olympic Games Rio 2016, the team was starting to show signs of vulnerability.
“I think was the first time that we had seen a team, Sweden — a very established, a very veteran, a very experienced team — take an approach to sit low on us, meaning to sit in their own half,” Ellis said. “Usually, you play teams potentially that can’t match up with you, and so they take that approach, but here was a world power in soccer taking that approach.”
The Scandinavians held out for a 1-1 draw, prevailed on penalties and handed Team USA its earliest exit from a major tournament — Women’s World Cup or Olympics — in its history.
The U.S. team, including a defense that had allowed only three goals in the seven-game World Cup win — and two of those came in the 5-2 victory over Japan in the final — was about to get overhauled.
“That was the initial moment for me, ‘Huh, this is different,’” Ellis explained to a room full of reporters in New York ahead of Team USA’s final friendly game last month before heading to France for the Women’s World Cup.
“And I remember, talking to my staff, coming out of the Olympics and saying we’ve got to make sure we’re prepared for this piece of the evolution,” she said.
A combination of some stalwarts getting older, up-and-down form of others and more controversy surrounding goalie Hope Solo convinced Ellis to remake the side. Not exclusively in personnel, but in playing style, too.
“We changed our shape,” Ellis went on.
After the Olympics, she pulled out a piece of paper with a grid of a soccer field and wrote the names of her players in the position where she felt they were the most effective. From there, she deduced that the best way to achieve her goal was to change the team’s formation.
She changed the U.S. from a standard lineup of four defenders and four midfielders with two forwards (4-4-2) to one that has four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards (4-3-3).
It is a more offensive-minded approach to try to “break down” highly organized, defensive-postured teams — the kind of tactic employed often in soccer to minimize the strength of teams with skilled goal-scoring players. It’s one the U.S. is expected to use when it opens World Cup play on June 11 against Thailand.
One of the first moves was to shift 27-year-old Julie Ertz from her spot in the center of the back line to the midfield, right in front of the defense.
For Ertz, who came up through her career as a midfielder — including with her club team, the Chicago Red Stars — before transitioning to defense on Team USA, it means a return to a position she is more than comfortable with.
“For me as a midfielder, in comparison to our other midfielders, I’m a defender first,” Ertz said. “I think it’s pretty clear. I enjoy being on defense. A center back is a very unique position, and I’ve learned so much there. I love being a center back. I’ve loved the new challenges of being a midfielder, but it doesn’t mean I can’t be a defensively-minded midfielder as well.
“I love having my own creativity on attack as well. “
Among the biggest change was in goal, where Solo, 37, has been replaced by 31-year-old Alyssa Naeher after the former was suspended for six months after the conclusion of the Rio Games.
Naeher and Ashlyn Harris, 33, who had been backups to Solo since 2014 and 2013, respectively, traded the spot until Naeher eventually prevailed, taking over for a woman who holds the U.S. record for games as a goalkeeper (202) and had the starting spot for more than 10 years.
Ertz’s center back partner Becky Sauerbrunn, 34, has remained, the only player still in the same place as she was four years ago. The veteran defender’s more than 150 games in a U.S. uniform is a fact not lost on Harris.
“I have a lot of confidence in her,” said Harris, who has more than quadrupled her number of games played with Team USA (46) in the past 2 ½ years compared to her first three years on the roster. “She is one of the most consistent players that I’ve had the privilege of playing with. Her experience from previous World Cups is going to be huge, not just for me, but for the whole back line.”
Twenty-six-year-old Abby Dahlkemper has replaced Ertz in the backline, quickly ascending after not making the Olympic roster and not even having made her U.S. debut before the last Women’s World Cup.
The outside backs, while not new, have changed, too.
Six-year U.S. veteran Crystal Dunn, 26, one of the last cuts from the 2015 Women’s World Cup roster, has replaced the retired Meghan Klingenberg, while Kelley O’Hara, 30, has taken over on the outside right, where Ali Krieger, 34, had started all seven games four years ago.
Krieger, who notched her 100th cap with the national team in the lead-up to the World Cup, returned to Team USA earlier this year after not getting called in for the previous two.
“You can’t stay completely copacetic in what you do,” Ellis said. “You have to make sure you’re continuing to look.
“Any coach who sort of sits with the same roster and thinks that that’s going to be enough, even for the players who are going into their third World Cup, you always want to make sure these players are continuing to evolve and develop. And you can’t stand still because the game isn’t.”
Brian Trusdell has covered four FIFA World Cups and six Olympic Games during his more than 30 years as a sportswriter. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.