U.S. women’s team’s conservative attack draws criticism

U.S. coach Jill Ellis and her team aim to defend their title at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, June 7 to July 7 in France.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis and her team aim to defend their title at the 2019 Women’s World Cup, June 7 to July 7 in France. Getty Images

Tickets are going at five times the face value for the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal between the United States and China on Friday night at TD Place Stadium in Ottawa, Ontario.

The highly anticipated game is a rematch of the 1999 World Cup final, a U.S. victory that riveted the sellout Rose Bowl crowd of 93,000 and catapulted the women’s game to new heights all around the world.

The Americans are favored, having gone undefeated through four games, outscored opponents 6-1 and played 333 minutes without conceding a goal. And yet, they enter Friday’s match under intense scrutiny because critics say the team’s attack has been one-dimensional, lacked creativity, relied too much on long balls and, as a result, has not produced as many goals as anticipated.

Fox analyst Eric Wynalda said after Team USA’s 2-0 win over Colombia in the Round of 16 that coach Jill Ellis is too conservative.

“The performance was pathetic, and it’s not the players’ fault,” he said. “We have plenty of players who can go at teams, plenty of players who can score goals, but the reins have been pulled on them. They’ve been told to play defense. She’s [Ellis] married to the 4-4-2. She doesn’t even know what a 4-3-3 is, and it’s not a U.S. team that we can be proud of right now. They’re better than that. Those players are much better than that, and you’ve got to let them play.”

Former U.S. star Michelle Akers, who led the team to World Cup titles in 1991 and 1999, blasted Ellis on an interview on Sirius XM radio after the Colombia match.

“Some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable,” Akers said. “If she [Ellis] is pleased with the way we played [Monday night], then what the hell is she doing coaching our U.S. team?”

And Fox announcer Tony DiCicco, the former U.S. coach, said: “They’re still one-dimensional. Jill Ellis is locked on a system that isn’t working.”

Ellis, a Palmetto Bay resident who was named coach in April 2014, appeared to be getting irritated with the line of questioning after the Colombia victory. She defended her team.

“This is the World Cup,” Ellis said. “I’m really satisfied with advancing. Most goals in World Cup tournaments, a majority of them, come on set pieces; we’ve been brilliant. It’s about finding a way. I thought we stroked the ball around pretty well at times. So, yeah, I’m pleased with where we are.”

The U.S. midfield will be without starters Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday against China, as both are serving suspensions for double yellow cards. Morgan Brian is expected to replace Holiday, and Christen Press will likely step in for Rapinoe.

Midfielder Carli Lloyd told reporters the team is “capable of so much more,” and she would like to see the Americans take more chances.

“Yes, the defensive shape has been strong,” Lloyd said. “But in order for us to win this thing and in order for us to show the world what we’ve got, we’ve got to take risks at some point. … We’ve got to keep believing. We want to continue doing what we’re strong at, transition, set pieces, flank play, and we’ve got to bang in some goals.

“We’re following the direction of the coaches. We’re doing everything they ask of us, and we just have to continue to dig deep and find a way.”

China is considered one of the weaker quarterfinalists and has had trouble scoring. The main threat is Wang Shanshan, a former center back who was moved up to center forward. The Chinese defense is very disciplined and strong.

“The Chinese defense is very organized, compact and diligent with their defensive shape,” Lloyd said.

Alexi Lalas, a Fox analyst and former member of the U.S. men’s national team, is not convinced the United States can win the tournament unless it changes its style of play.

“The problem is, when you talk about a lack of cohesion in the midfield and the one-dimensional type of play up top — against Colombia, OK, it’s there,” he said. “But does it get magnified when you play teams that are of your level or above your level? That’s the concern going forward. These are not surprises. These were problems before the World Cup, and they’re not going to magically disappear after a couple days.”

USA vs. China

What: Women’s World Cup quarterfinal.

When: Friday, 7:30 p.m.

Where: TD Place Stadium, Ottawa.

TV: FOX, NBC Universo