Last week, the U.S. women’s national team played its final game of 2016, a 5-0 friendly win over Romania, to finish the year with a 22-0-3 win-loss-tie record. One of those ties, however, was the 2016 Olympics quarterfinal, which ended with the USA being eliminated by Sweden in a penalty-kick tiebreaker.
Tony DiCicco remains the only coach who has guided the U.S. women to a World Cup (1999) and an Olympic (1996) title. We asked DiCicco, also coach of the USA’s 2008 U-20 Women's World Cup championship team, for his assessment on the state of the U.S. national team under Coach Jill Ellis, who took the helm in May 2014.
SOCCER AMERICA: Jill Ellis took the helm barely a year before the 2015 World Cup …
TONY DiCICCO: She did an excellent job of taking over a team with a short cycle and grinding out the win. The team didn’t play great until Carli Lloyd got hot but Jill was steady and calm and that is what it took for her team to find its way. The first World Cup win in 16 years was a great way to start her women’s national team coaching career.
SA: Last summer came the disappointment of the quarterfinal exit at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil. That marked the first time in 13 world championships -- World Cups and Olympics – that the USA didn’t finish in the top three …
TONY DiCICCO: Jill did a very good job of moving some players into retirement, while others (Lauren Holiday and Abby Wambach) retired on their own. She also brought in some new exciting players such as Mallory Pugh; Lindsey Horan; Allie Long and Crystal Dunn and, to be honest, this was a better soccer team than her World Cup team. The quarterfinal loss to Sweden was difficult to take. The No. 1 ranked team went out too early and Jill must take the heat for coming up short. The good news is that she is building an exciting, fun team to watch.
SA: What do you think went wrong at the Olympics?
TONY DiCICCO: For one, there was too much talk from the coaching staff about 2019 when 2016 needed to be the entire focus. An expression we used with my teams is Keep the Main Thing the Main Thing and I don’t think 2016 was the full 100 percent focus for the players and maybe even the staff.
There were also the distractions. The players, rightfully so, had to take advantage of the marketing opportunities post-World Cup 2015, but how much of a wear and tear did those opportunities create? This may be a reason why no team has done the double: following a World Cup title with an Olympic gold medal. The closest was 1999 World Cup champions who in 2000 lost the Olympic final on a golden goal.
SA: Do you think the team missed the leadership of Christie Rampone and Abby Wambach?
TONY DiCICCO: Rampone and Wambach were two key leaders of the team and, understandably, there is an adjustment when two strong personalities are no longer with the team. Carli Lloyd, Becky Sauerbrunn and others are all solid leaders who are filling that gap, but it sometimes takes time.
The team also missed Lauren Holiday as the architect of the attack. The midfield of Allie Long; Morgan Brian; Lindsey Horan and others, like newcomer Andi Sullivan (Lloyd is more of a center forward now) are talented, will continue to improve, but were still in process in the Olympics.
SA: How about the defense?
TONY DiCICCO: During the Olympics, Julie Johnston’s injury hurt as did Hope Solo’s drop in form. In Canada in 2015, the World Cup defense was fantastic and carried the team until Carli Lloyd took over. But in 2016, they conceded goals that they hadn’t conceded before. Sauerbrunn, who is the best central defender in the world, was her usual reliable self but this defense showed some holes not seen in Canada.
If you study the goals conceded, three come to mind. The goal vs. Sweden in the Olympics and goals vs. the Netherlands and Switzerland post-Olympics. All of them have the same DNA … one long ball that is played in behind the defense and a forward outruns the defense and slots it by the keeper. Does this defense need to get faster; read the game better; keep a better shape? I’m not sure, but these goals need to be studied and remedied.
But as far as the Olympic result, there was also bad luck. I have coached in these events and you need good luck at critical times during the competition. I think the USA had good luck at the World Cup in Canada -- e.g. the penalty kick awarded to Germany could have also been a red card to Julie Johnston -- so the USA could have gone down a goal and a player but neither happened.
In the Olympics, the USA and Carli Lloyd, with the score 1-1 vs. Sweden, appeared to score a good goal but it was called offside. If they went up 2-1, I believe they win that game and go onto the semifinals vs. Brazil and continue and win gold.
SA: How do you feel about the team’s style of play under Ellis?
TONY DiCICCO: Jill has improved the USA’s playing style. The USA is displaying a probing possession with speed of play, dynamic attacking mobility, and multiple goals from many different players. She is experimenting with different systems: 1-3-5-2; 1-4-4-2 and 1-4-3-3 -- and this makes the USA more difficult, for key opponents, to prepare for.
I really don’t see any big weaknesses in what Jill is doing but, as a former coach, I can be a bit critical. I think that the women’s national team should play a defensive style that resembles Barcelona, which means pressing high (not 100 percent of the time but more often). I think she is starting to buy into this defense because this is the way the team naturally wants to play.
Play in that attacking third has gotten better with Carli Lloyd adding some pretty slick final passing to complement her goalscoring, but we need more combination play around the penalty area and we need to continue to find the 1v1 artists like Mallory Pugh who can tear defenses apart with their individual flair.
SA: What about how Ellis manages the team?
TONY DiCICCO: Jill Ellis has proved to be excellent with player management -- and this is no easy team to manage. Players like Tobin Heath, Meghan Klingenberg, Crystal Dunn and others are playing their best ever soccer under Ellis’ ability to build individual players’ confidence and put them in a system that brings out their best.
She brought in youngsters like Mallory Pugh and managed her so that she played her first game and fit into the team seamlessly. Also, she has the best defender in the world in Becky Sauerbrunn; the best all-around player in Carli Lloyd and an attacking group lead by Alex Morgan that is almost impossible to stop.
Overall, Jill Ellis has done a very good job with the big shortcoming coming in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics. After the World Cup win, she certainly has earned a mulligan and I like the team she is building for 2019 because it plays a very attractive style yet still finds ways to win.