How A World Cup Crisis Brought Out The Best In The U.S. Women's Soccer Team
The U.S. women's national team believes it won the World Cup about a week before it actually won the World Cup.
It was June 26, the team was in Ottawa, it was a few hours before the quarterfinal match against China, and coach Jill Ellis was without star players Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday, who were suspended for that night's game because of yellow card accumulation.
Until that moment, Ellis had a game plan, one she was going to stick with, and that plan did not include changing the lineup, even though the team's play was, through four games, underwhelming -- at times appearing as if certain players were almost out of position, desperate to break loose.
But now, suddenly, change was necessary. And Ellis responded. She inserted midfielders Morgan Brian and Kelley O'Hara into the starting lineup, started Amy Rodriguez at forward in place of Abby Wambach. All this allowed Carli Lloyd to slip forward, so she could defend less and attack more.
The changes worked like a pair of jumper cables, creating sparks at certain connection points.
And that night, Lloyd scored the only goal, on a header, and the U.S. won 1-0.
"Pushing me a bit higher enabled me to play free," Lloyd said. "I no longer thought about making mistakes and holding back on defense; I just went for it."
In the semifinals, the U.S. kept its foot on the gas, kept Lloyd slipping forward, and defeated Germany 2-0. And a few days later, in the World Cup final, they beat Japan 5-2.
Said Lloyd: "For me, I think the China game is when we won the World Cup -- as a team. The U.S. had finally shown up. The high pressure, getting after it; that night we arrived at the World Cup."
"That was the game that changed everything," defender Ali Krieger said. "People had to jump in and Jill had to decide who was fit to play that game, and what role they had, and how to get the best out of them. And she did that. She made the right decision in that moment of crisis."
What seemed like a bad break, the loss of Rapinoe and Holiday, actually forced a necessary shake-up. But it only turned out the way it did because Ellis had her finger firmly on the pulse of her team.
The coach explained her decision-making process before the China game: "Morgan Brian was a no-brainer. We had vetted her; she was ready. But the last spot was something I was thoughtful about. We don't call them reserves; we call them game changers, because I want that mentality. So when most of the team was doing recovery, I always made sure I was out watching training with the game-changers. I wanted to know who was ready to go. And one player stood out to me: Kelley O'Hara. She was in beast mode. She was all over the pitch. So when I met with the staff, I said, 'That's the one, let's put her in. We need that shot in the arm.' "
Ellis continued: "But really it's more about how it affected the next game. Fast-forward to the Germany game. My midfield is fading a little bit. And we have to decide who we put in. I said to my assistants, 'You know, we need a "bitch": Get Kelley.' And I called Kelley to make sure I could say that about her. She's an absolute sweetheart, but she's a fierce competitor and in that moment we needed some grit-in-your-s---, let's-get-it-done ladies. So I put her in the game, and freaking five minutes later, she scores a goal."
And yet still, that substitution is not even the most memorable for Ellis, or the U.S. team.
That one came on July 5, at the end of the World Cup final. Because of the lineup tweaks, the shifts, because of all the moves, which hit all the right notes, the U.S. was by far the best soccer team in the world by the time they ran onto the field for the World Cup final.
And they ran away with that game, building a big lead, which created flexibility for Ellis to make one last move: subbing in veterans Wambach and Christie Rampone.
"It was a critical moment because what it said to me is that the management and leadership of these two, the leadership and humility, was reflective of our team," Ellis said. "And so it was a critical moment. I had a million takeaways from the World Cup. I learned a ton. And I'm humble enough to say: 'Man, it was unbelievable.' "
Ellis watched as Wambach and Rampone stood on the turf when the final whistle blew.
Lloyd was there, too.
"It was a dream come true," she said. "It was so many years of wanting something so bad. Olympics are great, don't get me wrong, but to be a World Cup champion is something that will resonate with young girls in the crowd forever. It's amazing. It doesn't come easy. And we knew it was going to take hard work."
Hard work and the right moves -- at just the right moment.