U.S. women ready for next phase in World Cup preparations

Mike DiNovo/USA TODAY Sports

The U.S. women hoist the championship trophy of the Tournament of Nations last Thursday after beating Brazil 4-1.

After the United States beat Brazil 4-1 to win the Tournament of Nations, U.S. coach Jill Ellis spent as much time describing those 90 minutes as a test run for an imaginary World Cup group stage as a championship in its own right. With the Americans needing to win by at least two goals, she sounded as excited about the training scenario as the trophy that came with the result.

It isn't a bad way to think about the state of the national team, either.

More than a result in its own right, the tournament offered passage to the next phase.

If the time between the 2016 Olympics and 2019 World Cup is its own metaphorical competition -- the objective not a trophy but the roster overhaul necessary to pursue a major title -- then the U.S. women just concluded the equivalent of the group stage. The 10 months ahead, with first World Cup qualifying and then presumably the build up to France, are equivalent to the knockout round, when the margin for error shrinks and a plan had best already be in place.

This team will ultimately be judged on what is ahead, just as the knockout round defines its stay in each major tournament. But after it piled up eight goals in wins against Brazil and Japan and outplayed ascendant Australia in a draw, the United States earned credit for a good week and for the year and a half that preceded the performance.

This was the best indication yet of a return on investment in the rebuild.

"It's probably the most complete tournament, in terms of our play, that we've had," Ellis said. "We feel like we've taken really big steps."

That performance was rooted in three familiar names who at times had more caps than the rest of the players on the field with them. Alex Morgan finished with four goals and an assist, Megan Rapinoe a goal and three assists and Tobin Heath a goal and an assist in two starts -- her first for the United States in more than a year because of injuries. Morgan and Rapinoe are arguably playing the best soccer of their already stellar careers. Heath was doing much the same before an injury-marred 2017 and picked up here right where she left off. Add in Mallory Pugh, who was unavailable with an injury, and the U.S. women wouldn't trade their front line for any in the world.

But part of the reason the United States looked as complete in three games as Ellis suggested, certainly in the attack, was that the front line didn't look like an island. The explanation centers on Lindsey Horan, not because she was solely responsible but because of what her play says about what the U.S. women have been trying to do since the 2016 Olympics.

Horan was still seemingly caught between roles when 2017 ended, a good enough goal scorer as a youth to famously earn a contract from Paris Saint-Germain F.C. out of high school yet at times pushed as far as the back of the U.S. midfield. She settled into a more stable attacking role this year, often the No. 10 but also the No. 8 on occasions. That more consistent role on the field followed a conversation with Ellis at the outset of the schedule. The coach said she challenged Horan: If the midfielder was going to play in a role like the No. 10, Horan needed to produce goals.

"She holds me to a high standard, which really helps me," Horan said. "I think I need that with my coaches, and I want to hold myself to a high standard. I was always a goal scorer in my youth career, that was one of my strengths. I felt I was in a deeper midfield role for a lot of my [national team] career, but there was still something in me that knew that I could get in there and score goals and get assists and make these attacking plays."

She got a memorable goal with a last-minute header against Australia. But there were moments throughout the tournament when Horan resembled Lauren Holiday. It was there when she carried the ball into the attacking third and fed one of Rapinoe's many runs down the left against Australia or when she dropped a 40-yard pass onto Morgan's foot in the sequence that led to Heath's goal against Brazil. The U.S. women have been looking for that midfield presence since Holiday retired after the last World Cup.

It's probably the most complete tournament, in terms of our play, that we've had. We feel like we've taken really big steps.
U.S. coach Jill Ellis

Horan has been among the National Women's Soccer League's best this season and was among the best U.S. players in the Tournament of Nations.

"Lindsey is starting to feel more comfortable and we're starting to feel more comfortable with her," Rapinoe said. "We're starting to understand where we need to get her the ball, where she needs to get the ball to be successful -- and vice versa, working off of her.

"I think that's part of putting it all together, is understanding. Yes, we're trying to do X, Y and Z as a team. But then within that framework, what does each individual bring and how can we maximize their talent within everything that we're doing."

It is the same process that began for Ertz with the Brazil game in the same tournament a year earlier, that trial run as second-half substitute at defensive midfielder now ancient history. Now it's difficult to imagine the U.S. women taking the field without Ertz in that role, without her energy and tackling, not to mention her value on set pieces. It's the same process that Ellis is banking on with Crystal Dunn, whose time at left back in the recent tournament showed an increasing, if still in progress, chemistry with Rapinoe on that flank.

It is the same ongoing process that brought Tierna Davidson from Stanford to the U.S. back line as Ellis looks for a preferred duo out of her, Abby Dahlkemper and Becky Sauerbrunn.

None of it means that Horan or Dunn or anyone else is locked in place, that Sam Mewis or Morgan Brian won't start in the midfield in 2019 or that recently returned Casey Short is out of the running at left back. (Or that Emily Sonnett, quietly solid throughout in place of injured Kelley O'Hara, can't continue to make inroads.) It does begin to set benchmarks, that instead of open auditions, players must now show why they are better than Horan or Ertz, etc.

It's hardly a coincidence that the United States played so well with such stability.

"We're getting there," Rapinoe said. "You've seen much more consistent lineups. ... We've had a lot of injuries over the last year and people just being out and not available. So I think you're starting to see that chemistry come together on the field a little bit more."

At the same time the U.S. women began play in this year's tournament, a Sports Illustrated report, citing unnamed sources, said players went to U.S. Soccer after last year's Tournament of Nations with concerns about Ellis and the direction of the program. The report also said former U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati made clear the federation's support for the coach. Whatever the sequence of events, Ellis never made any secret, from her initial letter to players through last year's up-and-down results, that it would be an uncomfortable process.

We're getting there. ... You're starting to see that chemistry come together on the field a little bit more.
Megan Rapinoe

"You're not always, as coach, going to make favorable decisions to players, or they're not always going to see what your plan is," Ellis said last week. "That's something where it doesn't matter if you coach a club team or you coach a college team or a professional team, there's not always going to be a complete synergy in terms of what you do. I think we're in a very good place.

"I think the players last year -- we had a lot of different players in, looked at a lot of different things, it was a process, it was, at times I'm sure, very unsettling. And we did all that while playing a very competitive [schedule]. So for me, I think we're in a good place. I think the players are on board in terms of what we're doing."

Rapinoe declined to comment on the specifics of the Sports Illustrated report when asked about the nature of the dialogue between the team and Ellis. But after beginning to listen to the next question in the mixed zone setting in Chicago, she circled back.

"I do think we have open dialogue," Rapinoe said. "And we have a relationship with the federation and Jill, and I think we have had dialogue throughout the way."

The. U.S. women are in a far different position than they were a year ago. They are done with one phase and ready for the next.

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