U.S. women confident right blueprint in place for World Cup

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Team defense carried the day in the 2015 World Cup. But now the United States plays on its front foot in its revamped attack: win the ball, win the game.

TAMPA, Fla. -- France beat them earlier in the year. Japan erased deficits against them twice in the same game. England played them to a draw and left with the trophy created for them.

But as members of the United States women's national team bid farewell to the SheBelieves Cup, soon to disperse to their respective NWSL teams for preseason, the opponent on their minds wasn't any of those teams but the same one forever the measure success or failure: themselves.

The U.S. women did not win the four-team event, and the world's top-ranked team fell short in some unfamiliar ways -- among them ceding a lead twice in the same game and allowing multiple goals in back-to-back games. Such things hadn't happened in years. But the ups and downs of games against Brazil, England and Japan were evidence not of a broken blueprint but a development process going as expected in advance of a product launch in June.

The U.S. isn't looking for players, a formation or an identity. It is trying to work out the bugs for the final version. The Brazilians, English and Japanese provided the product feedback.

"The enthusiasm that we attack with is always going to have the types of challenges that we've been able to face and learn from in this tournament, which is really great," Tobin Heath said.

A diplomat couldn't have crafted a better way to express the inherent risks of the U.S. identity, one that isn't new to the national program but has taken on new focus since the 2016 Olympics.

The front foot, gegenpressing -- whatever the phrase, the idea is the same: win the ball, win the game. The U.S. women want to play on their terms. They did against Japan and surrendered a lead in extra time. They did against England and salvaged a tie. They did against Brazil and held on for a win as legs wearied in the third game in seven days, a pace even the World Cup won't replicate.

"I think that's a mentality, and I think it suits us in terms of our DNA," coach Jill Ellis said after the tournament. "Certainly we have to be able to adjust in terms of our shape and managing situations. We want to go get the ball; we can't do it blindly. We have to do it well and smart."

Whether the style represents some overarching vision Ellis has of how soccer is best played (it does), the way it is implemented in the United States' now familiar 4-3-3 formation is a pragmatic nod to the assets at her disposal. The most proven talent on the roster is bunched near the attacking end of the field, Heath, Alex Morgan, Christen Press and Megan Rapinoe all players at their peaks. The deepest reservoir of emerging talent since the last World Cup is also attacking minded, Crystal Dunn, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle, and Mallory Pugh among the notable.

All the way down to the quick-throw chemistry that Rapinoe and Morgan are perfecting, it's a team that isn't trying to put together 44-pass goals as much as stockpile quick strikes.

"A lot of teams don't build against us, they play direct from their goalkeeper because they eliminate the ability for us to hunt the ball," Ellis said. "Well, then that just creates another transition moment because now they're kicking long, and now we want to win that ball and transition. Transition is going to be a massive part of this World Cup. And because teams are so organized now, it's pouncing on that moment [that is decisive]."

Ellis pointed to the attacking instincts of outside backs Dunn and Kelley O'Hara -- the former an NWSL MVP as a prolific goal scorer and the latter a Hermann Trophy winner for the same reasons in college -- as indicative of the philosophy. It's why Abby Dahlkemper, whose long-range passing and distribution Ellis covets, has settled in as a starter at center back.

It's why, with the injured Horan unavailable for SheBelieves, Ellis twice started Pugh and Lavelle together in the midfield instead of replacing Horan with a more like-for-like, box-to-box replacement. That didn't appear to work all that seamlessly, leaving some wondering why Sam Mewis' excellent performance in the finale was her only start in the tournament.

The U.S. women looked more stable with a true No. 8 in the lineup, be it Mewis against Brazil or Horan over the past year. But applauded or panned, the lineup choices and experimentation were true to the way Ellis wants the U.S. to play, that style in contrast to what she implemented with a team inherited late in the 2015 process.

"I think we were very reactionary in 2015. We had the experience and players to be able to react to whatever because we had seen everything," Heath said. "But this team is very much on its front foot and wants to implement the style and feeling we want to play with."

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In the United States' revamped attack, coach Jill Ellis "now requires players to be two-way players. You need to be, as a defender, just as good defending the goal as you are starting the attack," defender Becky Sauerbrunn, above, said.

That blurs any line between offense and defense. Dunn and O'Hara are essential in creating goals in getting forward, and Heath, Morgan and Rapinoe are essential in preventing goals by pressuring high up the field to win the ball back. One of the recurrent problems in the SheBelieves games was what that does to an already-wafer-thin margin of error for the back line, a group that hasn't experienced a lot of continuity over the past year because of injuries.

That's a far cry from four years ago, when -- despite the 5-2 final -- the United States struggled offensively for much of the World Cup but ground out clean sheets.

"I think what got us through that tournament was team defense," Becky Sauerbrunn said of 2015. " ... I think what Jill wanted to do [entering this cycle] was kind of revamp the attack. She now requires players to be two-way players. You need to be, as a defender, just as good defending the goal as you are starting the attack. So she was asking a lot more of players.

"Now it's not forgetting that defense is also important, and everyone needs to put a shift in every day."

There is no getting around that the United States is in for a colossally disappointing summer if the big tournament in France looks like the small tournament just concluded. It's understandable if people worry that the past week was a blueprint for how things could go wrong in France.

But knowing what needs work in March seems a lot more valuable than knowing it in June.

"Sharpen, Learn, Play, Repeat," Rapinoe posted as an Instagram caption before the finale.

That she omitted "Win" was notable and probably intentional. The hope is that comes this summer.

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