OTTAWA, Ontario -- The final whistle hadn't yet blown during Monday's round-of-16 match between the U.S. and Colombia, but U.S. manager Jill Ellis was already thinking ahead.
Midway through the second half, the U.S. was up 2-0 thanks to goals from Alex Morgan and Carli Lloyd, and it was up a player as well due to the 47th minute ejection of Colombia goalkeeper Catalina Perez. But Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe had also picked up their second yellow cards of the tournament, meaning they'll be suspended for the quarterfinal against China.
So Ellis began plotting strategy. Morgan Brian entered the match in the 69th minute, and immediately slotted in beside Lloyd, while Holiday was moved closer to the opponent's goal.
Brian was tidy on the ball in her 21 minutes, completing 14 of 16 passes, and Ellis said afterward the U.S. midfielder likely would replace Holiday for the quarterfinal.
"[Brian] has played significant minutes," Ellis said in her postgame press conference. "In our games, we've partnered [with certain players] specifically because we knew she would be one of the players to come in. We partnered her with Carli at times, we partnered her with [Holiday] at times, specifically so she would be comfortable in that position. [Brian] is a tremendous ball distributor."
That she is, and the pairing makes sense to a degree. Brian struggled against Sweden when stationed on the right side of midfield, but now will play in the center of midfield, where she's more comfortable. There is the added benefit that she and Lloyd are club teammates with the Houston Dash, so there would seem to be some built-in chemistry there. But little about this U.S. team is as it appears. Brian is not a prototypical holding midfielder. Her strengths, like those of Holiday, lie on the attacking side of the ball.
"Both Lloyd and Brian can do the defensive job, but I think you take too much away from them when you ask them to play that way," said Houston manager Randy Waldrum, who was quick to note it is Ellis who is seeing the players every day in training. "It's going to be interesting to watch if Ellis plays Lloyd and Brian in the middle mainly because in Houston, we play different."
With the Dash, Lloyd and Brian play in a three-woman midfield. Early in the season, Rachael Axon sat deep, leaving Lloyd and Brian to get forward with less concern about their defensive responsibilities. Waldrum added that after the World Cup, Brittany Bock, who was unavailable earlier in the season, will be the one to take on the defensive responsibilities in midfield.
Ellis has opted for a 4-4-2, with Holiday and Lloyd both sitting deep defensively and then taking turns in terms of who is going forward. Prior to the tournament, Ellis shed some light on her midfield philosophy, and noted that the 2-0 loss to France in February had a significant effect on her thinking.
"When we played France in France, I felt like our wide players were so high and wide, that if we turned the ball over, we were like two versus four in the midfield," she said in May. "We got a little bit exposed. So what we asked our wide players, instead of staying up high and being almost a flat four up front, can you play a little bit more withdrawn ... give us another line in our buildup. And if we play a long ball we've got a player underneath to win it, or we can connect underneath and now we can play. That's the evolution of those positions for me."
The move has been a boon for Rapinoe, who has been the primary attacking conduit so far in this tournament. Her 115 touches in the attacking third tie her for third in the tournament, and are almost double that of the next highest U.S. player. But that emphasis has served to stunt the effectiveness of Lloyd and Holiday, though Holiday has seemed to come on a bit of late. The center midfielders seem reluctant to get forward and leave their defensive responsibilities. While Holiday is second on the team with 64 touches in the attacking third, Lloyd has managed just 36. That doesn't seem likely to change with Brian playing.
"The problem to me is that even when Lloyd and Holiday have been in there, they have to drop so deep to defend that there's not a good link between our central midfield and the front line," Waldrum said. "I don't think we've got a good connection between those two lines at all. I'm happy to see Brian and Lloyd play well together. It's just that I don't know that we'll still get the most out of them playing four across in a 4-4-2."
It also has left the U.S. looking solid in defense, but one-dimensional in attack, something that seems bound to bite it later in the tournament, no matter how well the defense is playing.
Ellis does have other options. Shannon Boxx has a long and successful history playing alongside Lloyd, with Boxx more inclined to sit in and protect the back four, leaving Lloyd freer to get forward. The combination worked a treat in the 2012 Olympic final, where Lloyd scored twice. Yet at 37, it's unclear if Boxx is fit enough to last an entire match. According to U.S. Soccer, in five U.S. appearances during 2015, Boxx has totaled just 62 minutes.
Then there is the option of playing 4-3-3, with either Boxx or Julie Johnston sliding into the holding role. That ship hasn't sailed. It has been left in dry dock. There is an understandable reluctance on the part of Ellis to tinker with a back line that has been outstanding, yet the attack remains less than the sum of its parts. It seems that if this formation was part of Ellis' thinking, she would have tried it by now.
So it is left to Brian to try and make the best of a suboptimal situation, though her toolset could see her shine.
"Brian, to me, she is our next star," Waldrum said. "She is so technical and she's so comfortable playing with pressure around her. At her age, she's not rattled. I joke with her about being able to play out of a phone booth. The tightness of pressure around her isn't a problem. And the one thing I think that she really does that people don't appreciate, is she sees the game one or two passes ahead. Her soccer IQ is off the charts."
Certainly the U.S. will need to play at a higher tempo in order to break down an organized and disciplined China side. Ellis will be hoping the combination of Brian's passing and Lloyd's running with the ball will be the combination that kickstarts the U.S. attack.