OTTAWA, Ontario -- The United States had just defeated China 1-0 in a Women's World Cup quarterfinal, but the words from manager Jill Ellis and her players in some ways didn't fit the occasion.
Defender Becky Sauerbrunn said she was "ecstatic" with how the U.S. women played. Carli Lloyd said it was "a phenomenal team performance." Ellis talked of how the game was a big step forward.
"The energy and confidence we had when we moved the ball, the players are really excited," the U.S. manager said. "You just can tell in them, their chests are high and they're ready to go. It's a really good step heading into the semis to have this feeling."
To be clear, there were reasons for the U.S. women to be happy. Any win in the knockout stage of a major tournament is to be savored, and the Americans were largely in control throughout. Hope Solo's goal was rarely threatened, and with Morgan Brian providing an effective and composed shield in front of the back line, Lloyd said she had "room to roam and find space, connect with the forwards." She had space to strike at goal, as well, and it was her header in the 51st minute that proved to be the difference.
But it's also a result that needs to be put in perspective. This was a match that the United States was expected to win, and it did. China's penchant for sitting in and countering meant that the Americans were likely to have an edge in possession, and according to FIFA.com they carried the play to the tune of 56 percent to 44 percent. There are also still two more games to be safely navigated before the trophy can be raised, including a titanic clash with No. 1-ranked Germany in Tuesday's semifinal in Montreal.
So why the spasm of unbridled joy? Because for perhaps the first time in this tournament, Ellis' tactics were in line with the collective personality of her players. Historically, the United States has been a team that had an aggressive mindset. Whether it won pretty or ugly, it attempted to play on the front foot, and its athleticism and mentality meant it could wear down opponents and usually prevail. Of course, there were those occasions where it wasn't successful, but it was the American side's identity.
Granted, over the years, the women's game has evolved. Teams have become more technically and tactically savvy. But for much of this Women's World Cup, it was almost like Ellis was a tactical Mother Superior, with ruler in hand, intent on keeping her charges under control. In previous games, it seemed like Lloyd and Lauren Holiday were asked to defend first and attack second, which was at odds with their instincts. The body language of both players seemed to practically scream, "This isn't want I want to do, it's what I've been told to do."
Of course, tactical discipline is always important, but in this case, the attacking games of both players seemed to suffer as a result. The link with the front line was fractured, and the forwards were often starved of service. In the run-up to the match, the discomfort with the approach began to seep out, with both Sauerbrunn and Lloyd saying they were just following the game plan that the coaches drew up.
Ellis insisted during her post-match news conference that there was little about this tactical approach that was different from previous matches, even though Megan Rapinoe and Holiday were suspended due to yellow card accumulation.
"As a coach, you always want to see a team push the ball around with confidence," she said. "So it's not suddenly that this is a different game plan. Keeping possession, changing the point [of attack], tempo, all these things are stressed in every game because at this level all of those things, all of those components are important to be successful. I think part of it is just this team steps up in big moments and they recognize we needed to step up.
"We knew we didn't have two starters on the field, and everybody needed to pitch in and I felt they did that. It wasn't anything different than what they were directed to before but I think they did a great job."
This game looked and felt different, however. The team pressed high up the field -- a tactic that Ellis said was indeed part of the plan -- and put China under pressure. While the United States struggled at times to break down the Steel Roses, it managed to create 13 chances on the night, its high for the tournament. The Americans never looked like they were letting China into the game, and they didn't.
Better yet, the U.S. players looked liberated -- they had rediscovered their identity, a sentiment that Lloyd didn't attempt to play down. She added that she had met with Ellis one-on-one the day before the game and the two agreed to give her more of an attacking role and have Brian cover her back.
"I wasn't myself in the [first few] games," Lloyd said. "Now having the freedom to attack and do what I do best, it enabled me to create some chances."
She later added, "I think the history of this team is we want to make other teams nervous and not vice versa."
The question now is: What will Ellis do for the Germany match? Will she release the aggression of her players, or play it tactically safe, as she seemed to do earlier in the tournament? Are Lloyd and Holiday the best central pairing going forward? Without question, Germany poses a very different tactical problem than China did. Germany has its share of difference-makers in attack, like forward Celia Sasic and midfielder Dzsenifer Marozsan. But that should also mean there will be spaces to exploit when the United States gets the ball.
Not surprisingly, Ellis didn't divulge much. It will be a balancing act, of course, and the U.S. women will have to pick their spots. But Lloyd made it clear what she prefers.
"I would hope things would stay the same," she said.
With that approach fitting the Americans' personality, perhaps it will be a risk worth taking.