MONTREAL, Quebec -- When constructing a side, soccer managers everywhere are often confronted with a conundrum similar to that of the poor man's blanket. If they cover their defense, the attack is cold. If they bundle up the offense, the back line gets the chills.
Through the first four games of the Women's World Cup, U.S. manager Jill Ellis seemed OK with her defense being toasty and her offense getting a bit of frostbite. But in the Americans' 1-0 quarterfinal triumph over China, Ellis appeared to strike a better balance, despite missing both Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday due to accumulation of yellow cards.
The defense extended its shutout streak to 423 minutes, and while the attack scored just once, it created 13 chances, more than any other game for the Americans in the tournament. The caveat there is that the opponent that night made for a balmy outing. China is well organized, but possessed a popgun attack. That won't be the case in Tuesday's semifinal against Germany, a game in which all facets of the U.S. team will be tested.
So now Ellis finds herself in a bit of a lineup quandary. Does she keep things the same as she did against China, or do Rapinoe and Holiday automatically get reinserted into the lineup? Or is it some combination of the two? Here's a breakdown of the pressing questions.
The central midfielders
The best players don't always make the best team. In this case, the central tandem of Holiday and Carli Lloyd has seemed less than the sum of its talent. It's an odd development given the success they've had in the past. The fact that both players can defend and get into the attack is a positive, and adds a layer of unpredictability to the offense. But too many passes have gone astray, and with both players forced to defend deep at times, the link to the forwards was intermittent at best. Prior to the China match, neither player looked entirely comfortable with her role nor with the team's attacking approach.
Holiday's suspension for the China game forced Ellis to bring in Morgan Brian, with the U.S. manager opting to give the young midfielder a dedicated holding role. This allowed Lloyd more freedom to get forward, and the result was her best game of the tournament. Lloyd scored the only goal of the game, and could have had an assist or two with better finishing. It seems she still has more to give as well. Brian provided an effective shield in front of the backline and showed off her ability to connect passes under pressure.
The way the respective games of Lloyd and Brian complement each other make for a compelling reason to keep the tandem together for Tuesday's match. And Brian has faced several of the German players during the 2012 U-20 Women's World Cup, including Melanie Leupolz and Dzsenifer Marozsan, so there is likely to be little fear factor.
Such a decision would be tough on Holiday, in that it would mark the second major tournament in a row she was dropped from the lineup in the latter stages, but there is another solution that could get her onto the field.
The wide midfielders
While Holiday's role is uncertain, Rapinoe's status is clearer. She has to be back on the field. Period. Rapinoe has been the Americans' most creative player by a long way, and her unpredictability will be needed to break down what is expected to be a tough and organized Germany defense. She has been most effective on the left, and that's where she should start.
The big question is on the other side. In five games, Ellis has started five different players at right midfield in Christen Press, Brian, Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Kelley O'Hara. Two other players, Sydney Leroux and Amy Rodriguez, have seen time there as well. Right back Ali Krieger's head must be spinning in terms of who her right-sided partner will be.
With Rapinoe and Brian otherwise occupied, the top remaining candidates would appear to be Heath, O'Hara and Press, with O'Hara having the inside track. Save for a late substitute appearance against China, Press has yet to look at ease on the right. Heath has fared better on the left, but that spot will be taken by Rapinoe. O'Hara simply looks more comfortable on the right than any other player, and did her part in the Americans' high-pressing approach against China. That energy will prove to be important against a Germany side that is adept at keeping possession.
Alex Morgan took something of a step back against China, in that her timing and touch weren't as sharp as in previous matches. That said, she'll be on the field, since the threat of her pace should help stretch Germany's defense and create some space underneath.
So who will partner with her? On the surface, it would appear to be a two-player race between Abby Wambach and Amy Rodriguez. Both have struggled with their finishing but are adept at holding the ball up. Wambach would provide the physical presence, whereas Rodriguez would give you mobility and a greater ability to defend from the front.
One wild card possibility is playing Holiday or Lloyd as an attacking midfielder/withdrawn forward in a 4-2-3-1. Against Colombia, Holiday played that role late in the match, and the position plays to her strengths. She's creative, strong with her back to goal, and it would free her of the defensive responsibilities that have weighed her down in this tournament. Or have Lloyd be the more advanced player and have Holiday sit beside Brian. This would allow Lloyd to combine and strike at goal more. Either way, it would provide the best chance for the Americans to maintain the kind of balance that was seen against China.
Yet it seems unlikely that Ellis will go in that direction. Brian stated during Sunday's media roundtable that the U.S. didn't even practice 4-2-3-1 prior to the Colombia match. That would point to the tactic being an afterthought rather than one Ellis would turn to from the start.
Ellis' tendency so far in the tournament has been to bypass the midfield and play direct against better teams like Australia. For that reason, there seems a greater chance that Ellis will go with the old standby Wambach. Wambach does provide an aerial presence. She's also rested, and also has good chemistry with Morgan. If Wambach does get the nod, Ellis can only hope the striker can deliver a performance for the ages.