MONTREAL -- After the group stage game against Nigeria, U.S. coach Jill Ellis met with Carli Lloyd. The midfielder and the rest of the attack didn't seem quite themselves in the Americans' first three World Cup games. The approach was conservative.
It seemed like a situation ripe for tension between player and coach. Yet there were no ultimatums from Lloyd asking to be given more freedom. There were no critical comments from Ellis. Instead, the U.S. manager provided reassurance to one of her most important players.
"She was like, 'Don't stress it. We're going to find a way to get you going,'" Lloyd recalled.
Ellis has proved true to her word, and the flexibility the U.S. manager has shown in the past two games has the Americans one win away from their third Women's World Cup crown after a 2-0 victory over Germany on Tuesday.
Against China, with Lauren Holiday and Megan Rapinoe suspended due to yellow-card accumulation, Lloyd played an advanced midfield role ahead of Morgan Brian, and the United States looked much sharper in attack. Heading into the Germany game, with Holiday and Rapinoe back in the fold, it was unclear if Ellis would head in that tactical direction. So Ellis once again sat down with Lloyd to get some feedback on her plans.
"Jill just was wrapping her brain around some things after the China game and knew that Germany was obviously a really tough team and we would have to be very tight defensively," Lloyd said. " We have a very open, [respectful] relationship, and she met with me again, showed me some film and said, 'This is where I'm at.'"
Ellis wanted to take more risks, opting for an adventurous switch to a 4-2-3-1 that had Holiday and Brian sitting deep in midfield while Lloyd took up advanced positions in support of lone striker Alex Morgan. The move worked out about as well as anyone connected with the U.S. team dared hope. The Americans created better chances, and should have been a goal or two up at half time. They did plenty to stifle the German attack as well, and ultimately the switch from a 4-4-2 proved critical in obtaining the win.
"I think it just helped us dominate the midfield more, and in the modern game, I think that that's really important," Rapinoe said. "It did free us up on the outside, but it was also able to stem their attack, and then we could start [our attack] from there. We did a good job picking passes off and getting into channels and winning balls."
The genesis of the move came during the team's trip to Brazil last December. The trip is largely remembered for the way Marta ran wild in a 3-2 win over the Americans. But the last two games of that trip saw Holiday, Brian and Lloyd start together in a 7-0 win over Argentina and a 0-0 tie against Brazil.
"It just seemed like a natural fit," said Ellis about the tactical switch. "All of the players in the middle can play the [No. 10], but we just pushed Carli into there, and we knew we needed someone in there who could hold it for us and could also turn and run at their back line. The players are flexible. We don't talk about systems; we talk about responsibilities, where they are on the field. I thought they did a great job."
That was true of the work Holiday and Brian did, as well. Brian, in particular, has been a revelation as the main bulwark in front of the back line. One knock against this U.S. team was that there was no bona fide holding midfielder who was likely to see the field. But Brian has done a pretty fair impression of one. She has connected passes, put in her share of tackles and even survived a scary head-to-head collision with German midfielder Alexandra Popp.
"It's not a natural role for [Brian], but she makes it look natural," Ellis said. "It's understanding the role and responsibilities, and I think she's been critical."
Of course, the knock-on effect has been to free up Lloyd, who with each game looks more like her usual, deliver-in-the-clutch self. In addition to slotting home the critical penalty in the 69th minute, she set up Kelley O'Hara's clincher with a perfect cross after she did well to free herself on the left wing.
"I've just been training my butt off the last 12 years," she said. "These are the moments I live for. This is kind of when I roll up my sleeves up and say to myself, 'I need to step up.' I think with Jill and the coaching staff giving me the freedom to express myself out on the field, I just need to deliver in any way possible."
And so it comes back to Ellis. For all the criticism the U.S. manager received for her tactics in the group stage, she certainly deserves credit now. She has proven to be adaptable and shown an ability to think outside of the box. These traits have increased the sense of belief within the team. It's not that the United States wasn't assured before, but one gets the sense that the confidence the team has now runs deeper.
Granted, a win against Germany will do that to just about any team, even as the U.S. women benefited from some sizable slices of luck. Without question, the penalty won by Alex Morgan appeared to have taken place outside the box. Julie Johnston's avoiding a red card was another chunk of good fortune.
But the United States didn't just win, it won well against a formidable opponent. That upsurge in momentum makes it a dangerous team indeed heading into Sunday's final.
Doug McIntyre of ESPN The Magazine contributed to this report.