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The USWNT Better Fix Its Midfield Against China, Because Tougher Sledding Awaits

Check out FiveThirtyEight’s Women’s World Cup predictions.

“We improved a bit and found the net,” Carli Lloyd, a midfielder on the U.S. women’s national team, said after Monday’s Round of 16 game against Colombia. “We’re creating some chances, and I am confident more will come.”

Confident or not, chances have not come easily for the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) at this World Cup. They’ve looked stagnant and uncreative, especially in the attacking third. And to make matters worse, they head into tonight’s quarterfinal match against China without the two players who have created the most chances: Megan Rapinoe and Lauren Holiday.

Despite the loss of these players, the team continues to tout its depth and versatility, but there’s no denying that Rapinoe’s spark and Holiday’s vision have been some of the most promising aspects of an altogether lifeless team. So what’s wrong with the USWNT, and can they fix it before they face a team like Germany or France?

As Lloyd suggested, much of the USWNT’s problems stem from an inability to create chances — passes that lead to shots — in the midfield, in particular. Lloyd, along with Holiday and Rapinoe, was one of the most prominent playmakers for the USWNT at the 2011 World Cup. Combined, the three players created an average of 5.6 chances per game, compared with 4.8 chances per game at this World Cup. It’s not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison — they’ve faced tougher competition at this World Cup — but Holiday’s absence in the U.S. attack (two shots and zero assists so far, compared with 20 shots and three assists in 2011) is indicative of the larger issue for the USWNT: The central midfielders are being played completely out of position, and without them, the U.S. attack has been listless.

Under coach Jill Ellis’s current 4-4-2 system, there is no true defensive central midfielder, despite Ellis’s baffling remarks that Holiday and Lloyd have both played as defensive center mids in some games. In most two-player central midfields, one player is more attack-minded, combining with the forwards and connecting the midfield with the attack, and one player is more defensive, checking back to pick the ball up off her own backline.1

Without a designated defensive center mid, Lloyd and Holiday have been positionally amiss, caught in no-man’s land between being high enough to support the forwards and close enough to each other to create any sort of rhythm or connection through the midfield. They’re both trying to cover so much space that it results in huge gaps between the midfield and forwards — the space that is so important for creating chances on goal.

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FIFATV

At the 2011 World Cup, Shannon Boxx often filled the defensive midfield void the USWNT has now, sitting behind Lloyd while Holiday (née Cheney below) played as a withdrawn forward. The midfield combination of Boxx, Lloyd, Rapinoe and Heather O’Reilly (who has yet to play at this World Cup) created almost twice as many chances per game at the 2011 World Cup as the midfield combination of O’Reilly, Lloyd, Holiday and Rapinoe.

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By Kante4 / via Wikimedia Commons

Fortunately for the U.S., this problem isn’t likely to be exacerbated against a much weaker Chinese opponent tonight. Although it’s one of the most inexperienced teams at this World Cup, China has pace up top in forward Shanshan Wang, who has scored two of China’s four goals. But China has yet to play a team with a WSPI over 90, and they have created even fewer chances than the USWNT. China’s most prolific playmaker, midfielder Shuang Wang, has created only five chances compared with Rapinoe’s 10.

The Americans head into the game with an 88 percent chance of winning, according to FiveThirtyEight’s forecast, which does not take into account Rapinoe and Holiday’s absences. Should Ellis stick to the same lackluster formation, Christen Press is likely to replace Rapinoe on the wing, with Morgan Brian for Holiday in the midfield. Press is pacy and creative, but the USWNT’s proven “Abby Dependence” — playing long balls forward even when Abby Wambach isn’t on the field — does not suit Press’s strengths as a player. When Press entered the game late against Colombia on Monday night, she too resorted to hitting long balls forward.

Should the U.S. win tonight against China (they should), waiting on the other side of that victory is the winner of Germany vs. France. France struggled early, losing to Colombia 2-0 in one of the biggest upsets in WSPI history. But France routed South Korea 3-0 in its last game, controlling more than 60 percent of the possession and scoring one of the most beautiful combination play goals. Yet France’s chances created haven’t exceeded the Americans’ by much, 43 compared with the U.S.’s 37 overall.

TEAM TOTAL CHANCES CREATED
Germany 85
Cameroon 50
Japan 43
France 43
Norway 40
Brazil 37
U.S. 37
Switzerland 36
England 34
Australia 32
China 29
Canada 28
Sweden 25
Netherlands 25
Ivory Coast 25
Spain 25
South Korea 22
Colombia 20
Nigeria 19
Mexico 16
Costa Rica 14
New Zealand 12
Thailand 12
Ecuador 7

Then there’s Germany, which has been near perfect this tournament, save for an early group stage tie with Norway. Germany has created more than twice as many chances as the USWNT. Nine players on Germany’s roster have created five chances or more at this World Cup; only Rapinoe and Holiday have more than five for the U.S. The tournament’s leading goal scorer, Anja Mittag, has created 14 chances alone for Germany — more than Alex Morgan, Wambach, Press, Tobin Heath, Lloyd, Brian and Sydney Leroux combined.

Germany’s chances of winning the tournament have increased more than any other team, up from 27 percent at the start of the tournament to 33 percent now. If the U.S. faces Germany in the semifinal (assuming both teams have the same WSPI rating they do now), the U.S. would not be favored to win: Germany would have a 56 percent chance of winning, and even that seems too low given the U.S.’s inability to create chances against teams far worse than Germany.

After solidifying a spot in the World Cup back in October, Press told Fox Sports, “Jill has emphasized having a really big attacking shape. It took us a while to see the angles and to see how that changed everything, but as we’ve progressed through this tournament it’s become quite clear that we’re starting to get it.” But when she was interviewed before the Colombia match Monday, that sentiment had changed entirely. “We’re kind of in a rigid formation with no natural angles,” she told ESPN. “And I think we’re working so hard to do what our coaches want and get the tactics right that we lost a little bit of that spirit of the game where you can just run where you want and do what you want.”

Tonight’s game could go one of two ways: Slip in Press and Brian and play exactly the same way, squeaking past China on pure athleticism while hoping for moments of individual brilliance,2 or realize that this formation has strangled the USWNT’s ability to create chances and scrap it altogether. That doesn’t necessarily mean reverting to the 2011-era USWNT style, but it does mean reconsidering the players that are available — in tonight’s game against China and going forward at the World Cup — and how to best utilize some of the most talented players in the world. The USWNT must evolve or die, Deadspin wrote this week; let’s hope the former happens before the latter.

Footnotes

  1. Let’s ignore for the moment that this system almost altogether erases one of the most important attacking positions, the central midfielder that plays as a withdrawn forward — the best example we saw at this World Cup was Switzerland’s Ramona Bachmann.

  2. If that’s what we’re calling Alex Morgan’s cross-turned-accidental-goal.

Allison McCann is a former visual journalist for FiveThirtyEight.

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