Soccer coaches usually do a pretty good job of holding back in public. Given how much we dwell on their quotes, it may not seem like it, but consider: These are people that spend hours at a time dissecting their opposition’s plans, formations and tendencies, yet unless we’re talking about the egomaniacal freaks at the top of the men’s game, it’s rare to hear one coach criticize another. It’s rare to hear coaches say things like “After studying their approach, I think coach Thompson is an idiot.” Respecting your peers seems to be an unspoken rule.
To the extent that law is actually a thing, Iceland women’s national team head coach Freyr Alexandersson just broke it. Today, after his 20th ranked (FIFA) team held the second ranked United States to a 0-0 draw at the Algarve Cup, Alexandersson couldn’t resist taking Jill Ellis’s tactics to task, saying he’d be “very unhappy” with his team had it played the same way.
“We forced them to play the long ball since after watching their first two games, we saw that when they get under pressure they tend to resort to the long ball. I don’t understand it because they can play the ball on the grass. I would expect a team 20 seeds (ahead of us in the world rankings) would trash us.’’
Ellis’s response was some trash talk of her own, speculating Alexandersson may have been unhappy “because his team is at the bottom of the group.” That placing leaves Iceland to play Japan in Wednesday’s ninth place match, while the U.S. will face France for the tournament’s title.
That matchup game gives Ellis’s side a chance to avenge last month’s disappointing performance at Lorient, where a 2-0 defeat to Les Bleues understated the gap between the performances. That game also featured the faults Alexandersson pointed out, but then again, every U.S. game does.
Photo: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images.
With the exception of a short span during the recent Tom Sermanni (above) era, the U.S. has been all talk when it comes to improving its approach. As teams like Germany, Japan and France started employing the type of possession-based, technique-demanding play that’s come to prominence in the last eight years, the United States has persisted with a more direct approach.
Play it quick, far, and either run onto it or run them down. We’ve got the athletes. We’ve got the fitness, mentality, and proof: We’ve won these things before. We don’t need to change. We don’t need to evolve, and when we’re asked to, it feels weird, wrong. Athletically, we’re still worlds beyond the crowd. Why not stick with what works?
The catch, one that’s at the core of the U.S.’s problems: That approach worked wonders at the end of Pia Sundhage’s tenure, when a U.S. team willing to engage in shootouts made the finals of both the World Cup and Olympics (winning the latter). But Sermanni was supposed to usher in a change. He did wonders with Australia’s young corps, and not by having them chip and charge. Bring him in, U.S. Soccer seemed to be conceding: There was only so long the U.S. could survive as an anachronism.
revolt change happened. Sermanni was ousted, Ellis was installed, and assistant coach Tony Gustavsson, such an important figure on Sundhage’s staff, was brought back to serve as Ellis’s right hand. The players went back to the old ways. When it cam to altering their styles, they stopped being challenged. Now the U.S. is back to playing 4-4-2 (as it did under Sundhage). It’s back to playing direct – playing long and running, when all else fails. It’s back to embracing that anachronism.
Photo: Christof Koepsel/Getty Images.
Perhaps that approach worked because other contenders — the Germanys and Frances of the work — were evolving, or making the adjustment. And in doing so, perhaps they limited their ability to exploit the U.S. Maybe Germany’s transition from Prinz, Garefrekes, Grings, and Hingst to Keßler, Goeßling, Marozsán, Šašić and Alushi created a window, albeit only after the team fell in the quarterfinals of a World Cup on home soil. Maybe that, France’s evolution and a Sweden that’d yet to welcome back Sundhage left a void. Maybe that allowed the U.S. to preserve its perch.
Now that’s over. Not only has the U.S. ceded its top ranking, but it’s going to go into this summer’s World Cup with doubts. Of the six-or-so true contenders at Canada 2015, the U.S. looks most vulnerable, and while the team was in a similar situation ahead of Germany 2011, it’s disconcerting to see it revert instead of evolve. The team keeps going back to the same answer regardless of the question, only now the tests are getting harder.
Maybe that answer will work again, but in the past, when the team played like a bulldozer, the Frey Alexanderssons of the world held their tongues. Now, there appears to be no fear. Maybe other coaches are still holding back, observing the unspoken rule, but at least one person isn’t afraid to say the obvious: Even the 20th ranked team in the world can give the U.S. trouble.