The United States will take on Sweden in its second match of the Women’s World Cup, and Tobin Heath and Heather O’Reilly will be sitting on the bench. Again.
This has become the norm under Jill Ellis. She doesn’t seem to have much use for the duo; at least, not at the start of matches. Instead, she has preferred pushing Christen Press from forward to winger. And when the head coach doesn’t opt for that, she likes to play either Carli Lloyd or Morgan Brian there. Each of those players have something in common with Press — they’re not naturally wide players.
Playing players out of position isn’t new for Ellis, but she’s hardly the only manager who does it. Often times it’s a necessary compromise to come up with an XI that best suits a team’s style or tactics. And that’s what’s so odd about Ellis’ decisions. Her refusal to play wide players in wide roles goes against the team’s tactics.
The U.S. has spent much of the last year looking to play balls over the top into space for its speedy forwards to run onto, or play crosses. Its direct play and need for speed in the midfield to make it work would seem to call for players like Heath and O’Reilly. The ball is going to spend a lot of time on the wings, so why not put players who are comfortable near the touchline on the field?
Hell, Ellis said that they wanted to play out wide and beat Sweden on the wings.
“We want to get into wide areas,” Ellis said on FOX prior to the match. “Penetration wide is a big focus for us today.”
So the U.S. wants to play on the wings. It wants to exploit the flanks. It wants to beat Sweden outside and use it to find possession, chances and, eventually, goals, inside. And it’s going to do that with Lloyd or Brian?
Ellis decided to play the match out wide and then put a central midfielder on the right. That would be unbelievable if it wasn’t so predictable.
Lloyd and Brian have played outside before. They’ve spent matches interchanging who would be central and who would be on the wing, but the results have generally be the same: underwhelming. They spent much of their time pinching in, drifting centrally and essentially leaving the flank for the fullback to occupy single-handedly. Either that or they went invisible for stretches trying to maintain width. Yet they get thrown out there time and time again.
Heath offers a skillful and unpredictable player, comfortable outside but also capable of cutting in when need be. There isn’t a more tricky player on the team, or one as comfortable dribbling. O’Reilly is more direct, playing with great pace and providing a phenomenal cross. Heath would be labeled a more modern player, and a more versatile one at that, while O’Reilly is a traditional winger.
Both are sensational. Both give the team great wide play in different ways, so it’s not as if Ellis is short on choice or options. And yet they sit on the bench in lieu of an out-of-position player.
That’s become the American way. If the U.S. is going to get width with a central midfielder on the wing, it will be because of phenomenal fullback play or a forward drifting wide. That’s entirely good and well, but that’s not something a team should be dependent on if its expressed goal is to dominate the wings.
If the U.S. want to play wide, it should probably use a wide midfielder. You know, like Heath or O’Reilly, two of the best in the world.