EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – Numbers never lie, except maybe when it comes to formations.
The United States women are in the early stages of transitioning to a 4-3-3 after spending years in a traditional 4-4-2 under Pia Sundhage, a system that carried over into the brief Tom Sermanni era.
Jill Ellis is now in charge – Thursday will be her second game as full-time manager, both against France – and she believes in the three-front. But it’s hardly an all-systems-go, three forwards sitting high kind of system. In Saturday’s 1-0 win over France, it often looked like a 4-5-1 and, when Lauren Holiday pushed higher up, a 4-4-2.
“Regardless of how you align players, it’s how you want to play in that alignment, so I think what we’ve really tried to focus on is relationships,” Ellis said Wednesday. “So the outside back moving forward, the (No.) 9, the (No.) 10, we start to look at those. I saw some really good things.”
All those numbers can start to make formations feel like an algebra class, but the point for the United States is to find a balance and cohesion that creates a free-flowing system.
“I really do want the interchange, and just making us hard to defend,” Ellis said. “Ultimately, at the end of the day, it’s about moving the defense so that you can exploit that. So I think the more that we can move and play off of each other, the more that we’ll cause problems for the defense.”
In addition to Holiday pushing higher from her attacking midfielder role, Tobin Heath and Christen Press dropped deeper on the wings on Saturday to give the U.S. its more traditional look. That tasked Press with a role that she says she hasn’t played in since her college days at Stanford.
Press played in a much higher role with Tyresö in Sweden over the last 18 months, serving as the team’s leading scorer with 23 goals in 20 matches. Tyresö lost the UEFA Champions League final to Germany’s VfL Wolfsburg last month, and the team has since ceased operations. Press now plays for the Chicago Red Stars in the NWSL.
“I think that our 4-3-3 looked a lot like a 4-4-2 in the last game, so we were really low, and I don’t know if that is the end goal or will vary depending on the opponent,” Press said. “I think that, theoretically, they want me higher up the field. They would want me as more of a winger in a 4-3-3, but wherever I am needed, whatever role I am asked to play, I will do it to the best of my ability.”
When Alex Morgan entered Saturday’s match in the second half, Sydney Leroux pushed wide after playing most of the first half centrally.
“Jill has said that she wants us to change a lot in that formation, but it’s great to be able to play in a lot of different formations,” Morgan said. “Back with Portland, obviously we’ve played a lot of formations, obviously we played a 4-4-2 a lot with Pia.
“Now coming in, playing that 4-3-3 and having that attacking mid, that No. 10 player right under the center forward, is a little different than what we are used to, so we’ve been practicing a lot in training with that. I think that you saw glimpses of us doing really well in that formation the other day, but we are working on that a lot. I look forward to us perfecting that going forward.”
That the team’s shape is so malleable is a credit to the coaching staff and hours of video sessions, Morgan said. Thursday’s match against world No. 4 France is another chance to fine-tune the system against a team the United States could meet in the knockout stage of next year’s World Cup.