Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 9, 2015

Jill Ellis And Team USA Silence The Doubters

It is easy now, in the warm afterglow of Team USA’s dominating 5-2 win over Japan in Sunday’s final of the Women’s World Cup, to bask in the good feelings about women’s soccer in general and this team in particular. As the members of the US Women’s National Team, fresh off a celebratory rally in Los Angeles on Tuesday head to Gotham for Friday’s ticker-tape parade, the focus is on how that honor is as well-deserved as it is rare. Not since 1984, when Olympic medalists from the L.A. Games rolled up Broadway’s Canyon of Heroes in lower Manhattan, have athletes or teams who do not call the New York area home been given the city’s ultimate honor. But after becoming the first team to win the Women’s World Cup for a third time; and doing so just over our northern border in Vancouver with 25.4 million Americans watching on television, a record for any English-language telecast of a soccer game in this country, men’s or women’s, a ticker-tape parade seems entirely right.

Conveniently forgotten in the midst of the hoopla is the extent to which this team and its coach were both being second-guessed throughout the tournament, including by some of the pundits who are now cheering the loudest. Before the USWNT dispatched Germany, the number one ranked team in the world 2-0 in the semifinals; and well before Carli Lloyd opened the scoring Sunday with a tally in the third minute, the quickest goal ever in a Women’s World Cup final and the start of an offensive push that stunned the defending champions, coach Jill Ellis was roundly criticized for the team’s lack of production in the tournament’s early stages and for some of her personnel decisions.

In Group Stage play the Americans beat Australia 3-1 and Nigeria 1-0 around a scoreless tie against Sweden. While that was more than good enough to win Group D, critics pointed to the greater offensive output by Germany and France, the other pre-tournament favorites, during the round-robin portion of the tournament. Worried commentators focused on the fact that after the 78th minute of its opening match, Team USA notched just one more goal in its three Group Stage games. The naysayers only multiplied when the USWNT seemed to struggle past an inferior squad from Colombia in the first Knockout Stage game, winning by just 2-0.

When Ellis wasn’t hearing from detractors about her tactics, she was being pilloried for moving two veterans into supporting roles. Long-time team captain Christie Rampone, the final link to the 1999 U.S. championship team, was moved out of central defense in favor of 23-year old Julie Johnston. Legend Abby Wambach, a two-time Olympic gold medalist and the top international career goal-scorer among both men and women with 183, was taken out of the starting lineup after the match against Colombia.

But for all their storied accomplishments, Wambach is 35 and coming off injury and Rampone turned 40 during the tournament. Ellis, who took over as head coach just over a year ago, seemed to sense that with the oldest roster of any team in the World Cup, a run to victory was going to require contributions from younger players as well as the aging veterans. To their credit, both Wambach and Rampone accepted their diminished roles without complaint, displaying an admirable commitment to the team that doubtless made Ellis’s job easier.

Johnston became the key player in an American defense that proved virtually impregnable. For all the worrying about the lack of offensive spark, a team can’t lose if it doesn’t allow any goals. From the Australian tally in the 27th minute of the opening match until Japan finally scored at the same point in the final, Team USA played 540 minutes of soccer without conceding a single goal, a Women’s World Cup record. It was a mark set in part because of the outstanding play of Hope Solo in goal, but equally because of the resolute line in front of her that constantly kept balls from ever reaching Solo’s gloved hands.

The personnel changes also allowed Ellis to move midfielder Lloyd into a more aggressive role. Lloyd scored on penalty kicks against Colombia and Germany, and off an assist from Johnston for the only goal against China in the round of eight. Then came the final, when Lloyd led an offense gone wild.

In an interview before the match Ellis noted that set pieces had been a particular focus for her team in its preparations. Proving that they had been paying careful attention, her players lined up for a designed play off a corner kick in the third minute. A goal by Lloyd was the result, and a 1-0 lead. Less than three minutes later they lined up again for a set play off a free kick from just outside the right side of the box. Lloyd tallied again, doubling the lead.

Having proven their coach prophetic, Team USA then set about showing their ability to create offense on the fly. Barely eight minutes after Lloyd’s second goal, Lauren Holiday timed a leap perfectly to kick a misdirected header from one of Japan’s defenders into the back of the net. Then in the sixteenth minute Lloyd completed her hat trick, the first in a Women’s World Cup final, when she caught Japan’s goaltender wandering too far forward. From the midfield stripe Lloyd launched a ball that sailed over the hands of the desperately backpedaling Ayumi Kaihori and into the net for a 4-0 lead.

The final match still had nearly an hour and a quarter to play, but it was already over. After sixteen years of waiting and a month of second-guessing, the Women’s World Cup trophy was coming back to the United States. Hard choices about the makeup of the USWNT for the 2016 Olympics, and doubts about the viability of women’s professional soccer in this country after the World Cup glow has faded, still remain. But those are questions for another day. This week belongs to a determined team and its serene and confident coach. As they parade up the Canyon of Heroes on Friday, Jill Ellis and her players will rightfully celebrate both victory and vindication.

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