If you paid close attention, you might have noticed it two World Cups ago. In 2011, the United States reached its third final – and medaled for the sixth straight time – but something had changed. The Americans didn’t simply cruise into the semifinals, like so many times before. It was harder, and it got hard earlier on. They lost their first-ever game in the group stage; needed penalties to oust Brazil in the quarterfinal; required a late winner against France in the semifinal.
In 2015, it was harder still. It’s easy to forget now that the USA slogged through the group stage and had a tricky time of eliminating Colombia and then China in the first knockout rounds. Jill Ellis’ team didn’t catch fire until the semifinal against Germany, before hammering Japan in the final.
And then there was 2016, when the U.S. posted its worst performance at either a World Cup or the Olympics, crashing out of the Rio Games in the quarterfinal against Sweden – albeit in the quasi-lottery of penalty kicks. But something else was different about that as well.
“That was the first time we’d seen a very established, very veteran, very experienced team take an approach to sit in their own half on us,” Ellis said recently. “I thought, ‘Huh, this is different.’”
Ellis came to a realization. “I remember talking to my staff, coming out of the Olympics, ‘We’ve gotta make sure we’re prepared for this piece of the evolution,’” she remembered.
For things to stay the same, for the U.S. to retain its lead in the women’s game, it would have to change.
It’s been plainly obvious for some now that the rest of the world is catching up to a U.S. team that had once been leagues ahead of the world, thanks in large part to Title IX and the bottomless well of talent springing from the college game. Lately, huge crowds, tens of thousands of fans, have packed stadiums from Spain to Mexico. The English league is growing rapidly. So is the Dutch one. True club soccer juggernauts have risen in France. And the domestic leagues were already very strong in Germany and Scandinavia.
The Women’s Euro is now a major event. So is the women’s version of the UEFA Champions League club competition. But the Americans benefit from neither tournament, stuck in the pedestrian CONCACAF region with their players all active in the National Women’s Soccer League, which has a huge disparity in talent because of its shoestring budget.
The global women’s game is rising. The USA is no longer the only nation with a well-funded national team and a proper domestic league. “Everybody has similar sort of resources,” Ellis said in an interview with Yahoo Sports. “Now they have domestic leagues that are thriving.”
So how do you stay ahead? How do you keep a team that’s never been ranked lower than second in the world at the top?
“First and foremost, it’s making sure the focus is on us and not so much seeing what others are doing,” Ellis said. “One of the things we recognized coming out of 2015 is we had to get more and more high-level competition. The creation of the [annual] SheBelieves tournament, the creation of the [annual] Four Nations tournament, that’s a way of kind of simulating a tournament format, bringing in the top teams in the world just so we can see them. That was important.”
By Ellis’ estimate, the U.S. has gone from playing a quarter of its 20 or so games a year against top-10 teams to close to half. “It’s incumbent on you to play games outside your region that will really test you,” Ellis said. “That’s important to keep your edge.”
Then there’s everything else, all the other components of a campaign to stay competitive.
“I think now, it’s a whole other level of scouting, a whole other level of analysis that wasn’t there even five years ago,” Ellis said. “That’s the mindset that all top coaches in the top programs have. You’ve got to turn over every stone, you’ve got to look for every advantage. You need to make sure you’re doing everything you possibly can not just on the field but off it, to give your team an advantage. From having a sleep expert coming to talk to your team, to having an independent analysis of your team done.”
Ellis has two data analysts on staff full-time who sit in on every team meeting and every video session and who travel to every game.
Another big piece to the evolution has been what Ellis calls “systems.” Playing styles, in other words, predicated less on tactical formation than approach and instruction. “One thing that the U.S. prides itself on is how fit we are and the physical game, and I think we’ve taken it to a new standard,” midfielder Lindsey Horan said. “But on the technical and tactical aspect, things have gotten so much better for this team.”
“She’s identified certain areas that we’ve worked a lot on,” veteran defender Becky Sauerbrunn added. “Where are we the most vulnerable? How do we make sure we’re setting up counter-measures? How do we work on decision-making? Things like that.”
Ellis has built something of a tactical chameleon. She experimented endlessly with shapes and players after the Olympics, sometimes frustrating fans. But the residue is a team that can play lots of different ways, rather than shackling itself to a predictable house style, as the program had for decades. “Our team now, we can move in and out of different systems, which we didn’t do five years ago,” she said. “Well, why? Because now everybody is so much more tactical and flexible. You have to have flexibility. You have to have a nuance to what you do. Even the best, most dominant teams in the world have to have strategies in terms of how to beat certain opponents.”
“If a team has multiple looks,” Ellis continued, “it’s so hard to stand in front of your team and say, ‘This is the scouting report. This is what you have to prepare for.’ And a lot of times, they come [into the game] in something completely different [tactically] because they’re playing the U.S.”
Adaptability is everything. “People are naïve to think you can just play a locked system,” Ellis said.
It’s forced the players of a team once able to dominate on shear athleticism and skill to focus on the mental side of the game. “I’d say 80 percent of our trainings are tactical,” star striker Alex Morgan said recently. “That can get a little repetitive, but we know that sort of stuff is really important going into a World Cup. We feel extremely prepared. Tactically, we’re ready to play against any formation.”
In a lot of ways, Ellis was ahead of her time. She was talking and thinking about analytics long before they came into vogue. After a long apprenticeship in college soccer, Ellis worked as an assistant under former national team head coach Pia Sundhage off and on from 2008-12. The charming Swede was popular with anyone she met, but as a coach, she was unadventurous. She kept the same formation, sticking to the same players, for years at a time. And the budding notion of advanced stars, needless to say, wasn’t her thing. Still, Ellis would manually count Carli Lloyd’s passes for their completion rate. “Because I felt that was the next step for her,” she remembers, because Lloyd’s efficiency on the ball had to improve.
“If you compare that to now,” Ellis continues, “now, gosh, we can track players by X-Y coordinates. The use of video is exponentially more utilized now.” The national team sends all of the players clips of their touches and movement immediately after games end.
“You’ve got to be careful sometimes with data,” the head coach said. Confirmation bias and conclusions drawn from small sample sizes are a persistent danger. But there’s just so much to be learned that ignoring all this data, it seems to Ellis, is just as dangerous as overusing it.
Take the 2-2 ties with both England and Japan at the SheBelieves Cup back in March. On its face, those were disappointing outcomes. The USA beats those teams more often than not. But the numbers painted a more nuanced picture. “Our message to the team,” Ellis said, “was, ‘Listen, we were getting into our opponents’ goal zone more than we’ve ever done playing against them before. And that’s a positive because it means you have better control of the ball, you’re getting in there. Now where you’ve got to get better is in that finishing piece.’ It shines a light on the things you want to continue to focus on.”
It also shines a light on the inherent deception of scorelines in a sport like soccer, where teams regularly dominate and lose regardless. And that, in the long game of keeping your team’s edge in the seven matches that really matter at the World Cup every four years, scores are sometimes a poor measure of progress.
Back in 2014, in her very first meeting as the national team’s new head coach, after two spells as the interim manager and two periods as an assistant, Ellis put a proverb of sorts up on the whiteboard.
“Even if you’re on the right track, if you sit still, you’ll get run over.”
That’s been Ellis’ guiding principle in her half-decade in charge. It’s a new game. And it’s incumbent on her to keep reinventing her team. She first got the chance to do so after winning the last World Cup, which gave her the power to make real changes – after her predecessor, Tom Sermanni, was ousted in an apparent player coup for doing exactly that – just as a generation of veterans was aging out.
Ellis knew the Americans couldn’t sit still. She saw what was coming. England is allegedly taking 21 data analysts to this World Cup.
FIFA now allows just about all electronics on the bench, including technology to communicate with scouts or analysts up in a booth. Ellis likes to request clips on opponents to be queued up for her halftime talk, to be shown on a big screen in the locker room. The sport is awash in data that didn’t exist 10 years ago.
“What you have to be measured about is the volume of information that we now have, is making sure it’s not a hose you’re delivering it with,” Ellis said. “It’s making sure you’re selective and when you use what.”
It’s no longer tabulating your own data by hand. It’s figuring out how to pick the useful stuff out of the sea of numbers and clips.
When she graduated from her long career coaching in college to the under-21 and under-20 national teams, Ellis fell in love with the complexity of the international game. Because in the college ranks, everybody plays more or less the same way. But when you face other countries, wildly disparate soccer cultures collide. “You see how vastly different the game can be played,” Ellis said. “That’s what made me intrigued and hooked on international soccer. There’s always been that fascination for the different ways you can manipulate an opponent.”
Ellis craves information. Both from the inside of her team, putting her staff to work, and from outside perspectives. She blends it all together, creating a patchwork of original sources to constantly build new impressions and assessments of her team. “It has to be a multi-pronged approach,” Ellis said. “You can’t just look at fitness, you’ve gotta look at technology. You’ve gotta look at tactics. Everything. You’ve gotta look at our environment.”
Talk to Ellis about all of this for a while, and you get the unmistakable impression that this is her idea of fun. That the race to the future of the game, which would provoke anxiety in most anyone else, is a never-ending challenge to her ability to innovate. She’s a soccer junkie. She’s a coaching junkie. She’s like one of those people who enjoys breaking down a car engine and then putting it back together, cleaning and oiling and setting every part of it just so.
“The staff I have, they’re soccer learners,” Ellis said. “We’re constantly sending each other video clips or articles. You have to be a student of the game.” And to her, that attitude is necessary for survival at the sharp end of the international game, perched at the very top.
Or else that train will come for you.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.