U.S.'s reunion with Pia Sundhage puts more pressure on coach Jill Ellis

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·Columnist
U.S.'s reunion with Pia Sundhage puts more pressure on coach Jill Ellis
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WINNIPEG, Manitoba – If you're a casual soccer fan who watches the World Cup for the patriotism and the pageantry, then you loved the United States women's national team's opener against Australia. There were star turns from Megan Rapinoe and Hope Solo. There was a sweet cutback pass from Sydney Leroux that became a shining moment for Christen Press. There was even an Alex Morgan sighting. And of course there was a 3-1 win.

[Women's World Cup: Latest news | Scoreboard and Schedule | Groups and Teams]

If you're a bit more of a soccer enthusiast, then Monday brought some red flags.

The Americans looked slow and plodding for a good part of their first match. Actually, that may be putting it nicely. At times, they looked lost.

[FC Yahoo: Hope Solo demonstrates why U.S. Soccer decided to stick with her]

The lone Australia goal was something out of a schoolyard, with wide-open passing and little resistance by the U.S. defense. It was a big breakdown after a series of little ones. If it wasn't for Solo's dominance in goal, the Aussies could easily have scored three in the first half and shut it down from there. Rapinoe admitted the team didn't play well.

[FC Yahoo: Solo, Rapinoe shine for U.S. in opening win over Australia]

The USA's congestion, especially at midfield, was attributed to nerves. But it looked a lot like the general lethargy suffered in the sendoff game against South Korea nine days prior. And that has caused a few followers of the USWNT to point a finger at coach Jill Ellis, who is experiencing her first World Cup in charge here.

[FC Yahoo: Australian soccer website says the USWNT 'just aren't that good']

Part of this is because of Ellis' demeanor. She sits on the bench throughout most games, reacting very little to what happens in front of her. She doesn't seem perturbed or rattled, which can be interpreted (or misinterpreted) as conservative. But beyond that, there's a sense that she's been unable to help the team develop chemistry and momentum on the field. It was Rapinoe manufacturing two, if not three, of the team's goals on Monday, while her teammates didn't create much as a unit.

This was argued by, of all voices, the Australia women's team site on Monday night. Its recap stated the Americans "just aren't that good" and expanded thusly: "The reality is they play a fairly rudimentary, bog-standard 4-4-2, were short of ideas going forward and outmaneuvered tactically. 'Play it long and look for the head of [Abby] Wambach' seems the default game-plan for a team stuck in the past."

That's a direct shot at strategy, rather than talent or heart. It's a swipe at Ellis.

The U.S. coach stated after the game that she has wanted the team to "grow into" the tournament, and there were certainly signs of that in the second half. But one look at top-ranked Germany, which thrashed Ivory Coast 10-0 in its opener, and it's a wonder why it would ever take a talented team like the U.S. any time at all to grow into anything. This is part of the knock against Ellis: Her side is filled with veterans, and she had never been a head coach above the collegiate level before ascending to this post.

Making matters even more complicated is the next U.S. opponent – Sweden.

Sweden is led by Pia Sundhage, who served as U.S. head coach from 2008-12. She was both beloved and successful while guiding the Americans, taking them to two Olympic gold medals and the 2011 World Cup final. Sundhage is creative as a leader and as a tactician, which is something Ellis is accused of not being, and the Swede famously went with three defenders against Brazil in 2011 after going down a player. The gamble paid off when the USA came back to win.

Sweden coach Pia Sundhage knows the U.S. players very well having coached them from 2008 to 2012. (Getty Images)
Sweden coach Pia Sundhage knows the U.S. players very well having coached them from 2008 to 2012. (Getty Images)

Current players still rave about Sundhage, and on Tuesday, Tobin Heath spoke highly of Sundhage's willingness to give players freedom on the field. That was probably not a sideswipe at Ellis, but the detractors could gladly take it that way.

The detractors could also express glee at an interview with Sundhage in Tuesday's New York Times in which she said Abby Wambach wouldn't be starting if she were still the coach.

" 'If I stayed,' " she relayed to Wambach, " 'you would be a sub. The best sub ever. But a sub.' There was no question about that in my mind."

Ellis, in contrast, is leaning heavily on the 35-year-old Wambach, and that is somewhat of a gamble because reliance on the old guard is necessarily a delay of responsibility for the next generation.

Part of Ellis' problem is the delicate nature of her job. Everyone expects the Americans to either win this tournament or dash unimpeded to the final. The "world-has-caught-up-with-the-U.S." argument is now tired and unsatisfying, as it implies the USA can no longer put distance between itself and those chasing behind. If the world is truly catching up, isn't it on Ellis to do something about that? She was, after all, heavily involved in the developmental side of U.S. Soccer for many years.

So it's easy to ask the question: What is the team developing toward? It's like Canada in hockey or the U.S. in basketball: The talent is so deep that any trouble must be the coach's fault. Traditional greatness buys you untraditional pressure.

That pressure has now arrived, ushered in by a middling opening-match performance and the long shadow of Sundhage showing up in the team's second game. Even after Monday's match, defender Meghan Klingenberg lit up at the thought of the next tilt, calling it a "bragging rights" game. A win on Friday would go a long way toward keeping the wolves at bay, as that would keep the Americans atop the Group of Death and put Sweden in peril. A loss, however, would bring an entirely new round of criticism for Ellis and a new halo over Sundhage's head.

It would also get some of America's casual fans asking the kind of pointed questions that hardcore fans have been asking for a while now.