Jill Ellis: “The players understand that last year was a pretty broad brush that we painted with. Now we’re starting to get into the details and have consistency in the lineup.” (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)
By Michael Lewis
For 2018, the start game for the U.S. women’s national team is the next month’s SheBelieves Cup.
The end game is Women’s World Cup qualifying in October.
Somewhere during that seven-month span, head coach Jill Ellis hopes to form a roster with players that know their roles, which will pave the way to the 2019 WWC in France. The Americans are the defending world champions.
“At this point, it’s making sure our players start to have a solid understanding of the relationships on the field, their roles,” Ellis said during a conference call Wednesday afternoon.
“The players understand that last year was a pretty broad brush that we painted with. Now we’re starting to get into the details and have consistency in the lineup.”
With projected starters and/or regulars such as the defender Becky Sauerbrunn (foot injury), midfielder Samantha Mewis (knee injury) and forward Tobin Heath (ankle injury) not being available for the three-team tournament, Ellis said she is far from ready to lock into a Starting XI.
“I need all of the available pieces to do that,” she said.
So, it’s building those relationships, such as defensive midfielder Julie Johnston playing in sync with the two center backs or goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher playing with a consistent back four, Ellis said.
“A lot of it is getting them as much familiarity,” the coach added.
“It’s establishing as a group knowing that knows … ‘Hey, I’m someone who’s going to come in off the bench and provide spark for some who is an established starter.’ That’s not to say it doesn’t change. When we have all those pieces available, you have to have that flexibility as a coach.”
To acquire that familiarity, Ellis said that she plans to play her front line of Mallory Pugh, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe as much as possible in the SheBelieves Cup.
“That’s kind of my intent going into SheBelieves because the end game is October and I won’t have them for long periods,” she added.
The other piece to the puzzle is making sure players realizes their roles for country and club could be quite different.
“Are they different to what we have to play?” Ellis said. “It’s making sure they have a firm understanding of how we want to play. If you’re an outside back, some teams might want to keep them low. We want to get them high, etc. etc. It’s really making them understand what we’re doing because they’ll go back to that environment and obviously do something different and then have to come back in. The more we can reinforce our principles in how we want to defend and what we’re looking for in positioning. I’m excited that we have so many training days together. For the players it’s as soon as possible to understand where they are and what the expectation is of the job.”
The team kicks off a week of training in Orlando, Fla. Feb. 19, before tussling with Germany in Columbus, Ohio March 1, France at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. March 4 and then in Orlando for England March 7.