Sunday, February 8, 2015


adjective: rudderless
  1. lacking a rudder.
    • lacking a clear sense of one's aims or principles.
      "today's leadership is rudderless"


That's the one word that kept creeping into my mind, over and over again, as I watched another U.S. National Soccer team, this time the women, be outclassed and outworked.

Yes, we lost 2-0 to a very good French national team that has beaten Germany and Brazil in the past few months.

Yes, the U.S. was without some of its key players as Megan Rapinoe, Christine Rampone, Hope Solo, and Sydney Leroux didn't dress for the match and the first three didn't even make the trip for the friendlies with France and England.

Yes, the rest of the world is catching us along with the other members of the formerly exclusive club of countries that can contend for the women's World Cup.

All the more reason to need, to have to rely on and have confidence in, your coach. And in my opinion the game against the French demonstrated that the team appears to be a rudderless ship.

When, just seven months ago, U.S. Soccer decided to unceremoniously dump national team coach Tom Sermanni I wrote that the candidates to replace him were uninspiring and that, if the powers-that-be had concluded that they had made the wrong decision in hiring Sermanni, they did not have the luxury of making a second mistake in choosing his replacement with the World Cup a year away. 

One of those candidates, Jill Ellis, was chosen as the temporary and then permanent replacement for Sermanni. Ellis was born in England and her father John was a soccer coach as well. After playing for William & Mary, Ellis embarked on a coaching career in college that culminated at UCLA, where the program made eight NCAA Final Fours in her 12 years as coach. She then moved to U.S. Soccer on a full-time basis in 2011. Ellis was the temporary head coach for the team when Pia Sundhage departed in 2012 as well.

Ellis may be a fine coach. She may have the ear of her players. She may be a good organizer. She may be a good practice coach.

But she's never won anything. 

A couple of Nordic Cups, whatever that is. But no NCAA titles (in eight visits). No U-20 World Cups (the team that she coached in 2010 didn't make the semi-finals). 

When it mattered, when it came time to play the game that was the difference between finishing second or third or fourth best or hoisting the trophy in triumph, her teams always came up short. And, while sports are a perfect venue for second chances and new opportunities, nothing that has occurred since Ellis took permanent control of arguably the most prominent women's national sports team in the World indicates that things will be different this time around.

Strategically, the handling of the team, and its goalkeeper/diva Hope Solo in particular, has been troubling. While Ellis was quoted in the New York Times yesterday as saying "for every player, you have to have a Plan B" there was clearly no Plan B for the U.S. at the position that has always been one of the biggest strengths of its men's and women's teams (keeper, not diva). Julie Foudy pointed out as much in ESPNW the day before Ellis' comment was published, and I submit that I did the same over two years ago.

Tactically, the Americans were always "on the back foot," as Ian Darke likes to say, against the French. Second best in effort and ideas. Reduced by bad passes in the mid-field to booting it forward and hoping for the best. Unable, even, to take advantage of a huge potential break when the referee gifted them a penalty for a foul that both wasn't a foul and wasn't in the penalty box, only for Abby Wambach to hit a weak penalty kick that was easily saved. The midfield chased the game, with Lauren Holiday practically invisible unless she was passing to the team in the blue shirts (and, in case you didn't watch, the U.S. wore white).

I understand, and often state, that too much shouldn't be read into friendly matches. But this was one that the U.S. was apparently pointing to. Yes, Ellis wants to review her options in game situations for the World Cup. And it was encouraging to see Alex Morgan put in a full 90 minutes in her return from injury.

Morgan's presence (although not necessarily her play) was one
of the few bright spots against France. (photo from

But the lack of ideas and skill and just plain work (excepting the always solid Carli Lloyd and Tobin Heath) transcend the issue of whether this was "just a friendly." Foudy made the comment shortly after Wambach entered the game that you could sense a lift in the other U.S. players' emotions when she was on the field. But neither they, nor Ellis, should have to rely on a simple tactical change to inject energy or ingenuity into the game. And, even if it works, you can only go to that particular well so many times before it becomes routine and by definition unremarkable.

The U.S. plays England in that next friendly on Friday. After that comes the Algarve Cup, the tournament that was presumably Sermanni's undoing when the U.S. finished seventh out of eight teams a year ago. We'd better hope that Ellis has figured some things out between now and then. Because, much like Solo, I doubt that there's a "Plan B" when it comes to who will coach our national team at the World Cup in June.