Leveraging strengths: We may have just seen the USWNT's best possible midfield

Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Jill Ellis tinkered with formations, but the personnel in the 4-3-3 against New Zealand looked optimal.

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U.S. Soccer hasn't been able to develop playmakers. We've talked about it here, in various forms, and over your lifetime as a soccer fan, you've heard argument after argument as to why the U.S. keeps falling short. Maybe you agree with them; maybe you don't. Regardless, whether on the men's side or the women’s, there is no line of potential No. 10s waiting to pull the strings at the senior level.

The women felt this pain last summer at the Olympics, while the men continue to thirst for creativity in a disappointing World Cup qualifying campaign. It's endemic.

That's why the midfield that Jill Ellis chose on Friday, and played for the bulk of Tuesday’s friendly, is so exciting. Instead of continuing a futile search for the first great American creator, Ellis started a midfield that leveraged the United States' bigger assets: strength, physicality, athleticism, and versatility. While Julie Ertz, Samantha Mewis, and Lindsey Horan don't exactly project as the type of players fans have pined for from U.S. development, they are a function of the U.S.' reality, for better or worse. They also give Ellis a trio capable of steamrolling the rest of the world.

Granted, the two decisive victories we saw this break weren’t against one of the world’s top teams. New Zealand is decent, no doubt, but it’s a nation that has been outscored 57-6 all time against the U.S. The Football Ferns aren’t the bar the U.S. is trying to get over.

And yes, the U.S. does have a player like Rose Lavelle coming through the system, somebody who has a realistic chance of being the program’s first modern No. 10. But look across the women’s and men’s landscapes, and she looks like the exception that proves the rule. With seven caps at 22 years old, too, there’s still more to see from Lavelle.

In Tobin Heath and Christian Pulisic, the U.S. has players capable of beating opponents in multiple ways, creating chances, and proverbially bending the game to their will. But there is something very American about the fact that neither player, while having the raw skills to develop into a Mesut Ozil or James Rodriguez, has developed into someone you put in middle of the park and build a formation around.

Why we keep harping on the midfield

That middle of the park part is important. Playing predominantly wide doesn’t make Heath and Pulisic any worse as players, or even any less effective. It matters, though, to how a coach sets up her team. Wide players can enjoy a kind of freedom on the flanks that not only grants them autonomy but does so without necessarily dictating the rest of the team’s look, for better or worse. Through the middle, however, playmakers not only have the virtue of being closer to the ball also but being able to establish consistent links with their teammates, be those teammates behind, in front, or wide of them.

That brings us back to this 4-3-3. Once you let go of the idea that the U.S. women need to (or even can) deploy a playmaker in the middle, you’re left with a few options. Ellis seems to have drilled those down to a 4-4-2, the direction she was headed at the beginning of the Tournament of Nations, or a 4-3-3, the formation which proved more effective in that tournament.

Thankfully, Ellis is exploring what that 4-3-3 can do, within which, this recent trio looks amazingly promising. At least, it seems promising in theory, mostly because of how unique Ertz, Mewis and Horan are. Individually, their combination of size, skill, and versatility make them unicorns, of a sort, with somebody like England’s Jill Scott representing the rare case of another country having this type of player. Put all three in one midfield, and you have a trio so robust that even Germany and France could have problems moving through them.

In Ertz, the U.S. has a ball-winner so dominant, you can protect your defense without putting a second midfielder at her level. Above her, conceivably, Mewis has the physical tools to be the best box-to-box player in the world — somebody you would be wasting if you pigeonhole her into a mere defensive midfield role. With her higher up, you have Horan, a player who has, at NWSL level, proven herself capable of excelling as a No. 10, 8 or an Andrea Pirlo-esque 6.

A trio Blues fans would love

The big benefit here is the pure physicality the trio brings, something that’s reminiscent of one of the best midfields of the modern soccer era.

With an introduction like that, you might think of Barcelona’s legendary trio — Sergio Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta — but before the dawn of the Blaugrana recent dominance, Jose Mourinho assembled the model modern midfield at Chelsea: Claude Makelele as an unparalleled, single-minded ball-winner; Michael Essien as the prototypical box-to-box talent; and Frank Lampard, a No. 8 by position who produced more goals than any No. 10 in the world. Versatility, strength, production — Chelsea’s midfield trio became a trademark feature of the club’s first period of dominance.

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The parallel to what Ellis is trying with the U.S. is almost too easy: Ertz as the Makelele; Mewis as Essien; Horan as Lampard. All three are physically imposing while possessing an athleticism to make their strength mobile. Each will take players off the ball, and if they don’t, there are two more impressive figures through which attacks must navigate. While that benefit may come at the expense of some creativity, Horan’s potentially elite range of distribution helps compensate for that. Both she and Mewis are more than capable of connecting with the U.S.’ stellar core of wide playmakers: Heath, Megan Rapinoe, and, potentially, Lavelle.

That dynamic alone would justify a prolonged look at this trio, especially when connectors like Morgan Brian and Allie Long could be mixed and matched, depending on the opposition. The possibility of Carli Lloyd, too, being added to the mix could give the setup more attacking potential against lesser opposition.

And then there’s the matter of flexibility. If Ertz were to win a spot in a three-woman central midfield, it becomes very easy for Ellis to, on the fly, switch between three- and two-center backs without making substitutions. Dropping Ertz back between central defenders would keep players like Mewis and Horan in the middle and allow wingers such as Rapinoe and Heath to stay inside while the team’s fullbacks-turned-wingbacks provide the width. The idea of Kelley O’Hara and Casey Short being able to push up the field, along the defense, as the U.S. builds play would give the team the five-across-the-field look Ellis tried to implement this winter.

Other tweaks out of the 4-3-3 make the formation even more enticing. Putting Lloyd on top of the midfield triangle, at the point of a diamond she has mastered in Houston, gives the U.S. yet another option, allowing the Americans to drop their No. 9 into a midfield role while still maintaining two pure attacking options.

All of this, of course, is predicated on that three-woman middle working. With Brian and Long as options, there are a number of possible combinations. But the Ertz-Mewis-Horan trio may be the most versatile while allowing the U.S. to leverage its greatest strengths. Though the setup may mean abandoning the idea of establishing pure playmakers and, again, relying more on forwards to create their own chances, that may just be the reality of the U.S.’ player pool. Sometimes, it’s best to accept what you are than fake what you’re not.

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