“Our mentality is always the same: It’s always to win,” the co-captain Carli Lloyd said. “But I think the reaction from the media and the fans is that they’re not realizing the game has gotten a lot better over all, it’s evolved, and we aren’t the U.S. team that’s just going to roll out and win, 8-0, like we used to in the past.”
That is particularly true of late. The Americans are two years from their next major tournament, the 2019 Women’s World Cup, and with no real trophies on the line, Coach Jill Ellis has used the games since last year’s Olympics to emphasize tactical experimentation and to give opportunities to younger players. Regulars like Lloyd and Alex Morgan have seen their minutes reduced, and new faces like Rose Lavelle and Lynn Williams have been given long looks.
“What I’m looking for is, Which new players can we add so we can be even better?” Ellis said. “If that’s your priority, then you have to play them. There’s nothing at stake right now. I have to look at the big picture of the team.”
But with that long-term approach has come a less polished, less cohesive United States team. A string of frustrating performances culminated in back-to-back losses against England and France in March in the SheBelieves Cup, a tournament hosted by U.S. Soccer. Not only did Ellis fold some new players into the mix, but she also put veteran players in new roles and tried new tactics.
Fans reacted with alarm when a 3-0 defeat against France — the team’s largest losing margin in a decade — left the Americans finishing last in the tournament. Some took up the hashtag “#FireJillEllis” on social media. Individual players also didn’t escape harsh criticism on Twitter, where nearly all of the American players are active.
In an interview this month, Ellis said she was giving herself until this fall to continue to look at new players and test others in different roles before she starts to focus on building on-field partnerships and chemistry ahead of the 2019 Women’s World Cup in France. That means that more tighter-than-expected results — and even more losses — may lie ahead.
“I think people should take a step back and breathe a little bit,” midfielder Allie Long said shortly after the loss to France in March. “It’s O.K. that we failed in those games. Do we want to lose? No, it absolutely drives us crazy. I don’t think losing should be part of the process. But I do think that it’s almost needed to help us figure things out.”
In this off-year in the team’s four-year cycle — that is, a year that does not include the Women’s World Cup or the Olympics — Ellis and U.S. Soccer have gone out of their way to schedule top teams in tournament-style settings. U.S. Soccer created the SheBelieves Cup last year and added the Tournament of Nations to the schedule for 2017. The tournament features doubleheaders in Seattle (Thursday), San Diego (Sunday) and Carson, Calif. (Aug. 3).
“There’s a greater chance of failing when you play the top 10 teams in the world, but there’s also a greater chance of us gaining valuable experience, and that’s what I care about,” Ellis said.
“I love that the fans want us to be perfect,” she added. “If they know the game, they know Barcelona aren’t perfect, Real Madrid aren’t perfect — that’s the game. But I love that there’s a high expectation on us because it does push us.”
As countries pour more resources into their women’s programs, few know better than Ellis and her players that the once-wide disparity in quality between teams is shrinking and that the United States is regularly facing savvier, more technical competition.
The 2016 Olympics put that on full display — the United States was unable to break down a technically sound and well-drilled Swedish team and left the Games without a medal for the first time — but sometimes the public perception doesn’t always match how the team feels about its own progress.
“I understand the expectation is high, and I think that it should be,” Morgan said. “We do have the best team in the world, and sometimes, not even on our best day, we should still beat the best teams.”
For newer players like Williams, who joined the team after the Olympics, that higher level of scrutiny is a stark change from what they were accustomed to as college players or young professionals.
“I’ve felt good after a game and then I’ll read something and be like: Oh, O.K. Well, fine,” Williams said with a laugh.
“If we lose one game and fans freak out, that’s sports. As a fan, you always want to see your team win — I get that and I 100 percent support that. But at the same time, I think we as players need to realize it’s about the process and how we can be the best team in 2019.”
The players also know that predicting future results off current form can be difficult. Shortly before the 2015 Women’s World Cup, the United States lost to France, 2-0, in a friendly. At the time, the result was viewed as an alarming sign months before the World Cup, but Ellis now credits the game with giving the Americans the resolve to win in Canada later that year.
For Lloyd, now 35 and targeting one last World Cup, losses like that one — and others that have brought down criticism on her and her teammates — simply serve as fuel.
“Think of how many people wrote us off at the 2015 World Cup, wrote me off personally, and said, ‘What’s going on with this team?’” said Lloyd, the reigning two-time FIFA player of the year. “Not every journey and not every tournament is perfect.”