OTTAWA — Simply winning a World Cup quarterfinal match may not suffice for the United States women’s national team.
Despite reaching this stage of the tournament for the seventh consecutive time, building a 333-minute shutout streak along the way, the Americans have been subjected to frequent criticism, with the volume increasing after an arrhythmic 2-0 win over Colombia on Monday in the round of 16.
On Friday, the United States will face China, a team it is expected to beat. But it seems that winning only a certain way — with more fluidity, more attacking ingenuity and more ease over all — would curtail the hand-wringing about the squad.
“We know that it’s not our best; we know that we’re capable of so much more,” midfielder Carli Lloyd said Wednesday. “So just trying to find that and fine-tune it is what we’re doing.”
Lloyd added: “We’re following the direction of the coaches. We’re doing everything they ask of us, and we just have to continue to dig deep and find a way.”
To some critics, the direction from Coach Jill Ellis has been precisely the problem. There has been little passing flow and apparently little effort to correct that. Striker Abby Wambach, who has scored 183 international goals, has remained a focal point on offense despite appearing slow and out of sync. Concerned voices emerged strongly during and after the game Monday, in which Colombia, a much less accomplished team, seemed to control the pace of play for long stretches despite playing almost half the game with one fewer player.
While providing color commentary on Fox Sports, Tony DiCicco, who coached the United States to its last World Cup title, in 1999, said repeatedly that he thought Ellis needed to switch to a 4-3-3 formation instead of the 4-4-2 she was favoring.
Analyzing the performance in a postgame studio show on Fox, Eric Wynalda suggested that Ellis’s tactics were too conservative.
“The performance was pathetic, and it’s not the players’ fault,” said Wynalda, a former player for the men’s national team. “We have plenty of players who can go at teams, plenty of players who can score goals, but the reins have been pulled on them.”
In an interview on Sirius XM that reverberated through social media, Michelle Akers, who helped the United States win World Cup titles in 1991 and ’99, questioned Ellis’s personnel decisions and lineups.
“Some of our coaching decisions are unexplainable,” she said.
Ellis was not available to reporters Wednesday. But she adopted a mildly defiant tone Monday night when asked if she, aside from being pleased with advancing, was satisfied with how the game had been played.
“This is the World Cup,” Ellis said. “I’m really satisfied with advancing. Most goals in World Cup tournaments, a majority of them, come on set pieces; we’ve been brilliant. It’s about finding a way. I thought we stroked the ball around pretty well at times. So, yeah, I’m pleased with where we are.”
Ellis, a native of England who moved to Northern Virginia as a teenager, was hired as the national team coach in May 2014 after two separate interim stints. Fans are still learning about her as she continues to put her imprint on the team.
Lloyd did not come close to directly criticizing the coaching staff. But in highlighting what she saw as the team’s shortcomings and elucidating her personal frustrations, she did seem to validate certain popular concerns about the team’s tactics.
“We’ve got so many talented players on this team, and I don’t think we’ve maxed into anybody right now,” said Lloyd, who scored on a penalty kick Monday. “Yes, defensive shape has been strong, but I think in order for us to win this thing — in order for us to show the world what we’ve got — we’ve got to take some risks at some point.”
Lloyd, who made her debut for the national team in 2005, said the team’s conservative field positioning was hindering its ability to transition quickly into dangerous moves. The result seems to be an abundance of direct, long balls that have fans grumbling about a lack of offensive imagination.
“We are a bit deeper defensively, so when we win the ball, we’re in our defensive end, so it’s a long ways to get to the goal,” Lloyd said. “Versus different games in different eras, we would defend and press higher up on the field, therefore winning it higher up on the field and just need a couple passes to break through to goal.”
These concerns could be irrelevant if the United States keeps winning and Ellis returns the World Cup trophy to the country. The team’s style has spurred debate, but the end results, so far, have been irrefutable.
Not every player seemed so concerned. Meghan Klingenberg, a defender, chuckled softly when it was suggested that the team’s attacking deficiencies were overshadowing its defensive successes.
“You can call them deficiencies, but we’ve gotten the result that we’ve needed to get every single game we’ve played,” Klingenberg said. “If we keep teams to zero goals and only score one per game, I wouldn’t say that’s a deficiency. I’d say that’s winning.”
Correction: June 24, 2015
An earlier version of this article misstated the number of international goals that Abby Wambach has scored. It is 183, not 245, which is the number of international games she has played.