Updated: Feb 21, 2020
Toward the end of 2017, the United States team settled into a 4-3-3 formation, and they haven’t really budged since. Considering they’ve lost a total of one (!) game since then, that stability shouldn’t be too surprising. Why fix what isn’t broken?
But nothing is forever, and the history of soccer is filled with teams who settled into a groove and seemed unbeatable, right up until they started losing. So it pays to develop alternatives, even if Plan A still seems plenty viable. I made this case in the run-up to the World Cup last year. My point then wasn’t that the US couldn’t win this way; it was just that the system was heavily reliant on everything staying the same. My particular concern at that moment was Julie Ertz, who is the heart of the team and the key figure that prevents the aggressive style from tilting too heavily to the attack and getting ripped apart by counters.
I remain worried about that reliance, by the way, even if no one ever managed to exploit it last summer. Ertz has an incredible engine but at some point she’s probably going to need a break and it’s not clear the US can adapt if (soccer gods forbid) she were to suffer a lengthy injury.
But that’s not the focus of today’s column. Instead, I want to talk about Alex Morgan.
Alex Morgan has redefined her game and become even more essential.
We are all well aware of Morgan’s goal-scoring abilities. But the physical aspect of her game is less often discussed, even though it’s arguably become the most important contribution she has brought to the team. Morgan sits at the fulcrum of the attack, soaking up their punishment, allowing the rest of the attack to build around her. She’s the best on the team at drawing fouls—a real and important skill, especially for a forward. She’s also the best on the team at creating space for others by drawing defenders through cleverly angled runs. In short, she does all the grunt work of a classic #9, while also bringing the ability to combine creatively with the more mercurial players that usually operate on her flanks.
No one would ever mistake Morgan for a bruising target forward, but her combination of commitment and finesse is critical to the way the US wants to play. And, importantly, it’s a combination of abilities that no one else in the US pool really possesses.
None of the available options are well-suited to Morgan’s role.
Since Morgan announced her pregnancy, it’s often seemed like Carli Lloyd is the preferred replacement. And Lloyd certainly is a similar player in some respects. When she’s on her game, she can serve as the central strike point: distributing play and then poaching goals at the end of the move. Unfortunately, she’s often not on her game, and brings a more listless style. Lloyd is famous for going invisible for extended stretches only to score the game-winner out of nowhere. That’s certainly an important skill, and arguably a great reason for bringing her along. But it’s not a case for using her as the starting #9 in this system—a job which requires constant vigilance, often bringing much individual reward.
Lynn Williams has the tools for the job, but for all her ability remains a somewhat raw player in many respects. Her limitations do tend to get exaggerated, but at the moment she’s better suited to playing off the shoulder of defenders, a role that lets her exploit space. She can play the more reserved target role, but lacks the wiliness and full 360 vision that you really need in the job. Give her a year or two with Vlatko Andonovski, and she may well be the answer in 2023. But she’s not today.
The other forwards on the roster are even worse fits. Jess McDonald has the same problems as Williams, and there’s no realistic prospect that she could develop into the job. Others like Christen Press, Megan Rapinoe, and Tobin Heath are all much better facing goal. Shackling them to Morgan’s role would reduce their effectiveness significantly.
Importantly, none of this is meant to suggest that these players can’t succeed in a central role. They certainly can, especially Press. But none of them are well-suited to the specific central role that this 4-3-3 demands. They’re all ridiculously good soccer players, so it wouldn’t kill them to go with a poor fit in the role, but it would impose a real cost.
A new challenger emerges?
If none of the forwards are suited to the job, does that mean the US simply can’t fill the role? Not necessarily. There is actually one player on the US roster who would slot in quite nicely: Lindsey Horan.
Horan was named the NWSL MVP in 2018 for her excellent work with the Portland Thorns. That campaign established her goal-scoring bona fides. She’s also a powerful physical player, capable of knocking just about anyone in the world off the ball, or holding up under sustained pressure. Plus, she's a great passer, and would certainly be able to bring the rest of the team in around her. Her versatility has often convinced coaches to play her in deeper roles where she can influence more of the game, but she has played as a forward in the past, and now might be the time to slot her back into the role again.
After all, if the point of playing her deeper was to allow her more chances to influence the game, that objective is not really being served at the moment, thanks to the logjam of talent in the central midfield. The big conundrum of this team over the last nine months has been whether to start Horan or Sam Mewis, with Horan often ending up the odd one out. But she obviously can’t influence anything from the bench. So why not answer both the forward question and the midfield question with one move?
Horan brings an extra advantage even above what Morgan can offer: her experience playing the #10 means she could easily drop back a bit and play as a false nine, creating further positional hassles for opposing defenses to manage. The US already deploys a fluid, flowing attack, which makes it difficult for defenders to consistently cover their marks. Adding another fold of complexity would make that job all that much harder.
Admittedly, Horan was a bit off her game in 2019, bringing less technique and energy than we’ve come to expect. If that continues through 2020, it’s a strike against this idea. But she just had an excellent qualifying tournament, so there’s no particular reason to expect another lackluster year from her.
It may feel wrong to deploy a player who is in the argument for the 'best midfield in the world' somewhere that’s not in the midfield. But the US has done literally that exact thing for the past two years by playing Crystal Dunn at left back. Why not try it again?
Build your tactics around your strengths, not around habit.
Still, even if you buy into the Horan idea, it’s worth remembering that the US is not obliged to play in their now-standard 4-3-3 formation.
Teams struggling to stay afloat often need to develop rigid systems with set roles to keep everyone on track. But the US is the best team in the world, with players who are more than capable of adapting to multiple styles and arrangements. If they decide that there ultimately is no perfect like-for-like replacement for Alex Morgan, the obvious solution is to play in a setup that doesn’t demand that specific model of player.
The above description of Horan as a false nine is one example of how the system could be slightly tweaked. But more aggressive options should also be on the table.
The North Carolina Courage have plowed through all opposition with a 4-4-2 box midfield in recent years. There’s absolutely no reason the US couldn’t play the same way, with Rose Lavelle swapping in for Debinha alongside Crystal Dunn at the top of the box.
Alternatively, the US could make a more aggressive change and deploy a back three. Those who remember the ill-fated three back experiment of late 2016 and early 2017 will no doubt react with horror to the suggestion. But it’s foolish to categorically reject a system that’s widely used with great success by hundreds of teams around the world simply because Jill Ellis inexplicably decided to try and make Allie Long (!) into a center back.
Take a look at this example XI and tell me you don’t want to see what they could produce:
This approach also has the noted advantage that it capitalizes on the US strength in depth at center back, while minimizing their (relative) weakness at fullback. In particular, it gets Crystal Dunn (arguably the best player in the world over the past 3-4 years) into a position where she’ll be able to do a lot more damage.
Alex Morgan is irreplaceable. But that’s okay.
The US pool is both deep and wide. They have the strongest roster in the world, with an impressive array of options at every position. But even the strongest roster in the world isn’t stocked with perfect doppelgängers for its key players. The US has been blessed with relative health among its key players over the past five years, but you can’t bet on that forever. Players get injured, or miss time for pregnancy, or simply age into ineffectiveness.
With the range of talent available, the US shouldn’t really ever find itself in the position of needing to force a square peg into a round hole. Far better to diversify their range of options so that when the unthinkable occurs, it turns out to have actually been quite thinkable...and multiple solutions have already been devised.
Alex Morgan may well return from pregnancy quickly, bringing an end to this conversation before it really has a time to fully develop. But she also might not. In the meantime, the US would do well to consider a wider range of options in terms of style and approach.
There’s always some risk in adding complexity. But with a coach like Andonovski—famous for his attention to detail—at the helm, the potential benefits almost certainly outweigh the risks.