Will Jill Ellis play Tobin Heath as an outside back in France?
For a while on Sunday afternoon, as the USWNT took on Mexico, that’s exactly where she was. Though it was more standing there than playing there. And as I watched, the thought rolled through my mind: is this really going to happen?
This isn’t the only question around this team. With the US on their way to France, there still are plenty of lingering issues. Part of that is because the team hasn’t played a truly competitive match since March. So we’ve seen plenty of games, but none that really told us key things. So we’re still left wondering who will be on the pitch, who won’t, and what that means for the fate of the team.
And thinking about Heath as a potential fullback gets me thinking more broadly about the dichotomy between true depth and the illusion of depth.
If you want to see true depth, look to the midfield. Sam Mewis, Morgan Brian, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Allie Long provide as deep a pool in the middle of the park as a coach could want. While Horan is the presumed starter, Mewis is a unique talent that is able to step in and work with just about any pairing Ellis might ask of her. Ertz can play just about anywhere with expert skill. And seeing Lavelle in person with the ball is a sight to behold. The way she reads the game and manages to get defenders befuddled as she moves forward on the pitch is a thing of beauty.
Sure there are questions on if Brian is healthy enough or if Allie Long will be able to use her particular skill set at an effective level for the national team. But most of the questions around the midfield are due to an overabundance of talent.
Contrast this with the outside back position. You have Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn as the starters. But in the post game mixed zone Dunn called herself an “attacking minded player” nearly a dozen times while answering questions from the assembled media. She’s willing to do the job, but is hardly a true defender. So if you start with Dunn, and want to make a change (reasonable on a day when it was so hot you could fry an egg on the pavement outside Red Bull Arena), it makes a certain kind of sense to swap in Tobin Heath. But the logic here is an extremely twisted kind.
I didn’t know in the year 2019 I needed to say this, but Tobin Heath is not an outside back. And watching her in person only confirmed that. In the first half she was comfortable and energetic. All that faded once she was moved to the left back spot. She didn’t look like she was particularly interested in defending–taking any chance to go forward–but those movements were aimless and uncomfortable. And why wouldn’t they be? Ellis suggested in her post game remarks that the difference between left back and left forward in this rotation wasn’t all that great. But there’s actually a big difference. You can’t just swap players interchangeably and expect it to work. The responsibilities are different, the angles are different, the way you get involved in play is different.
So why did Ellis try it? Does it maybe tell us just how little she actually wants to rely on Ali Krieger – who made the roster but still faces real worries about how she’ll perform if called upon? Or is it just some practice for a desperation move in a game where they’ve used all their subs? It’s hard to say.
Ultimately, only time will tell if this effort to force wingers in as outside backs will burn the Americans. If they win the 2019 Women’s World Cup it may be just a forgotten bit of commentary in 20 years.