It was time to place a bet.
Because it was an unusual problem to have at this early stage of the Women’s World Cup. United States head coach Jill Ellis had to decide whether to rotate her starters against Chile, the world’s 39th-ranked team, whom the Americans had beaten 3-0 and 4-0 in a pair of friendlies less than a year earlier. Such was the sunny outlook for the defending champions on Sunday, following their 13-0 thrashing of Thailand in the opener. A place in the knockout stages was more or less a given.
What was more of a question mark was whether the USA or Sweden would win the group and thereby set up a potential quarterfinal with France, rather than possibly avoiding the fearsome home team until a would-be final. And so everybody wondered how hard the Americans would – and should – play against Chile and the final group stage match with Sweden.
Ellis was unequivocal. “For us, it’s making sure that we play as well as we possibly can and win the game,” she said before Sunday’s match.
But then she hinted at lineup turnover.
“We want to make this a long tournament,” Ellis said. “To do that, we certainly know it’s going to take a lot of physical effort and output from every single one of those players.”
The Americans would try to keep winning while plumbing the depths of their uncommonly deep roster. And sure enough, Ellis made seven changes to her lineup, including her entire front line – Alex Morgan, Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath making way for Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh and Christen Press – and two-thirds of her midfield, taking out Rose Lavelle and Sam Mewis for Morgan Brian and Becky Sauerbrunn, who slotted into the defense with Julie Ertz moving back to midfield.
Fullbacks Kelley O’Hara and Crystal Dunn were dropped as well, for Tierna Davidson and Ali Krieger. And then Jessica McDonald, Allie Long and Emily Sonnett came on as substitutes, ensuring that, remarkably, every single field player had gotten into the action just two games into the tournament.
It worked out fine with a 3-0 victory and a now-guaranteed place in the round of 16. But how it pans out over the long term remains to be seen.
In resting her starters, Ellis took something of a gamble.
On the one hand, cycling out most of her starters makes sense. It keeps them fresh for the five remaining games, should the Americans reach the final, and keeps the reserves happy and involved. The risk of losing was low against a team the U.S. would probably beat 99 times out of 100.
“We need them,” Ellis said of the reserves in her post-game news conference, per USA Today. “We need them in a good place. If they can have minutes and their butterflies are out of the way, it helps us down the line.”
On the other hand, the momentum that must be built over the course of a tournament is, in a lot of ways, disrupted when almost an entirely new team is brought in. Historically, that has tripped a lot of teams up. But then that was usually in the third and final group stage game, with qualification assured but the first knockout game awaiting. Ellis did it differently. And she was betting, essentially, that her starters are sufficiently familiar in their roles and partnerships that they don’t need all three group stage games together to find their rhythm.
Perhaps the plan was to save the starters for Sweden, which is both the first real test for the U.S. – in 2016, Sweden knocked the Americans out of the Rio Olympics in the quarterfinals on penalties, making for the worst-ever American showing at a major tournament – and also a game that’s meaningless other than to assign a group winner. Maybe the idea is to go on a roll with the first-string lineup from there.
Which makes a more difficult path to the final likelier, as it would also put England in the Americans’ path.
Maybe Ellis realizes there’s only so much managing and manipulating a coach can really do. She doesn’t control how the other teams do, how the knockout stage bracket shakes out. All along, she has kept focused entirely on the USA’s own performance and taken a game-at-a-time approach. If all of her field players have been blooded in this tournament, and she’s confident that her starters are sufficiently in sync to miss a game together, spreading the minutes around might pay off.
“We want to win every game,” Ellis said. “That’s where we’re at and that’s what we want to do.”
And maybe the surest bet of all is to play as well as they can, whenever they can.
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.
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