For Jill Ellis, managing the first two games of the Women’s World Cup has been a little like coaching in a youth tournament.
In Sunday’s 3-0 win over Chile — a match that was lopsided everywhere but on the scoreboard — Ellis emptied her bench, making seven changes to the lineup she used in last week’s opener. And the move worked brilliantly, with Carli Lloyd getting her first start of the tournament and scoring twice in the first 35 minutes.
Julie Ertz had a goal in between, helping the U.S. clinch a spot in the round of 16 and sending the Americans on to Thursday’s game with Sweden with a chance to win the group.
But if the move worked well in the short term, it could pay even bigger dividends in the long term because the U.S. now heads into next week’s unforgiving knockout stage with a team that is both rested and experienced on the sport’s biggest stage.
The World Cup might be just two games old for the U.S., but Ellis has already played all 20 of her outfield players. Not that it seems to make a difference who she sends on the field. Which, of course, is the point.
In the two victories, the Americans have outscored the opposition 16-0, outshot it 65-3 and controlled the ball more than 70% of the time.
“We can play different starting 11s and everyone can contribute,” said midfielder Morgan Brian, one of seven new starters Sunday. “It’s huge going into a tournament like this when you can split the load.”
Added defender Tierna Davidson, who had two assists: “To have the depth that we have is really special.”
Ellis had a deep team in 2015 too but prepared for her first World Cup differently. So when the team lost two players to yellow-card accumulation in the knockout round, it nearly led to disaster.
This summer, with a roster that included 11 players in their first World Cup, Ellis made sure everyone was ready by giving them all playing time. Defender Emily Sonnett was the last to come on, replacing Abby Dahlkemper in the 82nd minute.
“It’s kind of been this big-picture plan for a few months now,” Ellis said.
“This is a very close team. You can talk about the football on the pitch, but you can also talk about how a team feels. That’s what today was. The players that didn’t play understood, and we’re excited for the players that were on the pitch.”
Of course, Ellis has also had the luxury of a relatively soft start to the tournament, with the U.S. opening against Thailand and Chile, two of the lowest-ranked teams in the World Cup. The tournament gets decidedly tougher now, with Thursday’s group-stage final with No. 9 Sweden kicking off a streak that would see the U.S. play five games in 18 days if the Americans make it to the final.
And all of those matches would likely be against teams ranked in the top 13 in the world.
“We’re climbing up a mountain now,” Lloyd said. “And it’s only going to get harder.”
Lloyd made things a bit easier Sunday, putting the U.S. in front to stay in the 11th minute, cutting in front of Ertz and using her left foot to volley home a poor Chilean clearance. That gave her goals in six straight World Cup games dating to 2015, breaking a record set by Germany’s Birgit Prinz.
Ertz got her chance in the 26th minute, beating Chile’s Daniela Zamora to a Davidson corner kick at the top of the six-yard box and powering a header off the gloved hands of keeper Christiane Endler at the near post for her first career World Cup goal.
It also made her the eighth different player to score for the U.S. in France, two short of the World Cup record.
Then it was Lloyd again, leaping high to put in another header off a Davidson corner in the 35th minute. The goal was her 10th in World Cup play, leaving her behind only Abby Wambach (14) and Michelle Akers (12) on the all-time U.S. list.
“Records are fine,” Lloyd said. “I just want to win.”
Davidson made history of her own. Her World Cup debut made the 20-year-old the youngest American to play in the tournament since Tiffany Roberts in 1995.
The score would have been far more one-sided if not for the brilliant play of Endler, who was voted the player of the match despite her team losing. The U.S. got off 26 shots, nine on goal, but Endler saved six of them — many in spectacular fashion — and got Lloyd to push a late-game penalty shot wide of the post.
With Chile likely headed home, the tournament now starts in earnest for the U.S. Ellis will begin that next stage with a team rested and experienced, something she hopes will be a lethal combination.