As the United States prepares to play Germany on Tuesday in the FIFA Women's World Cup semifinals, coach Jill Ellis has plenty to ponder. Perhaps her most difficult decision involves which two players to select in central midfield, and if Ellis wants to pick the strongest possible team, Morgan Brian deserves to retain her place.
Last time out, the U.S. turned in its best performance of the tournament, beating China 1-0 in the quarterfinals in Ottawa. The scoreline was not especially impressive, but the Americans played their best football of the tournament, with strong passing, movement and link-up play across the pitch. Despite winning by just one goal, the U.S. thoroughly dominated China and fully deserved to move on.
It was the first time Ellis' team had fully convinced in five games in Canada, and although the defense was once again impenetrable, the coherence of the Americans' overall performance began in midfield. With Lauren Holiday suspended due to yellow-card accumulation, Ellis had to choose a new partner for central midfielder Carli Lloyd. Brian stepped in for her first start of the tournament and instantly made the U.S. better.
Filling a more defensive, holding role, Brian sat deeper down the pitch and helped give cover to the back four. Her presence there gave Lloyd more freedom to move forward, and Lloyd—who had been forced to take on more defensive duties in previous games—responded with her best game of the tournament, including the winning goal.
Brian and Lloyd are teammates with the Houston Dash of the National Women's Soccer League, and the combination quickly produced results against China. In the second minute, Lloyd created a scoring chance with a clever pass to Amy Rodriguez that sliced open China's defense. Rodriguez fluffed the chance with an almost comical touch, but the pattern was set.
When Holiday and Lloyd play together in central midfield, the U.S. does not have a natural defensive-minded midfielder on the pitch. Almost inevitably, this leads to an imbalance in the squad and leaves gaps that skilled opponents can exploit. With Brian in the lineup, those gaps closed considerably and counterattacking opportunities dwindled. As a result, the U.S. improved significantly.
“The coaches told me to hold a little more and let (Lloyd) do what she needs to do,” Brian said, per the Guardian. “That way Carli feels like she can attack more, and that’s good because we needed that.”
Up next, the Americans will face their best, most skilled opponent of the tournament in Germany. The top-ranked team in the world, Germany has a surplus of talented attacking players that can pick the U.S. apart in an instant. Playmaker Dzsenifer Marozsan is injured, and her status is uncertain for the game, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN), but coach Silvia Neid has multiple players who can serve as ready replacements.
If the U.S. midfield leaves gaps, the Germans are skilled and creative enough to exploit them. For that reason, Ellis should consider keeping Brian in the starting 11. While it's true that Brian is just 22 and comparatively inexperienced at this level, she is the team's best defensive midfield option at the moment.
Writing at SB Nation, Kevin McCauley noted:
Even if the U.S. lost, Brian was going to be made to look good by a team that sets up like China does. She might play the exact same way against Germany but look awful if Anja Mittag is on her game.
Ultimately, that's a risk the USWNT has to take. Brian's inexperience might cost them, but the complete absence of defensive anything offered by the Holiday-Lloyd pairing definitely will.
Thus the dilemma for Ellis becomes which player to bench. Lloyd, who served as captain and scored against China, appears undroppable at the moment. Holiday, however, is probably the better attacking option overall, even if Lloyd made the difference against China.
With only two slots to fill in central midfield, one of Holiday or Lloyd might have to make way. But Ellis could have another option. With Megan Rapinoe an automatic starter at left midfield after returning from suspension, the U.S. still has one spot to fill on the opposite flank. If Brian retains her central role, either Lloyd or Holiday could move to the right. That might sacrifice some width, but it would help the U.S. hold the ball better in midfield against the dangerous Germans.
None of these are perfect solutions, but based on the team Ellis brought to Canada, her best option is to keep Brian in the middle and then decide what to do with Lloyd and Holiday.