The U.S. Women's National Team's 5-2 win over Japan to claim its third World Cup title was surprising--surprising in that the score was that close. After Carli Lloyd served notice that she was going to own Japan's penalty area, scoring twice in the first five minutes from set pieces, the game could have spiraled into something like Germany's 7-1 shaming of Brazil in the men's World Cup semifinal. A national embarrassment for the host country. But Japan capitalized on a defensive mistake to claw one goal back, and in the second half claimed an own goal, its second in two games. But Japan's luck had finally run out. That second goal was quickly erased when Tobin Heath scored off a yet another corner to restore a three-goal lead.
On the way to the trophy, USWNT coach Jill Ellis had to endure some fairly vicious sniping from former players and coaches about her player selection and about her team setup. Long time striker Abby Wambach was deemed too old and too slow. The team formation wasn't dynamic enough. The team wasn't scoring enough. And Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) had demanded that U.S. Soccer investigate controversial goalie Hope Solo and "reconsider" her spot on the team. If Ellis was influenced by the criticism it wasn't apparent. Instead, the USWNT absorbed the trash talk--and the Senator--and dished out defeats to opponents.
Ellis's management style and the team play can certainly offer some everyday takeaways for business managers.
1. Even if you get outplayed, make sure you don't get outworked. The U.S. struggled tactically in early games but there was never a question of fitness. When we watch elite athletes play, there's a tendency to mark it down to born-with-it talent. Having covered the USWNT over the years, one lasting impression is the level of commitment to training, to putting yourself in a position to execute correctly. These players do not countenance slacking by anyone. Ever.
2. If you have the right players, give them time to figure things out. The U.S. nearly got overrun by Australia in the first 30 minutes of the first game. They survived only through great goalkeeping by Solo, (Senator Blowhard, er Blumenthal, notwithstanding) and won 3-1. Importantly, they solved Australia's high-pressure, high-up-the-field strategy, which would be a vital advantage later in the tourney.
3. If you have the right plan, give it a chance to work. Against Nigeria, Ellis thumbed her nose at the media and played Wambach, who scored the winning goal. Finishers are a rare breed in soccer; you bench them at your peril. She then benched Wambach for the rest of the tournament.
4. If you have the right plan, challenge it before someone else does. Ellis adjusted the formation from a more traditional 4-4-2 to a more flexible set-up (so flexible that commentators couldn't decide whether it was 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1). She made Tobin Heath, who probably has the most creative feet on the team, a starter in the outside midfield. The changes gave the U.S. better ball possession and allowed Lloyd rove forward, where she became the driving force of the U.S. attack. Everything came together in the semifinal against Germany, then the No. 1 ranked team in the world. The Americans shredded Germany's midfield with their passing, and Lloyd scored on a penalty kick as well as assisting on Kelley O'Hara's clinching goal. This may have been one of team's best performances ever. It proved that this USWNT could play big against big teams.
And against Japan, they were enormous.
Correction: An earlier version of this article misidentified the player who scored the goal on which Carli Lloyd assisted. She was Kelly O'Hara.