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Possession vs. direct play: Welcome to NWSL’s philosophical battle

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Wednesday’s Challenge Cup matches show off two completely different ideas for how to build a team.

Soccer: NWSL Challenge Cup-Utah Royals vs Sky Blue FC Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

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Wednesday’s NWSL Challenge Cup schedule features two matchups between the league’s best surprise packages and its biggest disappointments. Utah Royals FC face OL Reign in the early match, and the Houston Dash take on Sky Blue FC in the late game. But those games aren’t just about good vs. bad teams, they’re also significant philosophical battles.

All of those teams but the Reign missed the playoffs last season, and all have made significant offseason changes. The two head coaches currently having success are the ones that are taking a pragmatic approach. Utah’s Craig Harrington and Houston’s James Clarkson have evaluated the tools at their disposal and come to the conclusion that a fast, direct style suits their teams best.

Sky Blue’s Freya Coombe and Reign’s Farid Benstiti have taken a different approach, deciding to lay down their possession-based fundamental principles now, despite the fact that both teams are clearly in need of several transactions to construct a lineup suitable for their preferred styles of play. Those teams’ struggles have gone beyond typical growing pains — both registered zero shots on target in their matches over the weekend.

The recent trials and tribulations of Orlando Pride coach Marc Skinner make me wonder how committed Coombe and Benstiti will be to their philosophies. Over the course of one year, Skinner went from criticizing NWSL for not being a tactical league, to appreciating his competitors’ style of play, to trading up in the draft to get a player primarily because she is 6’1”. Life comes at you fast.

I don’t think Skinner has moved from his preference for short passing, possession-based soccer, I think he just figured out what he’s working with, and how hard it is to establish his favored style in NWSL.

The reason lies deep in the roots of America’s soccer culture. We just love sticking the best athlete at striker and kicking the ball into space for them to run onto. There are lots of smart and talented people around the country trying to change this, but it’s going to take generations.

When OL Reign signed Nicole Momiki, she told reporters about her initial conversation with Benstiti. “He said his favorite type of player isn’t easy to find in America,” Momiki said, and he’s right. A Rose Lavelle or Megan Rapinoe pops up once in a while, but most of the top level Americans are physically gifted players who enter the professional ranks with a lot of work to do on their technique and tactical aptitude, because that is the type of player American women’s soccer is designed to produce.

Soccer: She Believes Cup Women’s Soccer-Japan vs United States Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The most gifted players are stuck up top to run onto direct balls at age 5. They play for club coaches who are afraid of losing their jobs, and as a result, often prioritize winning over development. They go on to the college game, where a lack of training time and short turnaround between games mean physical prowess is rewarded more than any other attribute. That’s the system feeding players into the pro game.

All of that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to build a Spain-like side in NWSL, but it’s going to take a hell of a lot of long-term planning and scouting. On the flipside, if you’re good at coaching fast and direct soccer, there are a bunch of American players in college and in reserve teams who can do a job for you on day one. Dash and Royals are running opponents into the ground using rookies and misfits, because they’re playing a style that those rookies and misfits have understood since they were children. It’s in the DNA of American players.

I don’t think anyone should write off the possibility of short passing, possession-based soccer working well in NWSL even if Reign and Sky Blue get absolutely creamed over the next three matches. I don’t think anyone should write off Coombe or Benstiti either. But I hope those coaches and organizations are seeing that they’ve got to make a decision and commit to it immediately.

Either:

1. They’re all-in on the philosophy. They commit hard to establishing it right now even if it makes them look stupid. They invest more heavily in their scouting than other teams do and leave no stone unturned in their search for players that fit their system. They make everyone who doesn’t fit the system perfectly available for trade.

Or:

2. They abandon the initial idea and start building tactics around the talent they have instead of the talent they wish they had.

I don’t think there’s a middle ground here. I don’t think either team can wait and see. There are just too few players in the available talent pool that fit what Benstiti and Coombe want to do, and the good players they have on their rosters are too suited for a completely different style of play, for either coach to be flexible.

Based on available information, I think the approach that Harrington and Clarkson are taking to building their teams is the better one long-term, not just for the Challenge Cup. But I’d be thrilled to see either Reign or Sky Blue really commit to the bit and prove me wrong in a couple of years.