SYDNEY, Australia — When two-time Women’s World Cup winning coach Jill Ellis watches Australia during this tournament, she can’t help but see similarities between the Matildas and her U.S. teams that won it all in 2015 and 2019.
That’s because Australia’s head coach, Tony Gustavsson, was an assistant coach for the U.S. women’s national team during those two previous World Cups, with he and Ellis working together closely throughout.
Gustavsson, now in his first international head-coaching job, has steered Australia to the team’s first semifinal of a World Cup. Ellis told ESPN she isn’t surprised at all — Australia’s final match before the World Cup convinced her that Gustavsson and the Matildas would go far.
“I watched them play against France in the warm-up game, and I remember going, ‘This is a well-oiled machine. They’re going to make a deep run in this tournament,'” Ellis said. “You could just see it — the way they stepped together and moved together. It just reminded me a lot of our team in 2019. We were a very well-oiled machine, prepared for any situation.”
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The Matildas will face England in Sydney on Wednesday for what may be the biggest match in the history of Australian soccer. And in some ways — on paper, at least — Gustavsson may seem like an unlikely leader to bring the Matildas to this pivotal point.
The bulk of Gustavsson’s résumé includes head-coaching gigs at smaller clubs in Sweden, and prior to taking over the Matildas, he had never led a national team. But his time as an assistant working with Ellis and the USWNT has been crucial for his own development as a coach, as well as his understanding of what it takes to win a tournament like the World Cup.
Asked by ESPN about his time with the USWNT, he credited the experience with guiding him during this tournament.
“Those experiences were extremely valuable in learning tournament football — it’s very different than week in, week out in a league,” Gustavsson said. “I’ve been a club coach as well, but playing tournaments is completely different. It’s about finding a way to win in the game right in front of you.”
Gustavsson added that the learning never stops. “I’m probably going to learn a lot from tomorrow’s game as well,” he said of Wednesday’s semifinal. “If I look back from 2019 to where I am now, my mantra is I want to get better every day, not just one day older. I sit here one day older, but hopefully one day better as well.”
Ellis and Gustavsson still keep in touch regularly and they even chatted for a bit in Brisbane, where Australia pushed past France on penalty kicks in the quarterfinal, she told ESPN.
“I see a lot of similarities in their journey, and we talked about that,” Ellis said, noting that the U.S. team needed to be rebuilt after a disappointing 2016 Olympics — a process Gustavsson helped execute. “In terms of having to build a team after 2016, the decision was to open the team up, experiment more — we knew it was going to be hard and challenging and we were going to take a lot of criticism. He’s gone through a similar experience.”
Indeed, it wasn’t a smooth road for Gustavsson ahead of this World Cup. There were humbling stretches, like three consecutive losses to Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in 2021. There was a 7-0 loss to Spain last year, one of the Matildas’ worst losses in history.
But through it all, Gustavsson was following the same playbook he used with Ellis with the USWNT before the 2019 tournament: building depth by calling in younger, less proven players and making tactical tweaks so the players could be more adaptable depending on the scenario.
Two losses to Canada in friendlies last fall were seen as a low point, with many pundits and fans losing patience and calling for Gustavsson to be fired. But it was also a turning point. After that, Gustavsson adjusted again, finally finding a tactical approach that worked and that he would ride to the World Cup. After scenario-testing and tinkering, he built his team’s system around the players’ strengths rather than trying to make them conform to what he wanted, and everything clicked into place.
Since those two losses to Canada, the Matildas have won 13 of their past 15 games, and they’ve already achieved their deepest run at a World Cup.
“To retool that team — it certainly needed to happen,” Ellis said. “While fans aren’t patient, while media aren’t patient, Tony very much understands that but I think now people are starting to see that investment and that belief.”
The U.S. Soccer Federation hasn’t announced anything either way about the future of USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski, the coach who succeeded Ellis in 2019 and steered the U.S. to a worst-ever round-of-16 exit from this World Cup. But if the job does open up, Ellis thinks U.S. Soccer should look at Gustavsson, who was not considered in 2019 once the coaching search quickly focused on Andonovski, a well-liked club coach recommended by USWNT players.
“He should definitely be a strong candidate for the job,” she said.
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Even as a tournament co-host, the Matildas have defied the odds, and that’s especially true after an injury to star striker Sam Kerr just before the tournament started. Yet Gustavsson has built a team capable of losing its best player: he moved Mary Fowler and Emily van Egmond into roles as false No. 9s, from where they can feed the ball to wingers Caitlin Foord and Hayley Raso.
The result has been an Australia team that doesn’t rely on one player to score goals and can threaten in a variety of ways.
“I don’t think people are giving him and his staff enough credit for having navigated most of this tournament without arguably one of the best players in the world,” Ellis said. “Most of us as coaches would not have said Australia was even close to being a contender without Kerr, so that’s pretty remarkable what they’ve been able to navigate as a staff.”
Ellis can’t help but see another similarity and a learning experience that may have prepared Gustavsson for this tournament, too: The USWNT didn’t have starting striker Alex Morgan for the first few games of the 2015 World Cup. The American team struggled to score goals early on in that tournament, but Australia haven’t missed a beat without Kerr.
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England manager Sarina Wiegman insists that Australia are more than just Sam Kerr ahead of the World Cup semifinal.
That Gustavsson has been so coy about Kerr’s injury during this tournament, never really clarifying the extent of her availability, didn’t surprise Ellis, either. It reminded her of when Megan Rapinoe had to miss the USWNT’s semifinal against England at the 2019 World Cup — something Ellis kept a secret before the game.
“We came under a lot of pressure for not revealing Rapinoe’s injury,” Ellis said. “I think based on the experiences we shared, everything he’s done I’ve totally understood because you know teams are going to set up in different ways if they know there’s a vertical threat like Sam Kerr and a player of her caliber.”
The decision to move Van Egmond out of the midfield role she plays for San Diego Wave FC is a tactical decision Ellis says has flown under the radar, too.
“I don’t think people have really received that as such a great move on his part,” Ellis said. “I know from the Wave, she plays in a deeper role in the midfield. To move her higher up the pitch was a great solve and added a little bit more control if they were transitioning.”
At its core, soccer is a game of moments, and that’s especially true during a World Cup.
Gustavsson designed the now-famous set pieces that Carli Lloyd scored on in the 2015 World Cup final against Japan. They were unexpected, unusual short plays designed to spread Japan’s defense. Ellis said Gustavsson loves set pieces, and he was in charge of attacking set pieces when he was part of the USWNT coaching staff.
Gustavsson said on Tuesday that his time with the USWNT during the 2015 and 2019 World Cups taught him the importance of individual moments in a tournament setting.
“All it takes is one moment — I know that from experience,” Gustavsson told ESPN. “That’s why you need to play every single moment out there, whether it’s defending a set play or you lose the ball in defending transition, or it’s a tackle or a one-on-one duel.
“That one moment can be the decided whether you win or lose. You need to live every single moment because that’s where the margins are in a semifinal or a final.”
As the World Cup continues, the margins keep getting smaller, but Gustavsson and the Matildas are now one game away from a World Cup final.