Ninety minutes. That’s all that stands between the US women’s national team and its first match at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.
Before you whip out your calculators, yes, there are technically more than 90 minutes between now and the start of the United States’ group stage opener against Vietnam on July 21. send-off match against Wales (4 p.m. ET) is the last step.
With a World Cup just around the corner, you don’t want to make changes that could alter the course of your team. Don’t expect US manager Vlatko Andonovski to make any major changes to the tournament favorite against Wales. However, the USWNT’s final World Cup squad had a surprising lack of depth at both ends of the field and a couple of potential pitfalls in the middle. Those things create real questions that need to be answered before this team heads to Australia and New Zealand.
So, to make sure the U.S. is fully prepared before the show begins, here are the must-haves on Andonovski’s to-do list for Sunday’s game.
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Find your third center back — and play it
With veteran Becky Sauerbrunn out of this World Cup due to a foot injury, Andonovski opted to keep only two true center backs on the US roster. San Diego Wave FC’s Naomi Girma and OL Reign’s Alana Cook are expected to play the lion’s share of minutes in the middle of the team’s back four. Girma, even at the age of 23, is one of the best round center backs in the world, and Cook is an amazing athlete, despite some contradictions.
After Girma and Cook, however, who is ready to act?
There are two main reserve options for the United States: Emily Sonnett and Julie Ertz.
Sonnett, 29, has played most of her NWSL minutes this year as a defensive midfielder for the Reign. The same goes for Ertz, 31, with Angel City FC. However, both players have played center in the past and can bring at least a baseline level of ability to that position.
Sonnett is not good at any specific part of the game. He is not particularly clean on the ball and is not a strong defender either. He, however, brings a little bit of everything. He can join some passes, he can track a runner in the open field and he can deputize anywhere in the backline. Despite his limited ceiling, Sonnett could be the best option to play after Girma and Cook. Unlike Ertz, who had to relinquish his role as the team’s likely starting defensive midfielder to drop into the back line, Andonovski indirectly undermines another part of his team by using Sonnett in the center. back.
Regardless of who Andonovski chooses as his third central defender, this weekend will be the last low-stress opportunity for them to get a late-game rep.
Test Ertz’s sharpness
One of the biggest questions facing the USWNT as it marches toward the World Cup is this: How close is Ertz to his best?
After being away from the professional game for nearly two years, during which the US faced a lot of lazy, lackluster midfield play, the 31-year-old midfielder shined in his return to action against Ireland in April . Since then, he signed with Angel City of the NWSL and made eight appearances for the club before rejoining the national team for World Cup preparations.
All told, though, he’s spent more time off the field than he has since stepping away after the Olympics in 2021. Ertz has played in just 10 games and 652 minutes this year.
At, or even near, his prime, Ertz is a generational athlete. His defensive range, strength, aerial ability and vision make it nearly impossible for opposing teams to play through him in the open field. While he is an option at center back for Andonovski, his main job this summer will be the same as before his break: anchoring the midfield.
Ertz’s lack of the ball as No. 6, he recovers his ball — he loses possession but wins it back 10 times, setting up his attacking teammates for success in the process. The United States needs that quick, strong version of Ertz to give it its best chance to win a third straight World Cup trophy.
Given how he can raise the team’s ceiling, Andonovski should let Ertz test his skills on Sunday. How does he perform in midfield? How are his transition readings? Can he elevate his attacking partners? There is no time like the present when the No. 6 will play his first full 90-minute game for the USWNT in nearly two years.
Give Smith 45 minutes on top against Wales
Of the 23 players on the US World Cup squad, only one has played regularly for club and country: Alex Morgan.
Morgan, even in the middle of a down year for San Diego in the NWSL, is expected to start at striker for the United States. As for the team’s center back situation, we don’t know Andonovski’s chosen representative for Morgan. That being said, we can make an educated guess that Sophia Smith, who plays as a No. 9 for the Portland Thorns and currently leads the NWSL in goals (10), will switch from winger to striker to spell Morgan this summer.
Since he was mostly used on the wing for the United States in the past, we don’t have much data on Smith, The Striker for the USWNT. We’ve seen him play at center on occasion, including last fall in a 2-1 defeat to England, but a sustained runout for Smith at No. 9 position will help set the tone for the World Cup.
With how dominant he has been playing in the middle for Portland, there is a chance this World Cup ends with Smith starting over Morgan, whose goals per 90 rate has dropped from 0.94 last year to 0.47 this year in the NWSL. . Let’s walk before we run, though, and see how Smith fared in, say, 45 minutes on top against Wales.
Catch DeMelo in his USWNT debut
Every player on the United States’ World Cup roster has played at least once for the national team — every player, that is, except for Savannah DeMelo. The 25-year-old Racing Louisville FC attacking midfielder has been to USWNT camps before, but has yet to make his US senior team debut.
That should change this week.
DeMelo has been fantastic in the NWSL this year. He recorded five goals and a pair of assists and displayed a special combination of efficiency, creativity and hard running. That combination helps him conduct attacks, create possession opportunities and force opponents into oblivion.
Sure, DeMelo lacks the international experience of the rest of the midfield group, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he’s ready to help the US compete for a trophy this summer. He has played competitive games more recently than Rose Lavelle, who has been out since April with a knee injury, and Lindsey Horan, who ended the French league season in May. She also surpassed Kristie Mewis and Ashley Sanchez in the NWSL this year, averaging more goals, expected penalty goals and expected assists than both, according to FBref.com.
Andonovski already has a good idea of what his four more established advanced midfielders bring to the USWNT. Why not see what DeMelo can do? Even a cameo can calm some nerves and provide a piece of useful information before the World Cup.
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Keep getting ready to deal with the lower blocks
That’s what teams do against the United States, right? They defend the lower blocks.
Because opponents (understandably) fear leaving space behind their defenders for players like Smith to exploit, teams set up shop in a low block when facing the USWNT. In a World Cup group with Vietnam, the Netherlands and Portugal, the US will face teams capable of throwing several different defensive schemes at them. However, it is safe to expect compact defense first and foremost.
This game against Wales, then, gives the United States a much-needed opportunity to refine its game in the final third when facing a low block. In its most recent game, a 1-0 win over Ireland on April 11, the US created just 0.61 expected goals while averaging 53% possession. That game was a reminder of a troubling theme under Andonovski: The U.S. often lacks attacking ideas against a set defense.
The team has enough talent to force its way to victory — you try hanging with Smith or Trinity Rodman or Lynn Williams throughout the game — but what happens when the USWNT’s talent advantage diminishes against better opposition? ? When the US should return to some standard and coordinated attack plans.
For USWNT players and coaches, focusing on streaks in the final third on Sunday is like eating vegetables as a child: It will pay off in the long run.