The USWNT’s World Cup line-up under Vlatko could backfire

Caitlin MurrayESPNJul 22, 2023, 02:02 AM ET7 minutes of reading

Herculez Gomez: Hard to fool USWNT after 3-goal win

Ali Krieger and Herculez Gomez react to the US Women’s National Team’s 3-0 win against Vietnam.

AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The task for US Women’s National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski seems simple: Start the best possible lineup and begin the Women’s World Cup with a strong statement of intent.

But when the squad to take on Vietnam in their tournament opener was announced, it became clear that Andonovski wasn’t playing it safe or easy.

The question that will be answered when this World Cup is said and done: Is Andonovski overthinking it, or is it just smart? The answer certainly didn’t come Saturday at Eden Park Stadium against Vietnam (a Friday night start for fans in the United States), nor was it expected. The talent difference between the two sides is large enough that a completely different American team would still have been expected to win.

In the end, the USWNT won 3-0, missing a number of quality scoring chances in the process — 28 shots in all — and it almost didn’t matter who Andonovski put on the court.

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But the American coach appeared to be paving the way for a tournament where the USWNT will be difficult to predict and the notion of the “best possible line-up” will be less straightforward than it appears.

In previous World Cups it was easy to predict who a coach might start and where, but Andonovski has put together a squad with no easy answers. Julie Ertz – a player who had seemingly made the roster at the last possible moment as the solution at defensive midfielder after not playing competitive soccer for two years – started at center back.

Ertz hasn’t started at center back since 2019, and hasn’t played the position with regularity since the year before that. But when captain Becky Sauerbrunn arrived late for the World Cup due to a long-term foot injury, he chose not to replace her with someone currently playing in the position.

“When we knew Becky wasn’t going to be able to make it, it was something we started looking into even more deeply,” Andonovski said after the fight. “We had a conversation with Julie before we even tried out and did a lot of work before we got to the (pre-World Cup) camp in terms of video analysis.”

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And yet Andonovski didn’t necessarily have a better choice, in part because of how he constructed his World Cup roster. He could have instead chosen to start Alana Cook alongside Naomi Girma, but then he would have been left with a very inexperienced central defence. Cook has 25 caps and Girma – who is the better defender – has just 16.

Having experience with Ertz, especially to ease the nerves of the younger Girma, was logical. After all, the only other option on this World Cup roster is Emily Sonnett, a player who has spent more time on the USWNT at full back than center back.

Ertz didn’t look entirely comfortable in the back in his return to the role. Vietnam barely threatened, so she wasn’t exactly under pressure, but with the ball at her feet she looked restless at times and took unnecessary risks. However, she played into the game and looked more comfortable as it went on.

“I’m glad we made the decision and I know the back line is just going to get better and better going forward,” Andonovski said, also declining to say whether Ertz would stay in that role throughout the tournament.

Sophia Smith talks about 2-goal performance in WC debut

Sophia Smith discusses her 2-goal performance in the USA’s 3-0 win over Vietnam.

Savannah DeMelo, a player who made the World Cup roster without ever having played for the United States, was also a surprise choice to start in midfield. Before the match, Andonovski suggested the selection was based on her recent form, including a closed-door match against the Philippines here in New Zealand.

DeMelo is a playmaker capable of unlocking defenses and creating chances for his teammates. But what Andonovski has done is build a World Cup team that hasn’t played very much together — in the case of DeMelo, she earned a cap in the USWNT’s send-off coming into the World Cup opener.

The lack of time together showed. The Americans against Vietnam looked like a version of what they’ve seen for much of the Andonovski era: static, sluggish and too reliant on individual flashes of brilliance.

Andonovski, for his part, is well aware of the game he’s made and seems confident in his decisions, telling reporters after the game: “If you look at this team, it’s the first time this 11 has been on the pitch together. They’ve never been on the pitch together in a game scenario for a minute, so to see some of the connections and combinations was very positive.”

But he also admitted that this USWNT didn’t look like all the group could be.

“If there’s one thing we need to do better besides finishing, it’s how can we help the players who are able to finish and give them a little bit of service,” he said. “Whether it’s finding them on the right step or the right foot, the final touch – the service before the finish.”

For a team as attack-minded as the USA and eager to play on the front foot, finishing and serving are not small missing pieces. The USWNT had 297 touches in the final third compared to Vietnam’s 20, but it was largely not the free-flowing and dynamic attack we’ve seen from the US in the past. They underperformed their expected goal of 4.34 and struggled to use the flanks and tried to push through an overburdened midfield.

And yet, everyone on the outside seemed to expect a 2019 renewal as the USWNT opened the World Cup with a 13-0 victory over Thailand, the lopsided result in Women’s World Cup history.

The day before Saturday’s game, a Vietnamese reporter asked Andonovski: “Are you going to crush us like against Thailand four years ago?” After the match, another Vietnamese reporter asked: “Did you expect to score more?”

It might be unfair to compare that game to this one – that Thailand’s team was not as good or as disciplined as this Vietnam team. But this USWNT doesn’t seem to have the chemistry of that 2019 team either.

“I think it’s definitely connected,” said defender Emily Fox of team cohesion. “In training we can feel it coming together and we just want to continue to build on it. It’s the first game of the tournament so we want to continue to build on this performance.”

For a team that has had few reps together, the chemistry needs to come together quickly. Vietnam were unable to punish the USA for their inability to click, but the Netherlands – runners-up from the last World Cup – are next in the group stage.

As former USWNT coach April Heinrichs once said, “In coaching, you’re either a wuss or a genius.” The choices made by Andonovski could be ones that will be talked about for years to come – revered or mocked, depending on how the tournament goes.

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