Preparing to Defend the World Cup The U.S. Women’s National Team Revamp
After the U.S. Women’s National Team’s (USWT’S) shocking bronze medal performance at last summer’s Olympic Games, coach Vlatko Andonovski has spent the last year auditioning a large number of younger players to find the right mix to defend successfully the USWNT’s World Cup title. If the USWNT succeeds, they will become the first-ever 3-peat world soccer champions.
Despite FIFA ranking the USWNT number one in the world, winning the Cup next year will be a much tougher challenge than many fans may want to believe. European teams like Sweden, which thrashed the USWNT 3-0 at the Olympics, Spain, and the Netherlands have grown stronger, while England, France, Germany, Norway, and Italy are also dangerous contenders. From our own hemisphere, defending Olympic gold medalist Canada should be a co-favorite for the Cup, and longstanding Asia-Pacific powerhouses Japan and Australia, which hosts the tournament, cannot be counted out.
Knowing that the team faces such formidable foes, Andonovski has searched high and low to improve the deficiencies – defense, inconsistent offense, and team chemistry – exposed during the Olympics. In some of these areas, he has made progress. However, the inability of U.S. Soccer to schedule world-class opponents (except for two games against Australia) in the past year has left Andonovski unable to test new players against the highest level of competition. This leaves significant question marks going into the CONCACAF World Cup and 2024 Olympics qualification tournament in Mexico.
SHORING UP THE DEFENSE
In tournament soccer, keeping the ball out of your own net is a team’s highest priority. During the Olympics, the U.S. women performed below their usual standards, allowing ten goals in six matches. Looking ahead, the U.S. women appear blessed with extremely talented goalkeepers. At the Olympics, Alyssa Naeher definitively joined the pantheon of superb American goalkeepers (both men and women) with three decisive penalty saves against the Netherlands in the Olympic quarterfinals. Her injury in the semifinal against Canada probably cost the U.S. women the game and the chance to win gold. While Naeher has recovered from injury, Casey Murphy has more than ably filled in for her, keeping clean sheets in each of the matches she started. Andonovski has clearly identified his backup goalie, but who will be his starter during the qualifying tournament and at the World Cup remains an open question.
While the team’s goalie situation appears to be excellent, the identities of the four defensive position players in front of the goalie is more fluid. The Outside Left Back position seems in the best shape with Emily Fox’s speed, skill, and sheer grit filling in ably during Crystal Dunn’s pregnancy. Indeed, Fox has done so well that Andonovski might think seriously about moving Dunn, ranked among the top players in the world, to her natural position in the midfield when she returns.
The Outside Right Back position is less certain. The current starter is Kelley O’Hara, a soon-to-be 34-year-old heroine of the 2015 World Cup. While O’Hara remains a powerful attacking force down the right flank, opponents at the highest level have occasionally exposed her on defense. Over the past year, Andonovski has given Emily Sonnet, a strong defender, and Sylvia Huerta, a player who balances excellent service into the penalty area on offense with sound defensive play, significant minutes.
In central defense, Andonovski appears to have decided that Alanna Cook will replace 2015 and 2019 World Cup veteran Abby Dahlkemper, who has seen no national team action since the Olympics, at right center back, but the left center back position may still be up for grabs. With Tierna Davidson out for the 2022 season with an ACL tear, must he rely on savvy, 37-year-old stalwart and team captain, Becky Sauerbrunn, or go with younger, faster players such as Naomi Girma or Emily Sonnet? Both played well in the June 28 victory over Colombia, with Sonnet’s speed and timely tackles blunting a Colombian second surge that came close to tying the score before a lightning break halted play and the Colombian team’s momentum.
MORE GOALS, MORE CONSISTENTLY
Just as the USWNT had trouble keeping clean sheets against top-level Olympic opponents, they also couldn’t score against them either. In three games, the USWNT were shut out, and of the twelve goals the USWNT did score in the tournament, ten were netted in the two games the U.S. women won.
Over the past year, Andonovski has worked diligently to find players who can increase the speed, dynamism, and consistency of the USWNT’s attack. In Lyon star Catarina Macario, who plays with the same power, verve, and skill as Brazilian star Marta displayed in her youth, Andonovski may have found the linchpin the team needs to get the offense back in form. Unfortunately, Macario will miss the rest of 2022 because of an ACL tear.
Other younger players who have shined in front of goals over the past year include left-winger Mallory Pugh, who had contributed significant minutes during the 2019 World Cup but was left off the Olympic team. Right-winger Sophia Smith has delighted fans with her scoring, speed, and technical ability. Trinity Rodman, a rising NWSL star, and Midge Purce have also shown promise on the wing, while Ashley Hatch has shown that she can ably fill the center forward position.
Nevertheless, scoring consistency has still evaded the Americans. Since the Olympics, the USWNT has drawn three times, 0-0 versus S. Korea and the Czech Republic, and 1-1 against Australia. The team also struggled to score in its most recent friendlies against Colombia, winning 3-0 and 2-0 respectively. Veteran Alex Morgan’s deft touches and dynamism in the offensive half, along with major contributions from newly designated super-sub, Megan Rapinoe, were decisive in both games. Perhaps, Andonovski will need to mix a veteran with his youngsters to get the American goal-scoring machine humming again.
BUILDING IMPETUS AND COHESION IN THE MIDFIELD
Helping defend, moving the ball from defense to offense, and coordinating the attack, a team’s mid-fielders pull everyone together into a cohesive whole. If the midfielders don’t recover quickly to defend, the other team can exploit gaps and create scoring opportunities. Offensively, a midfield that moves the ball quickly forward and from side-to-side to find an exploitable crack in an opponent’s defense and create a goal-scoring opportunity.
Since the Olympics, Andonovski has consistently relied on attacking midfielders Lindsay Horan and Rose Lavelle and defensive midfielder Andy Sullivan in the center of the pitch. While both Horan and Lavelle started during the Olympics, Sullivan has stepped into the defensive role in place of team stalwart and 2015 and 2019 World cup heroine Julie Ertz, who is pregnant. Both Horan and Kristie Mewis have ably substituted for Sullivan at defensive midfielder, while Alexis Sanchez and in the Colombia games, Taylor Korniak, provided valuable minutes at attacking midfielder.
Nevertheless, Julie Foudy again mentioned during the June 28 Colombia friendly that a lack of speed of movement of both the ball and players was a factor in the USWNT’s difficulties in breaking through a disciplined Colombian defense. The only highlights from most of the June 28 game came from Alex Morgan’s deft post passing and Sylvia Huerta’s dangerous crosses (one of which a Colombian defender deflected into her own net).
The American attack also suffered from static play during the first half of the June 25 Colombia friendly, which ended 0-0. It took second half substitutes Alexis Sanchez and Alex Morgan to inject the speed and creativity into the attack to open the spaces that Rose Lavelle exploited with two superb one-touch passes to Sophia Smith, who buried both opportunities in the back of the net.
Some of the lack of pace and cohesion in attack may likely come from the frequency of substitution that Andonovski has practiced to revamp the team’s composition. As he settles his starting lineup and the team plays together for longer periods, we should expect the pace and accuracy of offensive play to improve, while the defense stiffens.
The path to 3-peating as World Cup champions begins on July 4 in Monterey, Mexico, where the USWNT opens group play in the CONCACAF World Cup and Olympic Qualification tournament against a highly-regarded Haitian team. The USWNT’s other opponents in the group, Jamaica and Mexico, also field strong sides, and should the USWNT make it to the championship game, the likely opponent will be Canada and a rematch of the Olympic semifinals.
This tournament will be a tough test for Andonovski’s reconstituted squad. For the first time since the Olympics, they may face championship-level competition (Canada). If the USWNT win the tournament, the coach’s toughest task going forward may be giving players returning from pregnancy and injury the opportunity to play their way onto the team, while fine-tuning the squad to be ready for the World Cup next summer.