There are only two FIFA windows before the 2023 World Cup, and we’re currently in the midst of the second to last one. The USWNT will face two friendly matches against the Republic of Ireland, a team currently at 22 on FIFA’s rankings, which isn’t expected to be a major test for the defending World Cup champions.
So why should you watch?
Easy: First of all, don’t be silly, this team boasts some of the most uber-talented players in women’s soccer and watching them is a gift. However, there’s another reason. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s roster drops have been fairly predictable, until this one, when familiar face Julie Ertz reappeared.
Ertz last played competitive soccer in 2021 before suffering injury, then getting pregnant and giving birth. No one knew what to expect for the remainder of Ertz’s career, or even whether she would resume it at all. Suddenly, the defensive midfield torpedo is back.
In Ertz’s last major tournament she stepped onto the pitch while carrying an injury as the USWNT was being embarrassed by Sweden in the opening match of the 2021 Olympics. Andonovski, Ertz and the USWNT struggled through the tournament in Japan, narrowly scraping their way to a bronze medal after a 4-3 defeat of Australia.
The performance was uninspiring, and Andonovski has struggled to find a groove. While Ertz shouldn’t be expected to play the role of savior, a healthy Ertz could help solve a longstanding problem under Andonovski.
When Andonovski named his roster for the Olympics, a still injured Ertz was the only defensive midfield option, as he opted to leave Andi Sullivan stateside. He attempted to fill the role with Lindsey Horan, but it’s not her natural position and the USWNT suffered for 45 minutes against Sweden before he turned to a less than 100% Ertz.
With Ertz away, Andonovski has leaned on Sullivan but has continued to struggle to find a backup, or second option. Young defensive midfielder Sam Coffey excelled for NWSL Champion Portland Thorns, received a handful of call ups but hasn’t been able to secure a spot on the team.
Former Florida State ball winner Jaelin Howell’s last callup to the USWNT under Andonovski came in early 2022. Since, he’s gone back to experimenting filling the role with players who specialize in other areas of the pitch. The results, predictably, haven’t been promising.
With Ertz suddenly back in frame, it’s expected that Andi Sullivan and Ertz will serve as the team’s specialists in defensive midfield heading into the World Cup.
Naturally, with the World Cup kicking off in less than four months, it will be important to see where Ertz is physically, and within Andonovski’s system. It will also be interesting to see if his system shows improvement with the qualities Ertz brings, or if the midfield problems run deeper (this is my vote, but let's find out together).
After lifting the trophy in 2015 & 2019, the USWNT are looking to win an unprecedented third straight World Cup. However, the challenge of winning this tournament will be the hardest it’s been – for several reasons. Some of the reasons are self-inflicted, like Andonovski struggling to find midfield balance or structure within the group and failing at solving the defensive midfield position.
But also, and for the first time in a while, the USWNT isn’t viewed as the best team in the world. England have a talented and cohesive unit under Sarina Wiegman, and Germany have done well to combine older stars with a newer, golden generation of talent. Additionally, several teams have shown no fear against the USWNT, from Brazil to Japan to Canada.
There’s no way of knowing how much Ertz will play across the two games, but she’s in talks to sign with an NWSL team as she seeks to make a full comeback for club and country. These matches could be the first time we’ve seen Ertz play soccer for nearly two years. That alone makes both a must watch.
USWNT vs. Republic of Ireland, Saturday, April 8 @ 2:30pm ET on TNT
USWNT vs. Republic of Ireland, Tuesday, April 11 @ 7:30pm on HBO Max