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The USWNT returned to the pitch for the first time in 2023 with a couple of friendlies versus New Zealand, in New Zealand. The matches were scheduled as a dry run for logistics and to get a feel for the venues in which the team will be playing their group stage games during the World Cup later this year.
Since these games occurred outside of a FIFA international window, New Zealand (twenty-three spots down the rankings from the USWNT’s #1) were without thirteen regular squad members, including five first-time call-ups. As such, this could have been a time for head coach Vlatko Andonovski to get a look at less experienced talent. Instead, he called up a nearly identical 24-player roster to the one that faced Germany in the last action of 2022 (Midge Purce & Lynn Williams flew to New Zealand in place of Megan Rapinoe & Alyssa Thompson).
So what was learned beyond best routes to stadiums and coffee shops in the area? Here are five things we sorta kinda maybe learned…
1. Vlatko Andonovski is committed to trying Not 6s at the 6
Heading into the 2020 Olympic tournament (played in 2021), Andonovski opted against bringing Andi Sullivan, leaving an injured Julie Ertz as the team’s only defensive midfielder. He tried, unsuccessfully, to force Lindsey Horan into the role, but was forced to break glass in case of emergency and call on Ertz. Though the players tried to rebrand their bronze as ‘rose gold’ to save a bit of pride, by the team’s lofty standards, it was a disastrous tournament.
A year and a half later, Sullivan is finally on the team, but Andonovski is still playing Dr. Frankenstein with the position. His latest attempt placed Taylor Kornieck in the role for the first game versus New Zealand and the Football Ferns held the 2019 World Cup winners to a 0-0 scoreline at halftime.
Sam Coffey, a rookie-turned-defensive-midfielder who anchored midfield throughout Portland Thorns’ run to last year’s championship trophy, seemed like a gift from the NWSL, but Andonovski played her a grand total of 0 minutes across both games.
2. Crystal Dunn is yet again resigned to left back, and it makes even less sense now
Dunn returned to the starting lineup for the USWNT after giving birth to her son, Marcel, in May. Dunn is a much needed presence in the locker room and in training, and with actual left back Emily Fox settling into the role for the national team there was a chance to shift Dunn to her favored role in midfield. That hasn’t happened.
Instead, Dunn started both games at left back while Fox played out of position on her right in one, and was allowed just 45 minutes at her more natural position on the left. While fullbacks have a lot of license to get high and combine, particularly against weaker opposition, having Dunn in midfield and Fox at left back is an option – but one Andonovski hasn’t looked at once.
The box-to-box midfield role would suit Dunn perfectly. She’d get to remain in similar pockets to receive and distribute the ball, but would also have license to beat players on the dribble to progress the ball through midfield. Dunn is also a highly skilled attacker, and could serve as another winger or forward in attacking sequences.
She’s one of the most talented interior players this country has ever produced, and it’s a shame casual USWNT watchers only know Crystal Dunn as a left back.
3. Trinity Rodman is a pass-first superstar
Despite a remarkable rookie season in which Rodman helped power the Washington Spirit attack to the club’s first NWSL Championship title in 2021, the 20-year-old Rodman has had to wait patiently for consistent USWNT minutes. In two games versus New Zealand, the phenom played 107 minutes and delivered three assists – and all with her supposed weak foot.
Rodman is a unique talent to add to the USWNT’s absurd bunch of attackers (more on that later), preferring to hold the ball and wait for an opportunity to deliver a dangerous pass to a teammate in the box. The problem for opponents is that Rodman herself is difficult to mark.
She’s speedy, can change direction quickly, and is strong. Getting close doesn’t bother her, and getting into a foot race is ill-advised. Even if a defender manages to get the ball, Rodman has shown she’ll chase opposition players the length of a continent to get it back. Therefore, keeping her in front and shielded away from dribbling into the box seems like a win, except that’s exactly what Rodman wants, too.
4. Lynn Williams, remarkably, hasn’t missed a step
Williams was last seen for the USWNT in the 2022 SheBelieves Cup in March. A month later, she suffered a devastating hamstring injury, describing it on her podcast, ‘Snacks’, that she “ripped her hamstring off the bone.” After missing the entirety of the 2022 NWSL Season, Williams is back on the pitch for the first time and reminding everyone what she can do.
Williams scored a brilliant header in her first minutes back, looping in a cross from Rodman with deft touch and placement. In the second match, Williams looped an unreal assist to Rose Lavelle. Her assist in particular stood out because it was a chance created solely by Williams’ blinding pace. Few players are quick enough to get to that ball. Not many are able to get to it with enough time and technique to pull off that type of assist.
5. The USWNT attack is good enough to tear any defense apart
While it’s true that teams across the world are closing the talent gap, there’s still no national team with the talent in an attack anywhere close to the USWNT. As fluid as they looked at times, they were still missing arguably their two best attacking players, Catarina Macario (ACL recovery) and Sophia Smith (minor foot injury).
The problem for Andonovski is that the closing of the talent gap has occurred everywhere except the forward line, leaving him with the necessary task of getting the tactical setup behind the attack sharper than most of his predecessors. In the past, the USWNT could suffer under awkward tactical setups and still have individual talent take over to secure results.
Now, the margin to replicate such feats – and still lift the trophy at the end of a tournament – has been erased (see: 2020 Olympics).
Andonovski has a lot of work left to do to craft a midfield structure that can fully unleash the team’s absurd range of attacking talent. With a superior, or even neutral, tactical setup in midfield, the USWNT attack is capable of tearing through any defense.