Despite a bogus offside call on what would have been an equalizing goal, the USWNT fell 2-1 to England and were only able to manage to keep 31% of the possession. Can’t score goals if you rarely have the ball. Three days later, against Spain (worse, Spain’s B team, as 15 players opted out due to a lack of professionalism and concerns about the environment created in national team environments), the United States was beaten 2-0 – deservedly so.
Though there have been warnings in the past, the talent level in the USWNT squad masked a lot of the issues with individual brilliance. This trip to Europe was an answer to the question of what happens when that stops happening. Should USWNT fans start to panic? Here are three of head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s biggest problems to fix (or ignore)…
Catarina Macario is really that good. She left the pitch at Stanford to step directly into the starting lineup of Europe’s most decorated women’s club team, Lyon. She led them in goals last season en route to winning the Champions League over a Barcelona club that was previously considered untouchable.
However, what she does for Vlatko's system is, as we’re finding out, irreplaceable. Macario’s skill set is outrageous. She can make herself a nuisance between CBs like a traditional 9, has clever vision and spatial awareness to play the 10, and can drift to the wings for crosses or wicked curling shots on goal. And for the USWNT, she could do it all in one possession.
Without Macario, the system is rigid and far more predictable. England and Spain were never under much threat, as evidenced by the World Cup winners only managing two shots on target against each opponent.
You could be forgiven for not being able to tell, but the U.S. has the most versatile crop of midfielders they’ve ever had — but either aren’t using them correctly/complementarily, or worse, aren’t calling them up at all.
Andi Sullivan is a terrific reader of play and distributor of the ball from deeper positions, yet wasn’t even called up for last year’s Olympics. Sam Coffey is a mobile six with metronomic passing, but merely joined the team in Mexico as an injury replacement player. Lindsey Horan is solid but not as mobile as she used to be, perhaps due to an ongoing knee problem. Rose Lavelle is exceptional but being asked to do a lot of the defensive and ball progression work in sacrifice of a more creative attacking role. Sam Mewis and Taylor Kornieck are injured, and Kristie Mewis is out of form. Jaelin Howell has been in and out of USWNT camps and Savannah DeMelo has been a recent callup but hasn’t seen any minutes.
However, there are still plenty of midfielders in the NWSL who are worth keeping in the fold. Chicago’s Vanessa DiBernardo and Dani Colaprico have been magnificent all season, and in varied roles. Angel City’s Dani Weatherholt has been solid all year, and North Carolina’s Brianna Pinto has done well as an energetic deep lying midfielder. Also, because people constantly need reminding, Crystal Dunn is an exceptional attacking midfielder (she’s even better at it than playing left back).
In short, we may not have Julie Ertz, but we have plenty of options. They just need a system that allows them to complement one another as a unit. Speaking of which…
The USWNT play in a 4-3-3. Recently, that could have been etched on a stone tablet. It’s the way they’ve done it, because seemingly, that’s the way they’ve always done it. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? Ok but what if it’s actually broken.
The biggest problem with the 4-3-3 is that Julie Ertz sits as the base of midfield, in front of the defense, and proceeds to play the role of a terrifying ball of destruction. Nothing and no one gets by Ertz. At times she may be bloodied, and at times she may get up slowly after big impacts, but Ertz in her prime was the brick wall in front of the brick wall. But Ertz ain’t walkin through that door, and the USWNT hasn’t adjusted.
The team’s 4-3-3 isn’t suited to the players Vlatko has available. Horan is often asked to float higher than Lavelle, which puts a lot of pressure on the fullbacks and gives the midfield too much ground to cover. It also disjoints them as a unit, so they are unable to keep possession for extended spells and buildup play rarely involves passes between multiple midfielders but, instead, between fullbacks or wingers.
Something like a 4-2-3-1 would help provide the defensive cover and improve the ability to possess the ball in midfield, as two midfielders would be tasked with doing the job Ertz used to do, but at least it’d get done. A wide or narrow 4-4-2 would allow Vlatko to put on the greatest variety of midfielders and try various combinations, and one of the two at the top could drop below, essentially giving you two players doing Macario’s job, but again, at least it’d get done.
Of course, having this conversation now, eight months before a World Cup, isn’t ideal. Bad performances tend to cause overreaction and a tendency to make drastic changes. However, this is not a reaction to the previous two matches, but concerns over the cycle since the last World Cup. Youth was slow to rotate in, and even when given an opportunity, players were sprinkled in without a plan of how to capitalize on their strengths.
Despite the end of allocation in the NWSL (U.S. Soccer paying the salaries of a select few USWNT players), a more meritocratic process has not taken hold. The player pool remains woefully underutilized, and the plug-n-play 433 doesn’t work when players don’t fit the molds.
However, there’s still too much talent in this country to persist like this. It’s been true for years that the rest of the world was catching up to the USWNT, but given talent, I’m hesitant to believe that, despite these performances, anyone’s pulled ahead. It’s up to Vlatko to put the talent he has in better positions to prove it.