Depending on who you ask, it’s either time to panic about the USWNT or recent results are merely the familiar ups and downs of the leadup to a World Cup. Whichever camp you’re situated in, after the rather disastrous October trip to Europe (2-1 loss to England; 2-0 loss to Spain), a response versus Germany this week (November 10 & 13) would provide a bit of relief.
Regardless of where one sits on this spectrum, everyone will be looking for improvement – if not in results, at least in style and efficacy of play. The games against England and Spain shared some unfortunate attributes that head coach Vlatko Andonovski will need to address, and most pressing will be the midfield.
USWNT teams of the past had talented goalscorers as the face of the team, but truth be told the secret to the team’s true dominance lay in midfield. In recent years, this has been true due to Julie Ertz’s mastery of a Tasmanian-style of midfield play. Ertz was a torpedo in soccer cleats, completely sinking opposition attacks while also being known to turn her body into a projectile and score from set pieces.
However, Ertz hasn’t played for the USWNT since the 2021 Olympic games and isn’t expected to return anytime soon. Also, she gave birth in August and turned 30 this year.
Unfortunately for U.S. Soccer and Vlatko Andonovki, the great football god in the sky only made one Ertz. This has left Andonovski with the difficult task of trying to replicate the USWNT’s iconic, and ultra-successful, midfield structure without the biggest piece of the puzzle.
To try and cope, he’s tested Lindsey Horan in the role (that did not go well, and the USWNT has a narrowly won Olympic bronze to show for it), Andi Sullivan, and most recently Sam Coffey. Of those, Coffey is the most natural defensive midfielder, but she just completed her first full professional season at the position.
Complicating the matter beyond not having a direct Ertz replacement is that midfield units for national teams outside of the U.S. are growing in complexity. That means it isn't just unfair to ask a player to do an Ertz impression, there’s no guarantee a carbon copy would provide the results of a few years ago. England and Spain both found the U.S. predictable, easy to draw out and play through. That has to change, and there are a few ways to do it.
Andonovski is no stranger to tweaking his midfield. When he expects the opposition to sit back and defend, he names two attacking midfielders in his midfield three. However, when the inverse is possible and the USWNT is expected to be in a battle for control of the midfield (as with England and Spain, and soon, Germany), the team reverts to its usual structure, with one box-to-box midfielder (Rose Lavelle), one midfielder allowed to push into the attacking line (Horan), and just one player tasked with deeper defensive duties (Sullivan or Coffey).
One tweak would be to task two midfielders with sitting deeper and sharing defensive duties. Horan’s lingering knee problem has decreased her mobility, but she was still one-half of a deeper-lying midfield pair at Lyon that completely short-circuited Barcelona’s midfield (widely considered the best in women’s club football) in a Champions League Final. Horan could play the same role for the USWNT alongside Sullivan or Coffey.
If Horan and another midfielder are deeper, then it’s important to get another midfielder who’s adept at dribbling, creating chances, and scoring. Luckily, the USWNT have two of the best in Rose Lavelle and Crystal Dunn. While Dunn has been known as a left-back for the USWNT, Emily Fox, Hailie Mace and Carson Pickett (not in camp vs Germany) can deputize at the position, freeing Dunn to play in her more preferred and best position.
In fact, the versatility of Dunn gives Andonovski the option to not change anything other than personnel. Dunn’s ability to defend is well-known thanks to her success at left back, but she could also provide a complement to either Horan or Lavelle in midfield. If Andonovski doesn’t try this versus Germany (which I suspect he won’t), ask yourself what Dunn – a former wide attacker and Golden Boot-winning forward – might be able to accomplish in the positions Horan drifts into.
A more compact and solid midfield structure would help the USWNT contend with technical midfields while also being able to move the ball into attack more freely. If Andonovski can achieve that, the players he can utilize in attack are more than equipped to take care of the rest.
The biggest downside to the struggles in midfield have not been the results, but that the rest of the world is not quaking at the thought of the attacking talent. The USWNT has always been able to put the ball in the back of the net in bunches, but the range of quality of attacking talent in the team now might be in uncharted territory – we just haven’t seen it in full form just yet.
Part of this is due to Catarina Macario’s unfortunate ACL injury. Andonovski reported that Macario’s rehab is progressing and, barring any setbacks, her return might be possible in late February.
However, the USWNT still boasts plenty of talent. Sophia Smith, NWSL MVP, NWSL Champion and NWSL Championship MVP, has rapidly progressed into one of the top-5 forwards in women’s soccer (and she ain’t 5). Mallory Pugh is unstoppable with the ball at her feet, and last year’s rookie season for the then-19-year-old Trinity Rodman was enough to place her on the shortlist for the Ballon d’Or.
If cohesion and service can be found in the midfield, there’s genuine potential for the attack to be unprecedented; which is a terrifying thought given the unprecedented success of the USWNT.