The most successful national team in America won’t kick off their World Cup until 2023. However, recent European friendlies vs. England, Spain and Germany show there’s plenty of work to do between now and then.
Let’s take a look at where they sit, who needs to come back healthy, and what the team overall needs to address.
A stellar season earned AD Franch the latest callup in place of Spirit keeper Aubrey Kingsbury, but there’s no drama at the first two spots. Alyssa Naeher is the presumptive starter while 6’1 shot-stopper Casey Murphy seems poised to take over after that.
Center back Abby Dahlkemper recently underwent back surgery while Tierna Davidson was spotted by an eagle-eyed Twitter-user participating in soccer activities with Wolfsburg. Outside backs Casey Krueger, Emily Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara are working their way back from injuries as well.
The best news here has been the emergence of Naomi Girma, who won 2022 NWSL Rookie of the Year and 2022 Defender of the Year. The former Stanford star has solidified herself as crucial for both club and country. However, who will join her as center back partner still seems to be up for grabs.
Alana Cook is a solid defender with a ton of experience at just 25 years old, but can get caught in awkward situations from time to time. Becky Sauerbrunn is a USWNT veteran still capable of defending at a high level, but is 37. While Girma plays on the left side for club, she has lined up on the right under Andonovski and maintained her high standard. A healthy Tierna Davidson, who is left-footed, could form a young, rangy and exciting partnership with Girma.
The fullback situation
This position is slightly more set than the rest of the defense. With Crystal Dunn on maternity leave the majority of the year, Emily Fox stepped in as the first choice left back. Hailie Mace and Carson Pickett are quality backups, while Dunn returned to the team for the final few friendlies and also saw time at left back (but should she? spoiler alert: keep reading).
The right side is a bit more straightforward. OL Reign’s Sofia Huerta has locked down the position, particularly with longtime starter Kelley O’Hara struggling through injuries the majority of the year. Huerta is not the most resolute 1v1 defender, but has exceptional positioning and is the most dangerous crosser on the team (plus she recently adopted the shirt tuck, which adds an automatic 30% more intensity to anyone’s game).
It depends. A solid unit that has the potential to get even stronger, but cracks will appear in any defense if enough space is left in midfield. Speaking of…
The injuries Sam Mewis’ last game for the USWNT was a substitute appearance vs. Uzbekistan in mid-April. Julie Ertz, who was carrying an injury when asked to help the USWNT to a bronze medal in the 2021 Olympics and recently gave birth, has not played for the team all year, and it would be a shock to see her return.
The current core
The midfield group of Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle and Andi Sullivan are the preferred starters, with Ashley Sanchez, Taylor Kornieck and Kristie Mewis picking up substitute appearances. Sam Coffey has recently been added to the mix after excelling at the defensive midfield position for NWSL champions Portland Thorns.
But the issues in midfield have been less personnel, more instruction and wonky fits.
Most of the issues lie here
Lindsey Horan is often tasked with getting into the forward line, typically wide left in the attacking third. On the other side, Rose Lavelle is more judicious in her forays forward, but still gets as high as the byline. This leaves the width of the pitch for a single midfielder, often Sullivan, to cover.
It’s a gargantuan task, and an unfair task. Horan struggled with it during the Olympics. The space vacated doesn’t require much creativity to take advantage of, and England, Spain and Germany all capitalized. It wasn’t just European teams who were able to exploit this, Nigeria crafted a quality goal with a quick ball forward.
Finally, the tweak we’ve been waiting for
In the team’s final match of 2022, the second of two friendlies against Germany, Andonovski finally made a tweak for the second half. Lindsey Horan was asked to hang back with Andi Sullivan for defensive solidity, but also to take advantage of Sullivan’s ball-winning abilities. The result was Sullivan registering an assist after charging forward to break up a German attack. Hopefully that play, plus a more successfully managed end of game scenario, will make the tweak permanent.
Add Crystal Dunn to the midfield, cowards
If Andonovski wants a player who can attack and cover space on the left, he should look to Dunn. Her favored and best position is in midfield, and with the unit far from cohesive, Dunn’s capabilities could be a missing ingredient.
Work to do. Despite encouraging signs in the final match of the year, changes took way too long and the unit has struggled to convince against top opposition.
By now, you know what’s coming. Catarina Macario and Christen Press have both been away from the team due to torn ACLs. Tobin Heath has also missed much of the year, and Lynn Williams’s severe hamstring injury has kept her out all year as well.
Macario is the key, as her absurd versatility and match awareness as a center forward allow her to do a little bit of everything, and at the right times. No one else comes close.
We’ve yet to see how ruthless she and the rest of the USWNT’s attackers can truly be — but it could be historic.
The unpredictability of youth
There’s been an unfortunate and noticeable hesitancy with Mallory Pugh and Sophia Smith that doesn’t exist at club level. There’s also a bit of confusion of how best to play with Alex Morgan in place of Macario.
Morgan is more of a traditional striker, but Pugh and Smith both function best in wide forward areas, like to dribble into the box to shoot or provide low balls into the box rather than crosses through the air.
Andonovski has also been slow to find a role for Trinity Rodman, and has so far refrained from calling up Mia Fishel, a central striker who won the Golden Boot this season for Liga MX Femenil champions Tigres Femenil.
Please, I beg. It may not seem like it now, but this attacking unit has the potential to be one of the best this team has ever had. Individually they are that good, it’s up to the players and Andonovski to find the fluidity to prove it.
While a lot of the USWNT’s recent performances have soured fans, even to the point of calling for Andonovski to be replaced, the talent level remains absurdly high – as do expectations. Andonovski has been slow to make tweaks despite the predictability of the USWNT’s tactics in the face of more developed and much improved national team opposition.
The global progression of women’s soccer means the old days of USWNT dominance are already in the rearview mirror. That doesn’t have to mean the USWNT still can’t be wildly successful, but it does mean that the margin for error is narrower than it’s ever been.
With more tactical flexibility and better utilization of talent, the rest of the world narrowing the gap doesn’t have to mean the end of trophies, too.