We wondered out the USWNT would heading into the World Cup without Becky Sauerbrunn. The starting lineup should be ok, but how would Vlakto Andonovski answer the question of the eroded depth without the captain around? It would appear he’s decided to not answer it at all.
Andonovski named his 23-woman squad (with the aid of a wide selection of celebs…and Matt Turner. Julie Ertz should sue) for Australia and New Zealand, and the big story is that beyond the likely starting pair of Naomi Girma, and Alana Cook, their backups are…well, the boys down at the crime lab are trying to sort that out.
Listed behind them is Louisville’s Emily Sonnett, who has spent most of this season playing in midfield. Andonovski has stated that Julie Ertz can fill in should they need, or Kelly O’Hara as well. Ertz has played 13 games in three years combined between club and international soccer, and O’Hara is 34 and is a fullback. It is a risk, and moreso because neither Cook nor Girma have seen a World Cup before. That doesn’t mean they aren’t up to the task, they are the two best centerbacks in the NWSL, and would have been the best pairing for the US if Sauerbrunn were still healthy. Neither one of them can get hurt though, or suffer a dip in their form, because it will be ya-ha time in the US’s backline if they do. The Chicago Red Stars defensive record only being at “sieve” level probably doomed both Casey Krueger and Tierna Davidson, but Chicago’s problems go far beyond those two players and certainly both are more than competent enough to just be depth.
But wait, there are other issues!
That’s the most recent question on the roster, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only one. Midfield has been Andonovski’s constant struggle, a lot of that due to Ertz’s absence but also a mix of #8s and #10s that just have never really quite meshed since the last World Cup. And that’s no different here. A lot is still riding on Ertz despite the rust, as she will not only be trusted to be a destroyer in front of a now very-thin defense but also to be the quarterback she once was. That would allow the Lavelles, Horans, and Sanchezes of the world to play more advanced where they’re comfortable, but it is unlikely that Ertz ‘23 is going to be Ertz ‘19. There’s also mystery as to what Rose Lavelle can be, as she hasn’t played in weeks due to injury and will be heading into the tourney straight off the shelf. If Lavelle can’t make the bell or is off her game, and if Ertz is still carrying years worth of rust, suddenly this is a pretty ropey unit.
The only Plan B in the #6 space is Andi Sullivan, who has been defensively sound but hasn’t been anywhere near what Ertz was on the ball when playing for the US, and that has created something of a sinkhole for the whole midfield. One wonders if a Sam Coffey-sized insurance policy in this spot wouldn’t have been advisable to make this team a little more press-proof than it’s been.
Having only 23 slots means a team is probably going to be thin somewhere, which is why Andonovski has opted for a lot of versatility, and flexibility all over the place. As mentioned above, O’Hara and Ertz could play in defense if the team reaches DEFCON 4. Sonnett could move into midfield. Crystal Dunn can be a fullback or a midfielder. The squad’s newcomer, Savannah DeMelo, who is in the argument for the NWSL’s best midfielder this season so far, can play all three midfield spots. Sophia Smith can play either out wide or as the #9 if Alex Morgan needs a spell or the team needs a Plan B. Ashley Sanchez could bring something of a False 9 option in that spot if need be. Horan can play as a #6 too, if they get truly desperate in that spot (and they might!).
On the plus side, there is an array of attacking talent here that might outscore whatever defensive problems they have (and they might have to!). Even without Mallory Swanson, the USWNT’s best player for a year or two now, a front three of Trinity Rodman, Morgan, and Smith will be tough for any side to handle. Or Andonovski could kick Smith into the middle and insert Lynn Williams, or Alyssa Thompson and have the most mobile, and quickest attacking force in the tournament. With Cook and Grima in central defense, and the hope that Ertz will look anything like she once did, the USWNT looks pretty poised to solve its midfield problems by simply skipping over it and going direct as often as is possible, and getting their terrifying attackers in space as quickly as they can. It’s more than enough to work.
It’s important to keep in mind that the US’s draw is pretty kind. The only other top tier team in their group is the Netherlands, and they will be without lead striker Vivianne Miedema. The second round should pose no threat, and only at the quarters where they could likely see Spain, or Japan will things get real. And perhaps a home-supported New Zealand throws an upset in the round of 16 too. It’s also a hamstrung Spain given their issues between squad and federation.
A 23-person squad is by definition a “short blanket.” There was always going to be one or two spots on the team that would have fans a little itchy. At least it’s clear where this one is. Sadly, it’s right at the base of a team. This US team has struggled against teams that haven’t been afraid to get in their face and is counting on a returning Ertz and untested Girma, and Cook to solve most of those issues. Any homeowner can tell you the headaches foundation problems can cause.
Follow Sam on Twitter @Felsgate while he figures out if his recent weight gain will still allow him to fit into his Rapinoe jersey.