What will the USWNT do without Julie Ertz at the World Cup?

It’s 2023, less than six months away from the World Cup, and U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski is still answering the question: When will midfielder Julie Ertz return to the team?

The most recent media inquiry came last week, ahead of a pair of U.S. games in New Zealand, and Andonovski provided an updated version of the answer he’s repeated for more than a year:

“We spoke to Julie and obviously she needs a bit more time to prepare before she even starts training with the team. We are happy to give her a little more space and time until she is fully ready to join. “

The question of “when” as formulated for Andonovsky presupposes that the question is not “if.” But all the available evidence suggests that Andonovski and the US have – and are – preparing for 2023. for the World Cup without Ertz, arguably the most irreplaceable player from 2019. World Cup winning teams.

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Ertz last played for the U.S. nearly 18 months ago when the team won a bronze medal against Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Eight months after that win, Ertz revealed she was pregnant and gave birth to her first child in August.

She has not indicated one way or another whether she plans to return to the game, and from 2021. does not have a contract with a professional team. Even if she were to return to Team USA for the next occasion, the SheBelieves Cup. in February — something neither she nor Andonovski mentioned — returning to the form that made her so important to the U.S. will likely take longer than the U.S. had before the World Cup.

So, Andonovski & Co. mapped out the way forward, and in 2022. Andi Sullivan, captain of the Washington Spirit, was the replacement for the defensive midfielder. Sullivan’s task was, and remains, a thankless one: playing an integral role, constantly compared to Ertz, who suddenly left a void that the US struggled to fill. Whatever she does, it’s looked at through the lens of what Ertz did.

Sullivan is more of a deep-lying, breakout defensive midfielder than a destroyer, the latter of which is a defining characteristic of Ertz’s game. Ertz’s ability to cover every blade of grass in midfield and make crisp, accurate shots — initially as a center fielder in 2015 in the World Cup and then as a defensive midfielder in 2019. – freed up the more creative American players. what they liked. Ertz was a safety valve.

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After 2021 Olympics Andonovski has moved on from several other veterans who have been key players in the previous two World Cup winning rosters. The U.S. struggled at times early last year, but given the influx of new talent, that was expected. Less challenging rivals also made it difficult to gauge how things actually worked. Then came October and November, when 2022 At the end of the season, games against England, Spain and Germany brought Team USA its first three-game losing streak in three decades.

A lot of the problems against those top 10 opponents in the world came from the backbone of the team, especially the midfield. There are growing calls for the U.S. to switch to a double pivot in midfield, implicitly acknowledging the need for two players to replace the work Ertz has done on her own.

However, viewing problems through this lens remains counterproductive. Ertz is not with the team. What was then cannot be now. Andonovskis has to find solutions with the available players.

Those 2022 The late struggles brought a renewed search for alternative options, and Andonovski started 2023, handing Taylor Korniecki his first start in defensive midfield against New Zealand.

That was followed by a poor first half from the U.S., with Kornieck and his midfielder Lindsey Horan attacking too often, leaving the U.S. without central options to create an attack. At the end of the half, Sullivan replaced Korniecka, the passes started to connect and after four goals. Still, the USA set their shape the same way: a three-man midfield with a creative No. 10 (Rose Lavelle), a two-way No. 8 (Horan) and a defensive No. 6 (Kornieck, then Sullivan). .

The rematch three days later brought a change, but with a twist: Lavelle dropped deep with Sullivan to create a double-over, with Ashley Sanchez taking over the No. 10 role. This led to a smoother, more cohesive performance from the USA, which was pleasing despite the inferior quality of the opposition. The 13 passes leading up to Ashley Hatch’s goal was the kind of ball movement the USA keeps trying to do. The sequence also included Sullivan, who had a newfound freedom going forward with a defensive midfield partner.

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The fact that Lavelle lined up with Sullivan was a surprise — even to Lavelle, it seems.

“Definitely something new for me, but it was fun to get down and get the ball a little deeper,” she said after the match. “I think we put a lot of passes together and I think it was a really good game for us.

Has Andonovski finally found a solution? Yes and no.

One myth about starting lineups is that the preferred XI never changes. But any good team will change something – whether it’s personnel or tactics – depending on the opponent. Setting Lavelle up alongside Sullivan and allowing Sanchez to play a creative role as a No. 10 is the perfect solution to USA’s long-standing problems breaking down teams that play low. That could come in handy against Vietnam or any team that makes it out of the global playoffs to join the U.S. group at the World Cup.

It’s also easy to see how Catarina Macario could step into the No. 10 role in this system once she returns from a torn ACL, which should happen soon. Macario can play as an attacking midfielder or as a striker, while playing her as a No.10 would keep Alex Morgan, the team’s most prolific goalscorer, on the pitch as a striker. Lavelle and Macario, two of the most daring players on the US national team, began to develop a wonderful partnership early last year before Macario’s injury.

And maybe defender no. The No.6 role behind Lavelle and Macario could be filled by Horan, who missed the second game against New Zealand to return to his club Lyon. Andonovski tried it twice in 2022, starting Horan behind Lavelle and Sanchez in June’s friendly against Colombia and in the CONCACAF W Championship against Jamaica. Each time, Lavelle and Sanchez played as double 10s, leaving Horan to clean up behind them.

Such an aggressive line-up could only be used sparingly and unlikely against a team with a strong, playful midfield, as England and Spain showed in last year’s friendly.

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Defensive midfielder is not Horan’s strongest position. She filled in there when Ertz was out with an injury before the Tokyo Olympics, but an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sweden to open that tournament ended the experiment, with a battered Ertz returning to play 90 minutes in each of the remaining games. .

There are several other options left to replace the midfielder. Andonovski said last week that his list of players who will be allocated 23 places at the World Cup has been whittled down to 32, leaving no room for surprises. Sam Coffey is another player from the latest rosters who plays in defensive midfield for his club, but did not play a minute against New Zealand.

The biggest concern about a repeat of the current U.S. midfield could be the continued absence of Sam Mewis, who, like Ertz, hasn’t played for the U.S. since winning the bronze medal 18 months ago. What was considered a minor knee injury at the start of 2022 has turned into something more for Mewis.

“Sam’s going to take a little bit longer and I don’t want to speculate at this point on the time frame or if she’ll be back at all,” Andonovski said ominously in New Zealand last week.

Many believed Mewis would return in time to play a role at the World Cup, but that is now in doubt. Two years ago, Mewis was considered arguably the best midfielder in the world at Manchester City. She is best as no. 8, but she has a similar playing profile to Sullivan and could help in the search for the no. 6.

The reality of the World Cup for the U.S. Women’s National Team is increasingly looking like it has been for a year. In 2022, the squad’s injury woes prompted a wait-and-see approach, and now it’s 2023 and not much has changed, with the World Cup less than six months away.

A pair of games in New Zealand last week at least provided more clarity: Sanchez can play a No.10 role, Lavelle works in a deeper position and Kornieck is not a No.6.

Still, it’s more clear than ever that the center back trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan is the one the USA will deploy more often at the World Cup. From now until July 22. only a few friendlies left before the match against Vietnam.

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