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

The year is now 2023, the World Cup is less than six months away, 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 latest media inquiry came last week, ahead of a pair of American games in New Zealand, and Andonovski provided an updated version of the answer he’s been repeating for over a year:

“We had a conversation with Julie and of course she needs a little more time to prepare before she even starts training with the team. We’re just looking forward to giving her a little more space and time until she’s completely ready to join.”

The question of “when,” which was the wording put to Andonovski, assumes that the question is not “if.” But all available evidence suggests Andonovski and the United States must — and are — preparing for a 2023 World Cup without Ertz, arguably the most irreplaceable player from the 2019 World Cup-winning team.

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Ertz last played for the United States nearly 18 months ago, in the team’s bronze medal-winning victory over 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 the other whether she plans to return to playing, and she has not been under contract with a professional team since the end of 2021. Even if she were to return to the U.S. team at the next available opportunity, the SheBelieves Cup in February — which neither she nor Andonovski has hinted at — it would likely take some time, more time than the U.S. has before the World Cup, to return to the form that made her so important to the United States.

So Andonovski & Co. planned a way forward, and the replacement they settled on in defensive midfield in 2022 was Andi Sullivan, the captain of the Washington Spirit. Sullivan’s task was and remains a thankless one: filling an integral role while enduring constant comparisons to Ertz, who suddenly left a void that the United States struggled to fill. No matter what she does, it’s viewed through the lens of what Ertz used to do.

Sullivan is more of a deep-lying, distributing defensive midfielder than she is destroyer, the latter of which is a defining characteristic of Ertz’s game. Ertz’s ability to cover every blade of grass in the midfield and put in crunching, precise tackles — first as a center back at the 2015 World Cup and then as a defensive midfielder in 2019 — freed up the Americans’ more creative players to do. what they wanted. Ertz was the safety valve.

After the 2021 Olympics, Andonovski moved on from several other veterans who were core players on the previous two World Cup-winning rosters. The US struggled at times early last year, but in expected ways given the influx of new talent. Less challenging opponents also made it hard to judge how well things really worked. Then came October and November, when games against England, Spain and Germany brought the American team’s first three-game losing streak in three decades to the end of 2022.

Many of the problems against these top-10 world opponents were due to the backbone of the team, especially the midfield. Calls grew stronger for the U.S. to switch to a dual pivot in the midfield, an implicit admission that two players were needed to replace the work Ertz did alone.

However, viewing the issues through that lens is still counterproductive. Ertz is not on the team. What was then cannot be now. Andonovski has to find solutions with the players he has.

Those games at the end of 2022 brought a renewed search for alternative options, so Andonovski started 2023 by handing Taylor Kornieck his first start in defensive midfield against New Zealand.

What followed was a poor first half from the U.S., with Kornieck and midfielder Lindsey Horan drifting wide far too often, leaving the U.S. without key opportunities to build its attack. Sullivan replaced Kornieck at half-time, the passes started to connect and four goals followed. Still, the U.S. set its shape the same way: a three-man midfield with a creative playmaking No. 10 (Rose Lavelle), a two-way No. 8 (Horan) and a defensive No. 6 (Kornieck, then Sullivan).

The rematch three days later brought change, but with a twist: Lavelle dropped deep with Sullivan to create a double pivot and Ashley Sanchez took over the No. 10 role. It led to a more fluid, cohesive American performance that was encouraging regardless opponent’s lower quality. The 13-pass build-up to Ashley Hatch’s opening goal was the type of ball movement the U.S. keeps trying to produce. The sequence also included Sullivan, who had a newfound freedom going forward with a defensive midfield partner.

That Lavelle ran alongside Sullivan came as a surprise – apparently even to Lavelle.

“Definitely something new for me, but I had fun dropping down and being able to get on the ball a little deeper in the box,” she said after the game. “I think we connected a lot of passes and I think it was a really good game for us.”

Did Andonovski finally find his solution? Yes and no.

A myth about starting lineups is that a preferred XI never changes. However, any good team will adjust something – whether it’s personnel or tactical approach – based on the opponent. Lavelle, dropping deep alongside Sullivan and allowing Sanchez to play a creative role at No. 10, is a great solution to the USA’s longstanding problems breaking down teams that play low blocks. That could work against Vietnam or whichever team emerges from the global playoffs to join the U.S.’s group at the World Cup.

It’s also easy to see how Catarina Macario could step into that playmaking no. 10 role in that system once she returns from her torn ACL, which should be soon. Macario can play as the attacking midfielder or striker, and playing her as a No.10 would also keep Alex Morgan – the team’s most proven goalscorer – on the pitch as a striker. Lavelle and Macario, the two boldest players in the American pool, began to develop a formidable partnership early last year before Macario’s injury.

Or perhaps the defensive 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 this twice in 2022, putting Horan behind Lavelle and Sanchez in a June friendly against Colombia and during the CONCACAF W Championship against Jamaica. Each time, Lavelle and Sanchez played as double No.10s, leaving Horan to clean up behind them.

Such an aggressive lineup could only be used sparingly and unlikely against a team with a strong, playmaking midfield, as England and second-choice Spain showed in friendlies last year.

Defensive midfield is not Horan’s strongest position. She filled in during Ertz’s absence due to injury ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, but an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sweden to open that tournament ended the experiment, and a beat-up Ertz returned to play 90 minutes in each of the remaining matches.

There are few other options to change the midfield. Andonovski said last week that his list of players being considered for the 23 World Cup roster spots is down to 32, leaving little room for surprise. Sam Coffey is the second player on recent lists to play defensive midfield for her club, but she did not play a minute against New Zealand.

Most troubling for the current iteration of the U.S. midfield may be the continued absence of Sam Mewis, who, like Ertz, hasn’t played for the U.S. since the bronze medal game 18 months ago. What was thought to be a minor knee injury at the start of 2022 turned into something more for Mewis.

“Sam will take a little longer and at this point I don’t want to guess what time it is or if she’ll even come back,” Andonovski said ominously last week in New Zealand.

Many assumed Mewis would be back in time to play a role at the World Cup, but now that seems to be in doubt. Two years ago, Mewis was regarded as arguably the best midfielder in the world while at Manchester City. She is best at No. 8, but she has a similar playing profile to Sullivan and could have helped in the ongoing search for a No. 6.

The World Cup reality for the U.S. Women’s National Team increasingly resembles the one that has been present for a year now. While the team’s spate of injuries in 2022 brought a wait-and-see attitude, it’s now 2023 and not much has changed – the World Cup begins in less than six months.

The two games last week in New Zealand at least provided some further clarity: Sanchez can handle the No.10 role, Lavelle works in a deeper position and Kornieck is not No.6.

More than ever, though, it’s clear that the midfield trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan is the one the USA will field more often than not at the World Cup. There are just a handful of friendlies left to fine tune it between now and the July 22 opener against Vietnam.

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