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Why Vlatko Andonovski’s defense gamble is stifling USWNT attack

Emily Fox and Julie Ertz are two of three USWNT defenders playing out of their natural positions at the World Cup. (Lynne Cameron/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

If the old adage goes that defense wins championships, U.S. women’s national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski might be taking his faith in the statement a little too far.

The U.S. has given up only one goal so far in the 2023 World Cup, on a single shot on goal. But they’ve also looked disjointed in possession and frantic in the attack en route to a second-place finish in their group.

Despite the legacy of the USWNT’s “Department of Defense,” fans weren’t expecting a defensive lockdown of this magnitude going into the World Cup. As different players with varying strengths rotated in and out of the backline in the lead-up to the tournament, the odd mistake in the defense became a regular occurrence and, to Andonovski, a risk worth taking.

There was a feeling that the team was willing to live or die by their defensive mistakes in the pursuit of strengthening the attack. But what Andonovski has actually prioritized under the glare of the spotlight is shoring up the team’s backline issues at the steep cost of freedom in front of the defense.

A hyper-conservative game plan to limit shots on goal is both a problem the U.S. is having trouble solving and their current lifeline. It doesn’t appear to be a mistake as much as an intentional gamble. But it’s a gamble the USWNT players are not accustomed to executing, even under Andonovski’s management.

The loss of reliable contributors

Injuries to USWNT forwards have rightly gotten a fair amount of attention, but the team’s group stage suggests that Andonovski’s current approach is a way to offset absences in the defense.

What the U.S. defense is missing, as compared to 2019 or even 2021, is the result of incremental loss. While Abby Dahlkemper wasn’t available for selection due to her ongoing recovery from back surgery, other players have been in and out of match fitness. Tierna Davidson returned from her ACL injury in 2023, but was unable to claim her spot as the heir apparent to a USWNT center-back role. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn played sporadically to begin the 2023 NWSL season, and the variable nature of her recovery kept her off the roster entirely.

Other members of the defense are clearly important to team chemistry but cannot get on the field consistently. Kelley O’Hara’s influence on the USWNT is clear, with her leading the huddle after the team’s disappointing draw with Portugal to close out the group stage. But her return to soccer fitness has not been linear in 2023 — before departing for the World Cup, she even played in an attacking role for Gotham FC because she was not getting minutes on their backline.

So Dahlkemper, Davidson and Sauerbrunn are not in camp, and O’Hara’s role is tied more to off-field contributions. O’Hara and Sauerbrunn’s limitations are a consequence of the passing of time and the USWNT’s inability to develop heirs to match their skill sets. Dahlkemper and Davidson’s absences are the result of the twists of fate that saw other notable teammates miss out on a World Cup opportunity.

A lack of confidence in new faces

Two players who rounded out the top five in minutes played for the USWNT in 2022 were center-back Alana Cook and outside-back Sofia Huerta. Both made the 2023 World Cup roster but have yet to make an impact on the field: Huerta played seven minutes against Vietnam, and Cook hasn’t seen the field at all.

Based on their 2022 contributions, their very limited roles at the World Cup might surprise, but the writing has quietly been on the wall in recent months. At the end of 2022, Andonovski began pairing Naomi Girma and Sauerbrunn together consistently, after previously rotating them at left center-back and giving Cook heavy minutes on the right.

The sample size was small enough to register as experimentation, but it could now be read as a coach sensing that Cook’s reaction times in key moments weren’t going to be reliable enough against top competition. In Sauerbrunn’s absence, Andonovski has now seemingly replaced Cook with Julie Ertz, making a conscious decision to prioritize the defense over the midfield and trusting the two-time World Cup champion in partnership with Girma.

Huerta is on the team as a crossing specialist, a player who makes up in attacking generation what she gives up in 1v1 defending. Signs in the early stages of the tournament are that Andonovski feels more comfortable with Emily Fox out of position on the right side of the field than getting Huerta settled in games that make sense for her abilities. Emily Sonnett also appears to be a player Andonovski brought to see games out in their final stages, and not as a reliable starter.

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Alana Cook has not seen the field at the World Cup after leading the team in minutes in 2022. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

The benefit of a conservative approach

There have been clear positives to the way the U.S. has locked down its defensive roles. The USWNT has given up just the one goal, their xG against ranks fourth among the entire World Cup field, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has not had to register a single save so far in the tournament.

That last point is probably a statistic Andonovski has taken very seriously, based on Naeher’s struggles with the Chicago Red Stars this season. The USWNT goalkeeper player pool is more wide open than ever, but the best-performing American keepers statistically (outside of third keeper Aubrey Kingsbury) are not with the team right now. Again, experience and leadership have taken priority over clearing the way for a brand-new goalkeeping core based on current shot-stopping ability.

Naeher is the player Andonovski wants organizing his defense, and she has progressed year after year with distribution with the ball at her feet. But the USWNT’s hopes for clean sheets seem to rely on her seeing as few shots on goal as possible, which the team so far has been achieving (the one shot on target they did face, against the Netherlands, went in for a goal).

Ertz actually recorded the most impressive save of the group stage, putting in a crucial block against the Netherlands that saved a point for the team and a place in the knockout rounds.

The overwhelming cost of limited freedom

The cost of Andonovski’s approach appears to be everything else that’s recognizable about the USWNT right now. They’ve ceded control of the midfield almost by design, with a resignation that Ertz will control tempo from a deep-lying position. It’s taken further control away from Andi Sullivan, who has lacked reliable passing outlets when she has the ball and struggled to execute a defensive press without it.

With the understanding that the midfield is not intended to hold the ball, Andonovski’s creative players have been tasked with melting into the attack. At times against Portugal, the U.S. lined up with four or five players on their opponent’s backline, waiting for deep-lying players to provide long-ball service without the creative runs necessary to create space.

Andonovski has also settled on playing both of his outside-backs out of position, which has appeared to limit Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox in their movement. Dunn, of course, is a creative midfielder for the Portland Thorns, and Fox plays most freely on the left for the North Carolina Courage. Both players have been mindful of their defensive assignments to a fault in the group stage, sitting back against Vietnam and staying wide rather than filling empty midfield spaces against the Netherlands and Portugal.

Tactics have also taken a toll on the USWNT’s vaunted mentality. As players process their positional assignments in real time, those split-second moments of doubt have disrupted the team’s defensive press and ball progression. Rather than being empowered to play to the team’s strengths, players seem preoccupied with the weaknesses. Those weaknesses are also on display in the team’s substitution patterns, with Andonovski lacking trust in those he brought with him and leaving the team’s depth unused.

Andonovski’s transformation of the U.S. into a team that grinds out results based on conservative tactics is both an indictment of his management of the team over the last four years, and an objective assessment of the team he has constructed. If the U.S. bows out in the Round of 16, he’ll have to answer for both his preparation and his approach.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Esme Morgan Signs With Washington Spirit

Esme Morgan of England inspects the pitch prior to the UEFA Women's EURO 2025 qualifying match between England and France
The England national will join the Spirit in DC on July 15th. (Naomi Baker - The FA/The FA via Getty Images)

English defender Esme Morgan has signed with the Washington Spirit, the club announced Thursday. 

Morgan had been with WSL side Manchester City since 2017, with one year remaining on her contract. She’ll now make a move to the NWSL, with City receiving a fee for the move. 

"I wanted to join the Spirit because they have the ambition and tools to be the best team in the NWSL, and trying to achieve that will be a great but enjoyable challenge," Morgan said in a club statement.

"On an individual level too, the opportunity to work under Jonatan [Giráldez], one of the world's best coaches, is really exciting and I look forward to learning from him and pushing myself to become the best player I can be, hopefully helping the team to success."

According to ESPN, Morgan’s lack of playing time under City manager Gareth Taylor played a key role in her decision to leave the league championship runners-up. She’ll join the Spirit in Washington, DC on July 15th, but won’t be able to begin play until August. 

Spirit president Mark Krikorian called Morgan an "exceptional talent" and added that the club is "thrilled" to add her to the roster.

"I think she’s pretty talented," Giraldez told reporters on Friday. "A young player with a great future, but with experience already in a great league and with the national team. She’s been surrounded by great players and also great coaches, so she can give us experience."

Ledecky Goes for 4 at Olympic Swimming Trials

Swimmer katie ledecky swimming at Toyota US Open
Decorated swimmer Katie Ledecky is aiming to make her fourth-straight Olympic squad. (Jacob Kupferman/Getty Images)

The US Olympic Swimming Trials begin this weekend, running from June 15th through June 23rd in Indianapolis, with Katie Ledecky eyeing her fourth-straight Summer Games.

While traditionally held in Omaha, Indiana's Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the NFL's Indianapolis Colts, has been fitted with a 50-meter pool to host the meet that will determine the 2024 Paris Olympics roster.

All eyes will be on seven-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky, who will be competing in the 200-meter, 400-meter, 800-meter, and 1500-meter freestyle — all events in which she’s been an Olympic champion. 

Rival Ariarne Titmus had her trials last week, breaking the world record in the 200-meter freestyle. Ledecky’s 200 is intended to qualify her for the Olympic relay. Meanwhile stateside, Katie Grimes stands to be a challenger in the 1500-meter freestyle has already qualified for the Paris Olympics in the 10km open water event.

Other competitors of note include 47-year-old Gabrielle Rose, who stands to become the oldest US Swimming Olympic qualifier in the 100-meter and 200-meter breaststroke.

Additionally, Kate Douglass — an NCAA and World Champion — is a favorite to make her first Olympic team in the 200-meter IM and 200-meter breaststroke. Simone Manuel, an Olympic champion in the 100-meter freestyle, is also looking to make her third-straight Olympics.

Where to watch: The Trials will be streaming all week on Peacock, with later qualifying heats airing live on USA Network and event finals airing in primetime on NBC.

Orlando and Kansas City Shoot for 13 in NWSL Weekend Action

NWSL's T. Chawinga #6 of the Kansas City Current passes the ball during the first half of their game against the Utah Royals FC
The Kansas City Current hopes to extend its NWSL unbeaten streak to 13 with a win over Chicago. (Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

The 13th match weekend is fast approaching in the NWSL, with two season-long unbeaten streaks on the line.

League-leaders Kansas City and Orlando will attempt to survive the weekend with their unbeaten runs intact, as the Current host Chicago on Friday and the Pride travel to North Carolina for Saturday's match.

But while Kansas City and Orlando have been the gold standard this year, they're still a number of wins away from tying Washington's record for longest unbeaten streak in a single NWSL season. In 2021, the Spirit went 20 games without a loss en route to the club's first NWSL championship.

Both Gotham and Louisville are carrying momentum into their matchup on Saturday. Louisville is unbeaten in three games, and they’re looking to finally leapfrog Chicago and claim sixth place in the league standings. Gotham, on a seven-game unbeaten run, is into fifth place.

Portland and Seattle will face off in the Cascadia Clash this weekend, with Golden Boot contender Sophia Smith absent, as the decorated forward was shown a red card last weekend for time-wasting on the bench.

The Reign could use a win against their long-time rivals, as a difficult start has 13th-place Seattle registering only two wins amid nine losses so far this season.

Elsewhere in the league, 2024 expansion teams Bay FC and Utah meet for the first time this weekend, as both look to rise from the bottom half of the standings. And Washington will ride a four-game winning streak into Saturday's game against a San Diego side that's earned two hard-fought draws in recent weeks.

Watch more: "Sophia Smith is INNOCENT!" on The Late Sub with Claire Watkins

WNBA All-Star Voting Starts on June 13th

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Voting for the 2024 AT&T WNBA All-Star Game opened at 2 PM ET today and runs through June 29th.

All active WNBA players are eligible to make the All-Star Game, set for July 20th in Phoenix. Unlike previous formats that featured two voted-in All-Star squads, this year’s contest pits a single All-Star team against the already-decided Olympic-bound USA Women’s National Team.

Fans can submit a daily ballot nominating up to 10 athletes via WNBA.com or the WNBA App.

Fan-submitted ballots account for 50% of vote, with the other 50% split equally between current WNBA players and members of the media. The top 10 athletes will automatically make the All-Star Game, with league coaches then voting from a pool of the next 36 to complete Team WNBA’s 12-player roster. The final lineup will be announced on July 2nd.

This year's All-Star Game format presents an opportunity for fans to vote for players they might consider Olympic snubs. Indiana rookie Caitlin Clark and Dallas’s Arike Ogunbawole seem like shoo-ins given the discussion surrounding their Olympic omissions, while Connecticut stars Brionna Jones and DeWanna Bonner are also expected to snag All-Star nods.

And after a career-high 20-point, 10-rebound double-double in last night’s 83-75 loss to the Sun, Chicago rookie Angel Reese could also secure a spot.

Regardless, it won't necessarily be smooth sailing for Team USA, as history has tended to favor the underdog. 

The first USA vs. All-Stars matchup took place in 2021, with the league’s squad humbling the Tokyo Olympians 93-85. With 26 points, Ogunbawole was named All-Star Game MVP after barely missing the Olympic cut. Could she and Clark turn the tables on Team USA this year?

Watch more: "Were Caitlin Clark and Arike Ogunbowale snubbed?" by Expert Adjacent

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