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Panic sets in as USWNT drops third straight with World Cup looming

Mallory Pugh couldn't find the back of the net Thursday night despite a number of quality chances. (Omar Vega/Getty Images)

When the U.S. women’s national team lost back-to-back matches against England (2-1) and Spain (2-0) in October, there was discussion about whether it was time to panic. The 2023 FIFA World Cup was only nine months away, and the amount of time the team had left to prepare was dwindling.

But with another camp and exhibition series in 2022 to smooth out the wrinkles, there was the option to ignore the warning signs. If the USWNT struggled against Germany, the No. 3-ranked team in the world, then the alarm bells might be warranted.

In the first of a two-game friendly series that will close out their 2022 campaign on Thursday, the U.S. faced Germany and lost 2-1.

Panic mode: activated.

The USWNT hasn’t lost three straight matches since 1993. The World Cup is now just eight months away.

“I was not happy with the result,” head coach Vlatko Andonovski said afterward. “Anytime you don’t win a game, you can’t be happy no matter what happens.”

There’s no doubt the U.S. players have the talent required to excel in the tournament. But the team’s chemistry, tactics and finishing have lacked against the top European teams this fall. Recent results have shown that the rest of the world is catching up to the USWNT, who has won four World Cups and four Olympic gold medals. Meanwhile, the U.S. appears stagnant.

Andonovski has been loyal to a 4-3-3 system that doesn’t adapt when the game situation calls for it. At times, it seems the U.S. could benefit from some variation of a 4-4-2, giving the midfielders more support. On top of that, Andonovski’s preferred starting lineup has remained almost the same since the Concacaf W Championship, even when players are clearly showing fatigue and others are ready to step up.

Against Germany, starting wingers Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh created a number of scoring changes but struggled to execute the final passes and shots. Even though veteran Megan Rapinoe subbed into the attack in the second half and combined with fellow veteran Alex Morgan to score the USWNT’s lone goal, Andonovski remains set on his young starting forward line.

“I don’t want to say I’m concerned, because I’m not,” Andonovski said. “In fact, the front line consists of the three best goal scorers that are eligible to play for this country … from the NWSL. They proved they can score goals in different ways, and sometimes it just happens. I’m not concerned, but I for sure want them to score more goals.”

The U.S. defense also appeared disorganized and mismatched against Germany’s skilled forwards, lacking the intensity and communication to withstand consistent counterattacks.

The coach has repeatedly told the media that when veterans return from injury and maternity leave — notably Julie Ertz, Casey Krueger, Tierna Davidson and Catarina Macario — the USWNT’s issues on the field will mend organically. Andonovski said before Macario’s ACL injury that the team’s strategies were built around her at the center forward position. The six position also is still played in the style of Ertz, a ball-winning defensive midfielder, even though Andi Sullivan has been the primary starter there for the last year and her strengths lie in distribution.

For the team’s next camp in January, multiple veterans, including Davidson and Krueger, are expected to return. At this point, even if a bounce-back win against Germany on Sunday assuages the most urgent concerns, the USWNT is counting on its reinforcements.

Jessa Braun is a contributing writer at Just Women’s Sports covering the NWSL and USWNT. Follow her on Twitter @jessabraun.