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USWNT starting XI: Projecting lineup changes vs. the Netherlands

Julie Ertz might be needed back in the defensive midfield for the USWNT’s game against the Netherlands. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team has three very different opponents in their group stage at the 2023 World Cup. After cruising to a good — but not great — 3-0 win over Vietnam in their tournament opener, the USWNT faces a new challenge against 2019 World Cup runners-up the Netherlands on Wednesday at 9 p.m. ET.

The Dutch didn’t look their sharpest in their first match either, escaping with a 1-0 victory over Portugal. They packed the midfield and narrowed their defense to a three-back formation in order to send numbers forward.

U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski likely has a number of possible game plans for defending and countering the Dutch approach. Here are some adjustments the USWNT can make to their starting XI to come out with the win and take control of Group E.

The Ertz dichotomy

Andonovski stacked the spine of his team against Vietnam. He started Julie Ertz in place of Alana Cook at center-back, allowing the World Cup veteran to combine laterally with Naomi Girma and with Andi Sullivan as the No. 6 in front of her. The approach worked well, with Ertz looking comfortable on defense and threatening during USWNT set-piece opportunities.

The Netherlands will provide a different challenge, and one of the biggest questions going into the match is whether the Ertz defensive experiment is indicative of a true approach change from Andonovski or a way to manage minutes at a thin position. It doesn’t make sense to leave Ertz on the bench if she’s able to compete at an elite level, but a return to center-back seems like too much of a last-minute pivot without enough evidence.

Where Ertz lines up on Wednesday might actually have as much to do with where Andonovski wants Lindsey Horan to focus her attention. When Sullivan lines up at the No. 6, Horan tends to sit slightly further back in a 4-2-3-1 formation, to assist both in defensive transition and in moving the ball. That approach has become increasingly effective in 2023, most notably in the USWNT’s SheBelieves Cup tournament win earlier this year.

But if Rose Lavelle isn’t available to start on Wednesday, as she continues to work her way back from a knee injury, Andonvoski might feel Horan is best used pushing into the Netherlands’ penalty area and assisting the attack. That approach might require Ertz’s sweeper presence in the defensive midfield, making it logical to slot Cook back into the central defense and place the two-time World Champion back at the point of an inverted midfield triangle.

Defending from the front

Lynn Williams surprisingly didn’t make an appearance in the USWNT’s opening match, but it’s possible that decision was based on saving her legs for a lengthy appearance against the Netherlands. Williams is the USWNT’s resident expert at defending from the frontline, forcing turnovers and capitalizing on quick transition opportunities, as she’s shown with Gotham FC this NWSL season.

Williams also provides positional flexibility, something Andonovski appears to be prioritizing from at the start of the USWNT’s World Cup campaign. Trinity Rodman started on the right wing in the team’s opener, shifting Sophia Smith over to the left and closer to where she plays for the Portland Thorns. The decision paid immediate dividends, with Smith notching a brace at the position while combining with Alex Morgan centrally.

Therein lies Andonovski’s biggest decision of the tournament thus far: Morgan has done nothing to lose her starting position, playing hold-up soccer with a precision that opened up space for the players around her. She could resume her back-to-goal position against the Netherlands, and the Dutch’s defensive shape as seen against Portugal might actually favor that approach.

But Williams brings speed and a front-to-goal defensive tenacity that could create attacking opportunities and shut down avenues toward counterattacks against the Netherlands. Her presence relieves the defensive pressure on the players behind her, which might just tip the scales in favor of a Williams-Smith-Rodman frontline to begin the USWNT’s second game.

The USWNT could use Lynn Williams' presence on the frontline against the Netherlands. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

Exploiting wide spaces

The Netherlands played in a three-back formation at times in their opening matchup against Portugal, and while they might take a different approach against the USWNT’s speedy wingers, the U.S. has to feel like there is space to exploit on the flanks. The U.S. typically takes two approaches after getting to the endline, either lofting the ball in the air or cutting back to runners entering the box late.

The team also has an arsenal of wide attackers who can cut inside after dribbling into the box from a wide position. If the midfield can draw defenders in and make adjustments to get the ball out to the wingers, the U.S. should have a number of chances to take the lead. The U.S. didn’t get as much out of their outside-backs as they could have against Vietnam, with Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox both focusing on progressing the ball in the middle third.

The U.S. will be preoccupied with the Netherlands’ own quality on the wings, but a strategic, lopsided back-four would allow Fox or Dunn to combine in the attack and give the U.S. the numbers they need to overwhelm the defense. The outside-backs will also be key to progressing the ball quickly and not giving the Dutch time to settle into their out-of-possession defensive shape.

For the USWNT, the difference between a draw and a win might come down to forcing the game open and using their scorching talent on the wings, an advantage the U.S. holds over almost every other team.

Projected Starting XI

GK: Alyssa Naeher

D: Crystal Dunn, Naomi Girma, Alana Cook, Emily Fox

M: Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Ashley Sanchez

F: Lynn Williams, Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman

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

Alyssa Naeher’s goalkeeper jersey sells out in less than three hours

uwnt goalie alyssa naeher wears jersey on the field with club team chicago red stars
USWNT star keeper Alyssa Naeher's new replica NWSL jersey was an instant success. (Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

For the first time in the NWSL's 12-year history, fans can now buy their own goalkeeper jerseys. And while replica goalkeeper jerseys representing all 14 NWSL teams hit the market on Wednesday, some didn't stick around for long. 

Fans across women's soccer have long vocalized their discontent over the position's lack of availability on social media, often comparing the shortcoming to the widespread availability of men’s goalkeeper jerseys. And as the NWSL has grown, so has demand — and not just from those in the stands. 

"To have goalkeeper kits available for fans in the women’s game as they have been for so long in the men’s game is not only a long-awaited move in the right direction, it’s just good business," said Washington Spirit goalie Aubrey Kingsbury in an team press release. "I can’t wait to see fans representing me, Barnie [Barnhart], and Lyza in the stands at Audi!"

Business does, in fact, appear to be booming. Alyssa Naeher’s Chicago Red Stars kit sold out less than three hours after the league's announcement. Jerseys for other keepers like DiDi Haračić, Abby Smith, Michelle Betos, Katelyn Rowland, and Bella Bixby aren’t currently available via the Official NWSL Shop, though blank goalkeeper jerseys can be customized through some individual team sites. Jerseys start at $110 each.

"This should be the benchmark," said Spirit Chief Operations Officer Theresa McDonnell. "The expectation is that all players’ jerseys are available to fans. Keepers are inspiring leaders and mentors with their own unique fan base who want to represent them... I can’t wait to see them all over the city."

Simone Biles talks Tokyo Olympics fallout in new interview

gymnast simone biles on a balance beam
Biles' candid interview shed light on the gymnast's internal struggle. (Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

Decorated gymnast Simone Biles took to the popular Call Her Daddy podcast this week to open up about her experience at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, revealing she thought she was going to be "banned from America" for her performance.

After Biles botched her vault routine due to a bout of the "twisties," she withdrew from the team final as well as the all-around final in order to focus on her mental health. She later reentered the competition to win bronze in the individual balance beam final.

In her interview with podcast host Alex Cooper, Biles admitted to feeling like she let the entire country down by failing her vault attempt.

"As soon as I landed I was like 'Oh, America hates me. The world is going to hate me. I can only see what they’re saying on Twitter right now,'" she recalled thinking. "I was like, ‘Holy s---, what are they gonna say about me?'"

"I thought I was going to be banned from America," she continued. "That’s what they tell you: Don’t come back if not gold. Gold or bust. Don’t come back."

Widely regarded as the greatest gymnast of all time, Biles has hinted at a desire to join her third Olympic team in Paris, though her participation won't be confirmed until after the gymnastics trials in late June. She holds over 30 medals from the Olympic Games and World Artistic Gymnastics Championships combined, and if qualified, would be a sure favorite heading into this summer’s games.

Caitlin Clark reportedly nearing $20 million+ Nike deal

Caitlin Clark #22 of the Indiana Fever poses for a portrait at Gainbridge Fieldhouse during her introductory press conference
WNBA-bound Caitlin Clark is said to be closing in on a monumental NIke deal. (Photo by Matt Kryger/NBAE via Getty Images)

Caitlin Clark is reportedly close to cementing a hefty endorsement deal with Nike.

The Athletic was the first to break the news Wednesday evening, commenting that the deal would be worth "eight figures" and include her own signature shoe. On Thursday afternoon, the publication tweeted that the deal would top $20 million, according to lead NBA Insider Shams Charania. Both Under Armour and Adidas are said to have also made sizable offers to the college phenom and expected future WNBA star.

The new agreement comes after Clark's previous Nike partnership ended with the conclusion of the college basketball season. She was one of five NCAA athletes to sign an NIL deal with the brand back in October, 2022. 

Considering Clark's overwhelming popularity and Nike's deep pockets, the signing's purported value doesn't exactly come as a shock. New York Liberty guard Sabrina Ionescu’s deal with the brand is reportedly worth $24 million, while NBA rookie and No. 1 overall pick Victor Wembanyama’s deal is rumored to weigh in at $100 million. And in 2003, LeBron James famously earned $90 million off his own Nike deal. 

Clark’s star power continues to skyrocket, with the NCAA championship averaging 18.9 million viewers and the 2024 WNBA Draft more than doubling its previous viewership record. Following the draft, Fanatics stated that Clark's Indiana Fever jersey — which sold out within an hour — was the top seller for any draft night pick in the company’s history, with droves of unlucky fans now being forced to wait until August to get their hands on some official No. 22 gear.

In Wednesday's Indiana Fever introductory press conference, the unfailingly cool, calm, and collected Clark said that turning pro hasn’t made a huge impact on how she’s conducting her deals.

"If I’m being completely honest, I feel like it doesn’t change a ton from how I lived my life over the course of the last year," she said. "Sponsorships stay the same. The people around me, agents and whatnot, have been able to help me and guide me through the course of the last year. I don’t know if I would be in this moment if it wasn’t for a lot of them."

Star slugger Jocelyn Alo joins Athletes Unlimited AUX league

softball star jocelyn alo rounds the bases at an oklahoma sooners game
Former Oklahoma star Jocelyn Alo has signed with Athletes Unlimited. (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Former Oklahoma slugger Jocelyn Alo has signed on with Athletes Unlimited and will compete in the AU Pro Softball AUX this June.

The NCAA record holder in career home runs (122), total bases (761), and slugging percentage (.987), Alo was originally drafted by the league in 2022 but opted instead to join the newly debuted Women’s Professional Fastpitch

Alo currently plays for independent pro softball team Oklahoma City Spark, with team owner Tina Floyd reportedly on board with her recent AUX signing. AUX games are scheduled for June 10-25, while the Spark's season will kick off June 19th. Alo will play for both. 

Among those joining Alo on the AUX roster are former James Madison ace pitcher Odicci Alexander and former Wichita State standout middle infielder Sydney McKinney.

According to Alo, the decision to play in the Athletes Unlimited league was fueled by her desire to propel women's sports forward as well as provide more exposure to a sport that's given her "so many opportunities."

"Not only to challenge myself more, but just for the growth of the game," Alo said, explaining her reasoning to The Oklahoman. "I genuinely believe that professional softball can be a career for girls."

Joining AUX is also one more step in her plan toward representing Team USA at the 2028 Los Angeles Olympics.

"I’m constantly thinking about how can I do these little things right in these four years to prepare me for the biggest stage of softball," she told The Oklahoman. "I definitely want to play in the Olympics, for sure."

Alo further expressed enthusiasm in the hope that the rise of other women’s sports, like women’s basketball and the NWSL, will push softball’s professional viability even higher.

"We’re seeing the NWSL (National Women’s Soccer League) get their stuff going, I see the WNBA starting to get hot," she continued. "I feel like the softball community is like, 'All right, it’s our turn and it’s our turn to just demand more.'"

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