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USWNT starting XI: Projecting lineup changes vs. Portugal

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Rose Lavelle has been a game-changer in the USWNT's first two matches at the World Cup. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images )

The U.S. women’s national team will round out their 2023 World Cup group stage campaign against Portugal at 3 a.m. ET on Tuesday, likely needing to win and retain their +2 goal differential over the Netherlands to advance out of Group E in first place.

The USWNT’s group-stage performances have not mirrored their difficulties at the Tokyo Olympics, but the reigning World Champions did not look dominant against the Dutch, leaving room for Portugal to spoil their plans. With very little rotation through two games, head coach Vlatko Andonovski will need to weigh his lineup changes carefully to both secure a win and manage player fitness for the prospective knockout rounds.

Adjustments will come at a premium, and nothing in this tournament is guaranteed. Here are some of the decisions facing Andonovski as he sets his starting lineup for Game 3.

Dynamism in the attack

Andonovski made the decision to use just one substitute against the Netherlands, building Rose Lavelle’s minutes from 27 in the tournament opener to a full second half. He left four other available subs on the board despite not changing his starting lineup, raising fitness questions for a matchup in which the U.S. needs to earn all three points to retain their place atop Group E.

Andonovski’s gamble will come at a price, meaning the balance of retaining continuity while not burning out key starters could take precedence over any tactical tweaks he wants to explore. Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman showed fatigue at different points of the USWNT’s 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, indicating they might need to be relieved on the wings in order to be fresh for a Round of 16 game. The most obvious replacements would be Lynn Williams and Alyssa Thompson, both of whom are capable of burning a backline.

But straight-up replacements for the wingers would mean the team needs another start from 34-year-old Alex Morgan at center forward. Morgan has had to cover a lot of ground as both a striker and a playmaker in the team’s first two matches, and there’s no exact replacement for her on the USWNT’s bench, though Williams can line up centrally as well.

Too much change all at once can be detrimental to attacking cohesion, which the U.S. has been developing through the group stage. Andonovski will likely prefer to retain at least one of the players from his favored front three, depending on who is the most fit to continue. This match should also be a good opportunity for Megan Rapinoe to make an impact off the bench and provide service that was sometimes missing against the Dutch.

Balance in the midfield

With the U.S.’s midfield looking less than convincing against the Dutch, Andonovski might prefer to insert Lavelle into the starting lineup while keeping Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan in their same roles. Savannah DeMelo has performed admirably in two starts in the attacking midfield despite her international inexperience, combining well with the attack to get the ball into dangerous areas.

But there’s still no one quite as adept at controlling the USWNT’s creativity like Lavelle, who has been a game-changer in both of her appearances thus far. If she’s available for anywhere near 60 minutes against Portugal, she could be the difference between a fast start and a match that turns into a grinding result.

Horan’s star turn as the savior against the Netherlands likely only solidifies Andonovski’s desire to rely on the Olympique Lyon midfielder, but she will also need to save her legs for a potentially deep run in the knockout rounds. Even if Horan and Sullivan start the match, the U.S. coach should be more willing to insert a player like Kristie Mewis or Ashley Sanchez into the midfield later in the match.

Naomi Girma has partnered well with Julie Ertz at center-back despite their inexperience together. (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

Control in the defense

The U.S. has faced only one shot on goal so far in the tournament, with Jill Roord’s strike to pull the Netherlands ahead in Game 2 the only blemish against the backline. Julie Ertz and Naomi Girma have looked comfortable as center-back partners despite their relative lack of time together, and Emily Fox and Crystal Dunn have been given room to problem-solve from the outside-back positions.

Now, Andonovski has to make sure his starters don’t lose their sharpness, nor sacrifice the communication and chemistry they have been building. The center-backs present an intriguing issue, since inserting Alana Cook would theoretically relieve Ertz instead of Girma — Girma plays on the left of the formation, with Cook and Ertz’s experience coming on the right. If Andonovski wants to give the young Girma time to rest, he’d likely have to either shift Ertz to the left or start Emily Sonnett alongside Cook.

The team’s outside-back options are slightly more straightforward, with Sofia Huerta an option on the right, Fox to the left and Kelley O’Hara on either side. Huerta can hurt a backline with her precise crossing ability and might be a good fit for a game against a team like Portugal in a mid-block formation. But Portugal also has players who are dangerous on the ball in transition, which might lend itself to a more pragmatic approach with O’Hara on the right and Fox on the left.

Projected starting lineup

GK: Alyssa Naeher

D: Sofia Huerta, Julie Ertz, Naomi Girma, Emily Fox

M: Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle

F: Lynn Williams, Alex Morgan, Alyssa Thompson

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