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USWNT faces World Cup lineup questions after Vietnam game

(Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images )

The U.S. opened their 2023 World Cup campaign with a comfortable 3-0 win over Vietnam on Saturday afternoon in Auckland, keeping the game under control in a quality — if not perfect — performance.

Vietnam came into the match in a 5-4-1 formation, holding numbers in front of their own goal to deny the USWNT space to execute their attack. Vietnam’s fierce commitment to the approach kept the U.S. from nearing their 13-goal output against Thailand in 2019. The reigning World Champions’ lineup also featured a handful of players making their major tournament debuts.

With a blockbuster matchup against the Netherlands coming into view, here are three takeaways from the USWNT’s opening World Cup victory.

The new kids can hang

Sophia Smith contributed to all three goals scored by the U.S. on the night, scoring two and assisting on one. She rightfully took Player of the Match honors, with her calm on the ball belying her relative major tournament inexperience. Smith and 21-year-old Trinity Rodman looked unafraid to play with freedom, often getting to the endline to try to find the feet of their teammates.

Smith also handled the physicality of the game well, a skill that only comes with international experience. The game was officiated somewhat oddly, with long stoppages in play and a lack of consistency as to what constitutes a foul. Smith and Rodman took the challenge in stride, never losing their composure when the match got chippy or delayed.

Other quieter debuts were nonetheless impressive. Emily Fox and Naomi Girma looked comfortable in defense, putting out fires and combining with the midfield when necessary (Vietnam did not register a shot or even enter the U.S. penalty area). Alyssa Thompson and Sofia Huerta added energy off the bench, threatening to add to the USWNT’s scoreline.

Midfielder Savannah DeMelo looked fearless, starting her first World Cup game in just her second USWNT cap. She combined well with Rodman and Fox, and made runs that gave the U.S. extra attacking options as they tried to unlock the organized Vietnam defense. With so many players dealing with nerves on the pitch, the USWNT as a whole looked remarkably assured.

Finding room for Julie Ertz

When Julie Ertz returned to the USWNT for the first time in over two years, the natural assumption was that she’d be the answer to the team’s defensive midfield concerns. Ertz anchored the midfield that won the World Cup in 2019 and offered an emergency replacement while still coming back from injury at the Tokyo Olympics.

So when Ertz lined up alongside Naomi Girma in the central defense against Vietnam, the thinking behind the move wasn’t entirely clear.

It’s possible that Ertz came in as an early rotational move, with the understanding that Alana Cook will return to the backline against the Netherlands. But it’s also possible that Ertz might partner with Girma throughout the tournament. U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski did not say after the game whether Ertz would remain in the role for upcoming games.

If Ertz is performing anywhere near the level of the player she was before she took time away, she needs to be on the field for the U.S. — having her come in as a backup No. 6 behind Andi Sullivan isn’t a good use of her talent. And with veteran center-back Becky Sauerbrunn missing the tournament, Ertz’s calm head and ability to disrupt play and send piercing diagonal balls forward might lend themselves to a last-minute audible few expected.

Ertz was excellent against Vietnam, working well with Girma and making her patented dangerous runs on set pieces. Where she lines up against the Netherlands will be illuminating.

The same old nagging problems persist

Some of the same issues that have plagued the U.S. in Andonovski’s tenure popped up in their first World Cup game. The team lacked a certain amount of patience in the final third, with a number of quality build-up sequences ending up in the stands or ricocheting off a defender. With goal differential at a premium in their group, opportunities left on the table could come back to haunt the U.S.

The USWNT also struggled to bring urgency to the second half. After taking a 2-0 lead, they slowed the tempo down instead of pushing to extend a scoreline they should not have been satisfied with. Vietnam didn’t push numbers forward frequently, but when they did, the U.S. was not quick to counter, often resetting play to allow their opponent to regain their defensive shape and get numbers behind the ball. The U.S. has had trouble pushing tempo under Andonovski in the past, all too often relying on lofted crosses in the air to try to find separation.

The rest of the team’s weaknesses occurred in the margins of a choppy game and against a tenacious defense. Many times, players’ passes forward rolled out of reach of their intended targets in the final third, and dribbling sequences lasted too long to deliver a quality ball to a teammate. With Megan Rapinoe’s minutes limited, Alex Morgan took a penalty attempt she’ll want back, showcasing how human the U.S. can look during dead-ball situations without their longtime PK taker.

Despite a vast advantage in both fitness and depth, the U.S. could not turn their substitutes into effective scorers as they pushed for more goals late in the match. Winning Group E could define the USWNT’s World Cup, and they let an opportunity to set themselves up at a goal advantage slip through their hands.

Andonovski’s U.S. has faced criticism of doing just enough to advance, rather than grabbing games and running away with them. A 3-0 result against an overmatched opponent won’t move them further away from that perception. The U.S. midfield looked more assured when Rose Lavelle entered for the final half hour of the match and gave them a sense of cohesion to build upon.

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