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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.

Caitlin Clark dunks on Michael Che in surprise SNL appearance

(Julia Hansen/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK)

Caitlin Clark made a surprise appearance on “Saturday Night Live” over the weekend, which quickly went viral.

The Iowa star showed up on the show’s Weekend Update segment to playfully call out Michael Che’s history of making jabs at women’s sports.

It started when Che joked that Iowa should replace Clark’s retired No. 22 “with an apron.” 

When Clark entered, Che said that he was a fan. But Clark wasn’t convinced – especially not when co-host Colin Jost brought the receipts of Che’s jabs.

“Really, Michael? Because I heard that little apron joke you did,” she said, before making him read some jokes of her own in retaliation. Clark finished her segment by shouting out the WNBA greats that came before her. She then got in one final dig – bringing Che a signed apron as a souvenir. 

When Che promised to give it to his girlfriend, Clark delivered her last playful dig of the night.

“You don’t have a girlfriend, Michael,” she said.

Afterward, SNL castmember Bowen Yang told People that the 22-year-old and teammates Gabbie Marshall, Kate Martin and Jada Gyamfi – who joined her at Studio 8H – “were so cool.”

“She's so charming and witty,” Yang said. “They were just the most stunning, noble people.

“Athletes just have this air about them. They know they're amazing. I mean, these are people who have numeric attachments and values to their performance. That's something that comedians never have.”

Portland Thorns, in uncharted territory, start NWSL season winless

Portland has started the season winless through four games for the first time. (Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports)

The Portland Thorns continue to struggle to start the NWSL season, falling 2-0 to the North Carolina Courage over the weekend to remain winless through their first four games. 

It’s uncharted territory for Portland, who has never started the NWSL regular season without a win in four games before.

Following the loss, defender Becky Sauerbrunn voiced her frustrations with the start. 

“It’s hard to find a lot of encouraging things, but what I find encouraging is that people are frustrated,” she said. “People are pissed off that we’re not doing well. We care, and I think that’s really important.” 

She also added that while the team will reflect individually, “there’s going to be no finger pointing.”

“We’re going to look at ourselves and figure out what we should have done, or I should have done better,” she said. “There is a list of things that I could have done better, and I’m going to make sure I know every single thing and watch this game back.”

The Thorns currently sit at the bottom of the league table with just one point, having allowed 10 goals – tied for the worst in the league. They’ve yet to lead in a match. And as questions grow, attention turns to head coach Mike Norris. 

Norris is in his second year as head coach of the club after leading the team to a second-place finish in the regular season last year. When asked about the possibility of pressure growing after the unprecedented start, Norris said that the pressure has been there “from day one.”

“I cannot be driven by my day-to-day and the longer vision of the pressure of the job,” he said. “We’ve got a belief in how we want to play, how we operate. We’ve got to stick with the process of that. While we do it, we have to review and see what is working, what’s not working.

“I’ll be showing up for the team and being there for what they need from me as we approach getting back together as a group next week.”

Maria Sanchez reportedly requests trade from Houston Dash

Mar 23, 2024; Houston, Texas, USA; Houston Dash forward Maria Sanchez (7) warms up before the match between Racing Louisville and Houston Dash at Shell Energy Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Maria Sanchez, who signed one of the biggest deals in NWSL history just four months ago, has reportedly requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

ESPN was the first to report the news, which was confirmed by multiple sources.

In a statement to ESPN, the team said: “​​Maria Sanchez is under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the Dash worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. At the time, it was the largest contract in NWSL history – something that was eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

The winger was a restricted free agent in the offseason, meaning that Houston could match any offer from another team and retain her rights. Should the team trade Sanchez, her contract would remain as it has been signed with the league. That limits the number of teams that could take on her contract. 

In three starts with the Dash this season, Sanchez has zero goals and an assist. The Dash are 1-2-1 through four games and have allowed a league-worst 10 goals.

The team hired a new coach, Fran Alonso, in December. Earlier this year, former goalkeeper coach Matt Lampson was fired for violating the league’s Coach Code of Conduct and Anti-Fraternization policy. 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close at midnight ET on Friday.

Canada beats U.S. Hockey 6-5 in thrilling World Championship win

UTICA, NEW YORK - APRIL 14: Team Canada raises the Championship Trophy after winning The Gold by defeating The United States in OT during the 2024 IIHF Women's World Championship Gold Medal game at Adirondack Bank Center on April 14, 2024 in Utica, New York. (Photo by Troy Parla/Getty Images)

Canada got its revenge on Sunday, winning the 2024 IIHF Women’s World Championship and taking down the U.S. in a 6-5 overtime classic.

Marie-Philip Poulin, a longtime star for Canada, got her first two goals of the tournament, while Danielle Serdachny had the game-winner. 

"I hate to say you're not trying to rely on it, expect it, but I know I've grown to expect it," Canada coach Troy Ryan said of Philip-Poulin. "Tonight was just a whole other level. I could see in her eyes every time we called her name that she was ready to go. It's just special."

The win came after Canada lost 1-0 to the U.S. in the group stage of the tournament. On Sunday, the two teams met for the 22nd time in 23 tournaments in the gold medal game – and the action between the two teams delivered. 

Among those scoring for the U.S. were Megan Keller, Alex Carpenter, Hilary Knight, Laila Edwards and Caroline Harvey. Julia Gosling, Emily Clark and Erin Ambrose had the other three goals for Canada, giving them their 13th World title after falling to the U.S. in last year’s title game in Toronto. 

This year’s game was held in New York, and it was the second-highest scoring final between the two teams. The U.S. won a world championship 7-5 in 2015. 

"Oh man, that feels good to win it on U.S. soil," Canada goalie Ann-Renee Desbiens said after the game. "We owed it to them and owed it to ourselves to win that one."

Canada also denied Knight a record 10th World Championship win, although she did become the most decorated player in women’s world championship history with 14 medals. After the game, Poulin gave Knight a hug on the ice. 

"We just said 'that was unbelievable,'" Poulin said.

U.S. coach John Wroblewski echoed the sentiment that it was an outstanding game after being asked about ending the game on a power-play after leaving too many players on the ice. 

"Instead of talking about the isolated events of tonight's game, I think that normally that's an interesting storyline,” he said. “But I think the entity of an amazing 6-5 game is an amazing hockey game that took place."

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