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USWNT midfield adjustment led to winning goal against Germany

Lindsey Horan played in more of a supportive role with Andi Sullivan on Sunday. (Erin Chang/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team was staring down a possible four-game losing streak when they faced Germany on Sunday for the second time in four days. With second-half goals from Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh, the USWNT won 2-1, snapping their first three-game losing streak since 1993 and salvaging a historically bad skid.

A game-winning goal from Pugh was nothing new, but the reason the team was able to build up to that goal in the first place certainly was.

Under head coach Vlatko Andonovski, the U.S. has implemented a 4-3-3 formation in which Andi Sullivan plays as the lone six and Lindsey Horan and Rose Lavelle push higher up in the midfield. The structure has left the USWNT vulnerable to breakdowns in defending and controlling the play while they await the return of Julie Ertz, the team’s longtime staple at holding midfield.

On Sunday, however, Horan dropped lower into the midfield in the second half, allowing Sullivan to be more involved in the play and try for more tackles.

“At that point, we started taking the game over,” head coach Vlatko Andonovski said of the change.

Pugh’s goal was a direct result of that adjustment. A minute after Smith scored in the 54th minute, Sullivan controlled the ball in the midfield while Horan covered the space to her left. Sullivan then sent a long ball to the top of Germany’s 18-yard box, where Pugh ran onto it, blasted by two players and put the U.S. up 2-1.

The play before that, Sullivan had missed a tackle and Pugh didn’t hesitate to let her know.

“That woke me up, and I was like, ‘I need to do better, I need to make the tackle,’” Sullivan said.

The team had talked at halftime about needing to force more turnovers as a unit.

“I think we did a good job at looking at each other and demanding more from each other,” Sullivan added.

The USWNT came alive in the second half, and the midfield began to play more consistently than it had in recent losses to England, Spain and Germany on Thursday.

Despite a head-on collision in the 21st minute that kept Sullivan down for nearly four minutes and resulted in a bloody nose, the 26-year-old served as the defensive anchor through all 83 minutes she played.

“I think what’s been building for us is a little bit more fluidity and being able to rotate and me feeling more confident in stepping out, whether that’s to get on the ball, or defensively trusting that they’re going to fill in behind me, or vice versa,” Sullivan said. “I think we have a really good relationship.”

Andonovski wouldn’t say whether he would experiment with playing two midfielders defensively in future games, but he recognized the immediate return they saw from the change.

“Obviously we are going to do our analysis and see why that worked and what was the response on the opponent,” the coach said.

The USWNT won’t return to the field until January, when they travel to New Zealand for a pair of friendlies and expect several reinforcements to work their way back into the lineup.

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