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Andi Sullivan holds the keys to USWNT’s World Cup midfield

Andi Sullivan showed progress in her midfield role in the USWNT’s win over Canada. (James Williamson – AMA/Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team brought an intensity to their first SheBelieves Cup matchup against Canada that fans have seen multiple times during the Vlatko Andonovski era. On their way to a dominant 2-0 win over an admittedly fatigued Canada side, what actually made the difference was the team’s execution more than their energy.

After months of tweaks, and even with one key absence, the USWNT’s midfield is beginning to gel as the 2023 World Cup nears.

Andi Sullivan is getting more comfortable by the game

Andi Sullivan stepped into the U.S. midfield with generational shoes to fill, taking the space once held so effortlessly by Julie Ertz in the 2019 World Cup. She wasn’t aided in the transition by the team’s tactics, which for months asked her to fill the same amount of defensive space as Ertz used to. The two-time World Cup champion played the position as a physically imposing ball-winner, with a sprint speed that could cover up positional missteps.

Forcing Sullivan into an Ertz role not only didn’t play to the 27-year-old’s strengths, but it also appeared to make her doubt herself when she needed to step forward to challenge for the ball. At the international level, even a split second of hesitation can be the difference between snuffing out danger and getting bypassed. All too frequently in 2022, Sullivan found herself on the wrong side of her own decision-making.

But in the USWNT’s last four games, things have slowed down considerably for the midfield as Sullivan increasingly puts her own spin on the position. A tweak to the midfield’s positioning has helped her transition, with Lindsey Horan sitting slightly deeper to give Sullivan defensive support and a distribution outlet.

Against Canada, the team’s off-ball approach was clear. Horan had the ability to aggressively step toward the ball with Sullivan behind her, and Sullivan likewise had time to react with Horan in front of her. There were isolated moments where both players stepped wrong, and Canada progressed the ball through the midfield. Overall, though, they played with a sense of growing stability that could make for the USWNT’s most important partnership on their way to New Zealand.

The Taylor Kornieck experiment

After Taylor Kornieck spent 45 minutes as the USWNT’s No. 6 against New Zealand, discussion raged about the U.S.’s plans for a backup defensive midfielder. Sullivan is clearly the team’s starter at the position, but the way the U.S. struggled through the Tokyo Olympics while overly relying on an injured Ertz showed the cracks at a position that suddenly has become a vulnerability.

Further exacerbating the issue, Andonovski has stopped calling in players who play that role for their clubs. Jaelin Howell and Sam Coffey have both spent time with the U.S. in the last six months, but as the World Cup roster announcement gets closer, they appear more on the outside looking in. Howell and Coffey are gifted players who bring different skill sets to the table, but rather than committing to bringing them along with a chance to grow, Andonovski is converting players into hybrid roles.

No one can actually agree on where Kornieck should be playing for the U.S. and with which players. Kornieck’s club coach, Casey Stoney, told reporters that she doesn’t see the 24-year-old as a lone No. 6, and that she plays better in a connecting role with the ability to get further up the pitch. Andonovski didn’t actually seem to disagree, saying that while he doesn’t see Kornieck and Sullivan playing together as dual defensive midfielders, he understands that both players need to have a more traditional No. 8 beside them to make things tick.

On Thursday, Kornieck didn’t actually come in to relieve Sullivan but instead replaced Horan, who plays in a position much closer to where Kornieck fits with her club team. After the match, Andonovski praised Kornieck’s versatility, saying that she could have subbed into any of the team’s three different midfield positions depending on Canada’s adjustments.

In short, it’s possible that criticism of Andonovski playing Kornieck as a backup No. 6 would be more accurately directed at the head coach not intending to travel with a backup No. 6 at all. Kornieck has intangibles, like her prowess on set pieces, that make her a valuable late-game asset to the USWNT. That she is also learning how to assist the defensive midfield on the fly feels secondary, for better or worse.

Ashley Sanchez brings a unique skill set to the USWNT midfield. (James Williamson - AMA/Getty Images)

Sanchez’s upside is sky high

Rose Lavelle was unavailable against Canada due to a knock sustained in training, and Ashley Sanchez was given a chance to showcase her creativity in a starting role on Thursday. If there’s one thing Sanchez loves to do, it’s push forward against a defense, and she did so with enthusiasm.

Sanchez isn’t quite as refined as Lavelle on both sides of the ball, which isn’t surprising considering her experience at the international level, but when she has the ball at her feet, she springs the attack quickly. One of Sanchez’s greatest strengths is her willingness to try things that other players might not think of, which can also make it difficult to build chemistry in short minutes with the players around her.

The player who adjusted best to Sanchez’s gusto against Canada was Alex Morgan, who often floated back into the midfield when Sanchez pushed forward against the defense. The U.S. never lost their 4-2-3-1 shape, but Morgan at times served as the connector at the top of the midfield rather than the striker closest to goal.

Andonovski admitted after the match that Sanchez still has room to grow as part of the full-team defensive press and as a playmaker rather than an extra attacker, but it’s also her lack of predictability that makes her a special player.

Sanchez’s desire to get forward also benefits from Horan’s discipline in sitting back. Horan never came close to sitting in a double pivot with Sullivan, but she did rule the left side of the midfield with a willingness to hold when necessary. Lavelle has developed a similar skill set, but in some ways having a No. 10 with an all-out attacking mindset could be exactly what the U.S. needs when chasing a goal against a disciplined opponent.

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

US Olympic Skateboarding Team Hits the Street

Team USA's Mariah Duran competing at the 2024 Olympic street skateboarding qualifiers
19-year-old Mariah Duran is the only returning Olympian on USA Skateboarding's street squad. (David Balogh/Getty Images)

In just its second Olympics as an official sport, skateboarding will touch down in Paris for the single-day street event on Sunday, July 28th.

Twenty-two skaters representing 11 countries are gearing up to show off their best tricks to five judges, who will assess their performances on a scale of 0-100 points.

Brazilian skateboarder Rayssa Leal skates at a Paris Olympics practice session
Brazil's Rayssa Leal looks to level up from her silver medal performance in Tokyo. (ODD ANDERSEN/AFP via Getty Images)

How the street competition works

Street competitions replicate an urban environment, with obstacles like ledges, handrails, and stairs integrated throughout the course.

Athletes attempt five tricks in each of two 45-second runs. However, only their best run and top two tricks will count toward their overall score. The top eight skaters after the preliminary round will advance to the final, which follows the same format.

US street skateboarder Poe Pinson at 2024 Olympic qualifiers
19-year-old Poe Pinson will rep the US at Sunday's Olympic street skateboarding competition. (Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)

Team USA's medal-hunting skateboarding trio

Countries are held to a maximum of three skaters for each competition (street and park). In the 2024 Olympic street contest, five nations qualified a full trio — including the US.

Under USA Skateboarding coach Alexis Sablone — who placed fourth in the Tokyo Olympics' street competition — the lone competing Olympic veteran is 27-year-old Mariah Duran, who hopes to add an Olympic medal to the six X Games honors already in her trophy case.

Joining Duran — and repping Olympic skateboarding’s sizable youth contingent — are 19-year-old Poe Pinson and 16-year-old Paige Heyn, who snagged bronze at the 2023 Pan Am Games.

Japan's Coco Yoshizawa kick-flips her skateboard at the 2024 Olympic street qualifier
World No. 1 Coco Yoshizawa of Japan is a favorite entering Sunday's competition. (Attila Volgyi/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Top contenders look to improve upon Tokyo Olympics

The US will undoubtedly face steep competition in Paris, led by perennial top contenders Japan.

With six of the world's top 10 street skateboarders hailing from Japan, the three-skater rule forced them to leave behind some big names. That includes Momiji Nishiya, who won the sport’s first-ever Olympic gold medal in Tokyo at 13 years old. With Nishiya failing to qualify, Japan’s 19-year-old reigning bronze medalist Funa Nakayama and 14-year-old world No. 1 Coco Yoshizawa are primed to take her place on the podium.

Another major threat is Brazilian phenom Rayssa Leal. The 16-year-old was impressing Tony Hawk at age eight, and looks poised to one-up her silver medal performance in Tokyo on Sunday.

Where to watch USA Skateboarding's Olympic street team

Both the 6 AM ET prelims and 11 AM ET final will go down on Sunday, July 28th, with live coverage on NBC platforms.

1v1 With Kelley O’Hara: Rose Lavelle is Ready for the Next Step in Paris

uswnt player rose lavelle with retired uswnt star kelley o'hara
Rose Lavelle has a been a USWNT staple since making her debut in 2017. (Just Women's Sports)

In the latest episode of Just Women's Sports' 1v1 With Kelley O'Hara, Gotham FC and USWNT star Rose Lavelle joins Olympic gold medalist and retired USWNT star Kelley O'Hara for a one-on-one conversation about the upcoming Paris Olympics.

We hear from Lavelle about her first impressions of new USWNT coach Emma Hayes, her international competition journey so far, and what it's like being one of the veterans on this roster.

Subscribe to Just Women's Sports on YouTube to never miss an episode.

Team USA Goes for Gold in Rugby Sevens Tournament

Team USA rugby player Alev Kelter on the pitch
Alev Kelter starts her third Olympic rugby sevens run with Team USA on Sunday. (Yong Teck Lim/Getty Images)

Team USA's rugby squad will begin the hunt for their first-ever Olympic medal when the Paris Games’ rugby sevens tournament takes the pitch on Sunday.

This marks just the third time the Olympics have featured rugby sevens after its debut at the 2016 Rio Games.

USA rugby's Kristi Kirshe, Nicole Heavirland, Ilona Maher, Sarah Levy, Alena Olsen, Lauren Doyle, Kayla Canett and Alev Kelter at the paris olympics
Team USA takes aim at their first Olympic medal on Sunday. (Joe Scarnici/Getty Images for USOPC)

How the Olympic rugby sevens tournament works

Unlike traditional rugby’s 15-player teams and 40-minute halves, rugby sevens consists of squads of seven battling it out through two seven-minute halves. Reflecting the sport’s sped-up nature, the Olympic rugby sevens tournament is played over just three consecutive days.

Twelve teams divided into three groups of four will compete in round-robin pool play to earn points — three for a win, two for a draw, and one for a loss — from Sunday, July 28th through the first half of Monday, July 29th.

The two teams with the most points in each group plus the next two overall best teams then advance to Monday afternoon's quarterfinals.

On Tuesday, July 30th, teams knocked out of the playoffs will face off in "placing" matches to achieve an official Olympic rating. These games are played concurrently with the semifinals before the bronze and gold medal contests close out the tournament.

USA rugby's Ilona Maher breaks a tackle in a 2023 game.
Ilona Maher and her US teammates are vying for their first-ever Olympic medal. (MICHAEL BRADLEY/AFP via Getty Images)

Veterans lead Team USA's Olympic charge

The US is looking to improve on their fifth- and sixth-place finishes at Rio and Tokyo, respectively, and they’re banking on having the experience to do it.

Seven of Team USA's 12 players are Olympic veterans, with two — 33-year-olds Lauren Doyle and Alev Kelter — having competed in both of the sport’s previous Olympic showcases. Doyle and fellow Tokyo vet Naya Tapper co-captain the squad, which also features US rugby standout and TikTok star Ilona Maher.

However, to ascend their first-ever Olympic podium, the US will have to contend with the sport’s top teams — including Rio gold medalists Australia and Tokyo champs New Zealand. Plus, an especially hungry Team GB will be particularly tough to beat, as the current world No. 1 lookscto avenge their fourth-place finishes in 2016 and 2021.

How to watch the US rugby sevens squad

The US opens pool play against Japan at 10:30 AM ET before facing No. 40 Brazil at 2 PM ET on Sunday, July 28th, with live coverage on NBC platforms.

USWNT Kicks Off 2024 Olympic Tournament Against Zambia

uswnt vs. zambia olympics graphic
The USWNT kicks off their group stage run against Zambia today at 3 PM ET. (Just Women's Sports)

The USWNT begins their 2024 Olympic campaign today, taking on Zambia in their first group stage match.

The team will be looking for a positive first result, before taking on Germany and then Australia in a fast and furious schedule kicking off in Nice before traveling west down the coast to Marseille.

HARRISON, NJ - JULY 13: USWNT coach Emma Hayes stands on the field before a game between Mexico and USWNT
The USWNT is entering a new era under head coach Emma Hayes. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The road to Olympic gold starts now

While eight of the 12 teams competing in the group stage will move on to the August 3rd quarterfinals — including two countries advancing on a third-place tiebreak — first week successes can dictate a path to the medal rounds.

"There's top footballing nations in this tournament. I don't think shocks in the women's game exist anymore — I think we have to reframe our focus a little bit and have respect for the rest of the world," US head coach Emma Hayes told the media this week.

"We've learned a lot and we've grown a lot," added USWNT forward Sophia Smith. "We're just looking at this tournament and not backwards because there's really no point in doing that."

Barbra Banda of Zambia's Olympic soccer team celebrates after scoring at the 2023 World Cup
Zambia star Barbra Banda has extensive experience facing USWNT players. (Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Sizing up the USWNT's Olympic challengers

Hayes’s words could prove true from the jump. While FIFA world No. 92 Zambia weighs in as Group B's lowest-ranked team, they're definitely capable of setting the USWNT on their heels. This will be the first-ever meeting between the two nations, though Zambia has both Tokyo Olympics and 2023 World Cup experience under their belt.

Case and point? Starting striker Barbra Banda currently leads the NWSL's Golden Boot race, firmly placing herself in the MVP conversation while routinely going head-to-head with USWNT players.

"I know what a threat she can be," US defender Emily Fox said this week. "Their entire team is a threat, especially with their transition. But we're ready for it."

Hayes has emphasized cohesion from her starting group, indicating fans could see this afternoon's starting XI mirror the lineups utilized in the last two tune-up friendlies. The US defeated Mexico 1-0 before drawing Costa Rica 0-0 in their final two games before traveling to training camp in France.

Where to watch USWNT vs. Zambia

Today’s Olympic group stage match between the USWNT and Zambia kicks off at 3 PM ET with live coverage on NBC platforms.

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