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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.