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USWNT’s coaching blunders make 2023 World Cup path murkier

In his first World Cup as USWNT coach, Vlatko Andonovski has overseen the lowest group-stage points total in team history. (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)

The U.S. women’s national team advanced to the Round of 16 in auspicious fashion on Tuesday, finishing second in Group E following a 0-0 draw with tournament debutantes Portugal. The USWNT made it through the group stage undefeated, but scored only four goals in three games and compiled their lowest World Cup points total in team history after two consecutive draws.

The message after the match from head coach Vlatko Andonvoski and his players was about the importance of surviving and advancing, but the reigning World Champions now have a more difficult path to the World Cup final. They’ll likely face longtime rivals Sweden in their first knockout-round match, with more than a few adjustments needing to be made.

The good news for the U.S. is that they have yet to lose a match while underperforming, but they’re running out of time to fix glaring issues. Here are a few main takeaways from a sloppy, scoreless draw that nonetheless set the stage for the rest of the tournament.

Formational regression hangs players out to dry

No individual players for the USWNT looked sharp against Portugal, but they also were not aided by formational issues that have plagued the U.S. since the start of 2022. Since the Tokyo Olympics, Vlatko Andonovski has been trying to figure out the best combination of formation and personnel to round out the team’s midfield, especially during Julie Ertz’s prolonged absence.

In the middle stages of that key development year, the U.S. tried to slot Andi Sullivan into Ertz’s role in a 4-3-3 formation that prioritized pushing two midfielders forward to aid the attack. Against Concacaf competition in World Cup qualifying, there was logic behind this approach, as the U.S. was tasked with breaking down low-block defenses. Ultimately, the approach worked, even if the USWNT didn’t look like their best selves for much of that tournament.

But the lesson the USWNT should have learned from their tough slate of friendlies against England, Spain and Germany in the latter half of 2022 is that Sullivan needs a defensive partner against similarly balanced midfields. The U.S. adjusted into a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Lindsey Horan and sometimes Rose Lavelle helping occupy defensive space and distribute the ball through the spine of the midfield.

Strangely, in the World Cup group stage, the USWNT lined up in the former setup rather than the latter, despite in-game data showing that two of their opponents were unlikely to sit and wait for the U.S. to attack. The approach might have made some sense against Vietnam, but the Netherlands were clearly coming into the second match with a packed midfield as part of their three-back system. Portugal, likewise, had defensive players step forward to neutralize the U.S. midfield with relative ease.

Scouting abnormalities can be forgiven; it’s the other team’s job to surprise and create problems that the USWNT isn’t anticipating. But Andonovski’s reluctance to adjust to losing the numbers and possession battle in the midfield has placed more strain on individual players than necessary. Against the Netherlands, the U.S. found a second gear to make the system work for them. But against Portugal, the mental fatigue of holding an uneasy shape began to show as players tired.

The shape does not suit Sullivan, who has continued to start in the defensive midfield despite the team’s struggle to move the ball. On Tuesday, the USWNT was relegated to moving the ball in a horseshoe motion from the backline out to the wings, where defensive overloads quickly shifted possession back in Portugal’s favor. Players were so locked into the system that they couldn’t find their open teammates.

Andonovski might be saving a surprise shift to a 4-2-3-1 for the knockout rounds, but more deft adjustments in the group stage might have given the USWNT a better chance at finishing on top. He might also slot Ertz back into the defensive midfield, but with Alana Cook failing to see the field in the team’s first three games, the team’s cohesion is at risk.

Lynn Williams started in place of Trinity Rodman against Portugal, but the USWNT still lacked finishing ability. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

Continued lack of trust in the bench

After calling for only one substitute against the Netherlands, Andonovski made two changes to his starting XI against Portugal, starting Lynn Williams in the frontline and Lavelle in the midfield. Williams made an immediate impact, but her relative freshness compared to Sophia Smith and Alex Morgan’s fatigue actually added to the lack of cohesion on the frontline, rather than alleviating it.

Lavelle similarly provided a spark but also paid for trying to bring an edge to the midfield, picking up her second yellow card of the tournament that will require her to sit out the USWNT’s Round of 16 match. The rest of the squad appeared to suffer for lack of rest, with both physical and mental fatigue playing a role in the team’s tepid approach to ball progression and chance creation.

When Andonovski compiled this World Cup roster, he had a clear idea of his starters, his depth players and his specialists. After three games, it seems clear his trust mostly lies with his set starters, as those on the bench continue to fight for minutes. Megan Rapinoe made a substitution appearance against Portugal, but her defensive limitations at this stage in her career makes it difficult to start her and relieve some of the pressure on Smith. Sofia Huerta has not gotten much time on the field either, despite being called in to unlock tight, low-scoring games with her service — something the U.S. has struggled with in all three matches.

Instead, Andonovski brought on Emily Sonnett in a 5-4-1 formational shift that saw the U.S. concede more chances in second-half stoppage time than in the rest of the match. He has now locked the USWNT into a process of their own making, with starters who are tiring and substitutes who have not gotten enough World Cup minutes to step in and feel comfortable. It’s the same dilemma that led to Savannah DeMelo getting two quick World Cup starts after just her first cap with the team.

The approach may have been forgiven if the team had gotten all three points against the Netherlands, allowing for heavy rotation in their third match. But in a tournament decided by the finest of margins, the U.S. has now perhaps pushed too hard for results that never came, making the climb ahead of them even steeper.

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