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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.

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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.

Cameron Brink likes Caitlin Clark for 2024 WNBA Rookie of the Year

Cameron Brink poses with Caitlin Clark at 2024 wnba draft in new york
Cameron Brink poses with fellow draftee — and possible WNBA ROY —Caitlin Clark. (Photo by Emily Johnson/NBAE via Getty Images)

Cameron Brink already has her rookie of the year pick for the upcoming WNBA season, and it’s Indiana-bound star Caitlin Clark

In the latest edition of Kelley on the Street, host Kelley O'Hara caught up with Brink in New York hours before the Stanford phenom went No. 2 overall to the Los Angeles Sparks at the 2024 WNBA Draft. When O’Hara asked who would win the WNBA's rookie of the year, she answered without pause.

"Caitlin Clark," she said, while a fan commented that she thought Brink would take home the award. Brink later added that the extra foul granted to WNBA players will be "good for me."

"I hope it’s me," Charisma Osborne, who was later drafted by the Phoenix Mercury, said when asked her ROY prediction. "But, I don’t know — we’ll see."

Watch more of Kelley on the Street:

Dash winger Maria Sanchez confirms trade request a day shy of NWSL deadline

María Sanchez of Houston Dash during a NWSL game
In December, Sanchez signed a new three-year contract with the club worth $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

Maria Sanchez issued a statement on Thursday, confirming recent reports that she has requested a trade from the Houston Dash. 

In it, she revealed that the club has been aware of the request "since late March."

"This has all taken a toll and isn’t an easy thing to talk about, but I want to confirm that I’ve requested an immediate trade," she wrote. "My expectations and reasons have been clear. I trust that my current club’s management will honor my decision in a timely manner and proceed with accepting a trade."

"I’m eager to refocus and dive back into what I love most: playing football," she concluded.

Reports of Sanchez's trade request first surfaced on ESPN last week, and were later confirmed by multiple sources. 

In December of last year, Sanchez signed a three-year contract with the Dash valued at $1.5 million including bonuses and an option year. It was the largest contract in NWSL history at the time — a figure that would be eclipsed by multiple contracts in the following months. 

Sanchez spent the offseason as a restricted free agent, meaning that Houston could match any other team's offer to retain her rights. Should the Dash trade Sanchez, her current contract terms would remain intact, limiting potential buyers to teams able to afford to take on an inking of that size.

The Dash has yet to address the trade, instead reiterating to ESPN that Sanchez is "under contract, a choice she made in free agency at the end of 2023." 

Both the NWSL trade window and transfer window close tonight, April 19th, at 12 a.m. ET. The window will stay closed through the next 11 regular season games, reopening on August 1st, 2024.

Seattle Storm debut state-of-the-art $64 million practice facility

Jewell Loyd #24 of the Seattle Storm during warms up during practice on July 11, 2020 at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida
Jewell Loyd, seen here practicing at Florida's IMG Academy, and her team are in for a major upgrade this season. (Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)

The four-time league champion Seattle Storm unveiled their new practice facility on Thursday, with Storm co-owner Lisa Brummel dubbing Interbay's Seattle Storm Center for Basketball Performance the team’s "new home."

"It's just such a special space," Brummel told Fox 13 Seattle. "I think when the players get here, it's gonna be overwhelming."

The sprawling 50,000-square-foot, $64 million property is just the second designated practice facility to be designed and built expressly for a WNBA team, with the Storm further noting that 85% of all design and engineering team members involved in the project's construction were women and people of color. The finished product holds two professional indoor courts, two 3x3 outdoor courts, a state-of-the-art locker room, and players' lounge, plus designated areas for strength and conditioning, kitchen, dining, and nutrition, and recovery. 

"This facility reflects our commitment to providing our athletes an exceptional environment that supports their growth, health, and performance," said Storm co-owner Ginny Gilder in an official team release. "It’s built for women, by women, embodying our dedication to leading the way in professional women’s sports."

For their part, the team can't wait to make the faciilty their own.

"It's amazing," Storm guard Jewell Loyd told Fox 13. "Not having to drive everywhere around, knowing you have access anytime of the day to get into the gym, to workout." 

Head coach Noelle Quinn said she predicts the team is "never going to leave this building."

"Which is a good thing for me," she continued. "You talk about having an edge in performance. We want our athletes to not only perform on the court, but get whatever they need."

All of the Storm's staff and operations will now live under one roof, and the team also has plans to launch a youth basketball program operating out of the building.

Mystics relocate game to accommodate Caitlin Clark fans

Maya Caldwell, Erica Wheeler, and Lexie Hull of the Indiana Fever celebrate Caitlin Clark
Get ready — Caitlin Clark is coming to town. (Photo by Ron Hoskins/NBAE via Getty Images)

The Caitlin Clark effect is quickly making its mark on the big leagues, as WNBA host teams around the country rush to upgrade their Fever games to larger arenas in order to accommodate surging ticket sales.

With Clark mere weeks away from her Indiana Fever debut, both the Las Vegas Aces and Washington Mystics have officially relocated their scheduled home games with head coach Christie Sides' squad. On Thursday, the Mystics became the latest to adjust their plans, moving their June 7th matchup from Entertainment & Sports Arena in Southwest DC to the more centrally located — and much larger — Capital One Arena "due to unprecedented demand."

The Mystics home court's capacity taps out at 4,200, while Capital One Arena — home to the Wizards, Capitals, and Georgetown Hoya's Men's Basketball — can fit nearly five times that crowd at some 20,000 spectators.

"The move to Capital One Arena will allow for additional fans in the stands as well as premium hospitality options, including Suites and the all-new all-inclusive courtside Hennessy Lofts," the team announced via Thursday's press release.

The Aces were one of the first teams to switch venues, aiming to take on the Indiana Fever in front of as many as 20,000 fans inside T-Mobile Arena on July 2nd. That’s a sizable a boost from their home venue, which holds just 12,000.

For those still planning to face the Fever in their home arenas, ticket prices have skyrocketed. Previously scheduled construction has already forced the LA Sparks to relocate their first five games — including their May 24th clash with the Fever — to Long Beach State's Walter Pyramid. The temporary venue is quite the downsize, holding just 4,000 in comparison to Crypto.com Arena's near-19,000. As of Friday, the get-in price for that game started around $400.

Despite fans launching a Change.org petition urging relocation, the Chicago Sky say they're unable to move their June 23rd Fever meeting from Wintrust Arena's 10,000-seat facility to the 23,500-seat United Center due to a concert. Tickets for that game start around $325 as of Friday.

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