ST. LOUIS — The U.S. closed out their final international break before naming the 2023 World Cup roster with a cagey 1-0 win over the Republic of Ireland on Tuesday, thanks to a lone goal from defender Alana Cook.
After the match, USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski said he used the game as an opportunity for individual evaluations, estimating he has 10-12 players vying for six to seven open roles. The team has decisions to make on the backline and in the midfield, while simultaneously getting used to life without star striker Mallory Swanson, who tore the patella tendon in her left knee on Saturday.
In Tuesday’s game, the USWNT looked like a team that still has several systemic issues to work out. But as players completed their final auditions for the trip to New Zealand with the reigning world champions, a few individuals stepped up and stood out.
Thompson earned her first USWNT start and 90-minute international match on Tuesday, joining the team last minute as a replacement for Swanson. Thompson’s feel for the game was apparent from the opening whistle, as her willingness to cover an extensive amount of ground on defense and tenacity in the attack kept opportunities alive.
The frontline of Thompson, Sophia Smith and Alex Morgan prioritized positional fluidity. The two wingers would switch sides based on the flow of the game and defensive assignments, and you would not have known from watching the first half that Thompson had not been in the team’s plans all along.
Tuesday was only Thompson’s third cap with the U.S., and while the Angel City forward can become more confident on the ball in the final third, the potential for the 18-year-old to become a real contributor at this summer’s World Cup was obvious. In what could be a sudden shift for the young striker, she could have proven she’s ready for the big stage sooner than expected.
“I feel like you have to stay ready so you don’t have to get ready, you know,” Thompson said after the game. “So I’ve just always been working hard and continuing in my pro environment, just continuing to develop.”
Davidson returned to the U.S. this month for the first time in over a year, subbing on for Becky Sauerbrunn in the 29th minute. Despite the time she spent away from the team as she rehabbed an ACL injury suffered last March, Davidson showed what skills she brings to the U.S. backline when she’s available and healthy.
Davidson’s speed from a central position is underrated. The 24-year-old has the ability to drift into wide spaces to cover for the team’s very aggressive outside-back positioning without giving up too much of a gap behind the defensive midfield. She’s also one of the best in the U.S. player pool at long diagonal passing while the team is in possession. That made a difference as the USWNT tried to overcome Ireland’s compact, organized midfield and take advantage of their speed in the attack.
“I think it’s a tough challenge to play against blocks like that,” said Davidson’s center-back partner, Alana Cook. “Something that we looked at from last game is, can we kind of open them up with that longer ball? And having Tierna be able to hit it on one side and me be able to hit it on the other, I think it’s just so helpful.”
In her second game since returning to the USWNT after two years away from the sport, Ertz understandably looked more fatigued. Ertz is a vocal presence on the field who instructs the players in front of her where to slot into spaces left open by the opposition’s defense, and attempts forward passes that diversify the U.S. attack when it becomes stagnant.
Ertz’s head is in the game and her presence seems to calm the players around her. The next step for the two-time world champion is regaining her defensive instincts and touch on the ball. Ireland intentionally made life difficult for the U.S. midfield over the course of two matches. They would overload the middle third to force mismatching player numbers and disrupt forward ball movement, which they’d then turn into quick switches in the other direction.
The 30-year-old midfielder could see those switches happening around her but was occasionally a step too slow to stop them. She trusts that type of quickness will come with time.
“I’m not messing around,” she said after the game, adding that she’ll likely finalize her NWSL club decision in the next few days. “I know where I want to be, and I know where the expectation is to be in order to be at my best just to be in the selection for the World Cup roster.”
Perhaps the most obvious auditions on Tuesday came at the outside-back position, where three different players got looks with a bit of positional shifting. Sofia Huerta began the match at right back, while Kelley O’Hara started on the left. O’Hara returned to the U.S. after a lingering hip injury kept her off the field for most of the latter half of 2022.
O’Hara looked locked in during the first half, but she was matched in intensity by Casey Krueger, who took over the role in the second half. Krueger returned to the team after giving birth to her son last July, and she and O’Hara each showcased a level of natural defending that the U.S. fullback position has missed in recent months.
Krueger looked both focused and fit, pushing the USWNT forward in attack while covering a lot of ground on defense. She forced Ireland into multiple mistakes, most notably drawing a yellow card as she turned toward goal in attacking transition late in the match. Krueger’s ability to slot in a line-breaking pass is underrated, sometimes even catching her teammates off guard in her first game back on the international stage.
Krueger and O’Hara could make the outside-back choices very difficult for Andonovski. As it stands, the head coach’s roster decisions on defense could be some of the most controversial of the World Cup cycle.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.