World Cup week is finally here, with the U.S. women’s national team kicking off their 2023 campaign on Friday evening against Vietnam. Each of the USWNT’s group-stage opponents have distinctly different styles of play, and head coach Vlatko Andonovski will have to select his starters and reserves with tactics in mind.
In the team’s send-off match against Wales, patterns emerged indicating how the U.S. plans to approach defenses that are willing to let them possess the ball and dare them to find a breakthrough. With that in mind, there are a few positional tweaks Andonovski could make to his starting XI in his World Cup debut.
Here is how I would deploy the USWNT lineup against Vietnam, from the starting group to the bench players.
Naeher played the full 90 minutes against Wales in the USWNT’s send-off match, which all but tipped the scales in her favor to start the team’s World Cup group-stage opener. Naeher has had some trouble on set pieces and low xG opportunities in the NWSL this season, but the game against Vietnam will be more about organization and keeping early jitters in check.
Against what will likely be an organized lower block, the USWNT defense should lean as much as possible into their chance creation and ball distribution. Enter Sofia Huerta, a crossing specialist who can unlock the very type of defense the U.S. anticipates from Vietnam. Huerta’s presence also allows for rotation, with the possibility of Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox sharing minutes to prepare them for longevity through the tournament. Fox could also relieve Dunn in a left-back role to let the natural attacking player push forward into the midfield if the U.S. is still searching for a goal.
I think Emily Sonnett could start this match alongside Naomi Girma, a reflection less of my faith in Alana Cook and more of the understanding that center-back substitutions can be difficult when the stakes are high. Sonnett has very little game time with the U.S. as a center-back alongside Girma. Vietnam could be the right test for Sonnett to settle her nerves and give her a chance to be a real rotation option at the position. But the first match sets the tone, and Girma and Cook also need time together on the biggest stage to find their footing.
Safely assuming that Rose Lavelle is not fit to start the USWNT’s first match of the tournament, Savannah DeMelo might be an intriguing option to take over the creative midfield role against Vietnam’s sturdy defense. DeMelo has scored from distance a number of times in the NWSL this season, and a shoot-first mentality is something the U.S. has lacked in recent games. They’ll try to put passing sequences together to exploit space, but if DeMelo has the willingness to try a few heat checks from distance alongside quality dead-ball service, she deserves a look.
Andi Sullivan might be a controversial starter at defensive midfield, but she’s best-suited for games with less transitional play and more possession, which is what the U.S. is likely anticipating from its first match.
This one is tricky. It’s tough to leave Trinity Rodman on the bench at the beginning of the tournament based on her recent play, but Lynn Williams could be the deciding factor in a game like this. Williams is so good at applying quick defensive pressure and forcing turnovers to win chances in front of goal. If Vietnam can settle into the game, the ticking clock can become the USWNT’s enemy as much as the other team on the pitch. Williams is the type of player who can give the U.S. an opportunity to take the lead early, which will allow them to settle into possession with an advantage in hand.
There will come a time in this World Cup when it makes sense to play Rodman, Williams and Sophia Smith together as the front three. But for this particular match, the veteran leadership of Alex Morgan wins out. It’s not just that she can communicate well with the team’s World Cup newcomers — she’ll also be able to do the back-to-goal work to create space for Williams and Smith to execute. No one understands the tempo of an international match better than Morgan, and they’ll need her for this game.
The USWNT’s depth is still a huge asset, with a variety of options available to Andonovski depending on the game state. As mentioned, Fox coming in might allow Dunn to join the midfield, or simply make sure that neither outside back depletes their energy.
Should the U.S. want to go high-tempo, Rodman and Alyssa Thompson bring quality positioning and speed to the frontline, while Rodman can also methodically connect with her midfield. Ashley Sanchez offers creative flair, and Kristie Mewis can sub in for any of the three midfield positions, giving the group a gritty edge should they need it late in the match.
The U.S. is still dealing with a handful of injuries, with Lavelle’s long-awaited return a key factor in the team’s chances in the knockout rounds. Lavelle has been training with the team and seemingly going full-contact, but she has yet to see competitive game minutes since April. The need to build her fitness back up is another good reason for the reigning World Champions to get off to a fast start and allow their midfield engine to resume play in a positive situation.
Megan Rapinoe and Julie Ertz are each also building their minutes back up, but they have more flexibility in their usage on the field. Ertz is a player best-suited for transitional play, meaning she might be needed more in the USWNT’s second two group-stages matches. She and Rapinoe are both secret weapons on set pieces; Rapinoe, in particular, can create a bit of magic should the U.S. struggle to grab a lead late in the game.
As mentioned above, there’s a compelling argument that Sonnett should start this first game. But what is more likely is that Sonnett and Kelley O’Hara will be available as defensive reinforcements, with both players able to slot into different roles if necessary (could we see the return of O’Hara at midfield, for example?). Goalkeepers Casey Murphy and Aubrey Kingsbury will be in a similar position: Murphy has the capability to take the starting reins at any time in this tournament.
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.