Despite an unconvincing start through three games, the U.S. women’s national team is onto the knockout rounds of the 2023 World Cup and will be taking on Sweden in the Round of 16 at 5 a.m. ET on Sunday. Head coach Vlatko Andonovski has been hyper-pragmatic in his approach thus far, and the team has performed well enough to advance, if not exactly with cohesion on the field.
But the knockout stage of a World Cup is its own unique challenge, and longtime rival Sweden will be eager to send the Americans packing earlier than ever before. Andonovski has faced questions about his willingness to make necessary changes to regain balance in his starting XI, but the message coming from the team is that they’re trusting the process.
There are a number of roads in front of the U.S. now, and the secret to success could be to lean further into the philosophy that got them to this point.
One of Andonovski’s changes will be forced, after Rose Lavelle’s suspension due to yellow card accumulation means the creative midfielder will not be available for the U.S. in the Round of 16.
Lavelle’s absence gives Andonovski a chance to rethink his entire approach. The USWNT has been of two minds in the group stage — trying to send numbers forward into the box, while keeping certain contributors pinned back to support the backline. The approach has resulted in a sturdy defense, a tepid attack and bypassing the midfield entirely in favor of long-ball passing.
So, how do you effectively replace a player, when your game plan has already limited their effectiveness? I think Andonovski has one of two options.
He could certainly replace Lavelle with Savannah DeMelo, who brought a competitive edge and an eagerness to aid the attack in the USWNT’s first two matches of the group stage. She now has more World Cup experience than Ashley Sanchez and can fill Lavelle’s positioning, even if she doesn’t have the same experience with creating chances out of limited time on the ball. There’s also another option.
If the U.S. wants to go far in this tournament, they might have to resort to grinding out wins, and Lavelle’s suspension gives the team an opportunity to experiment. The U.S. could retain the midfield triangle, but instead of the inverted shape they held in the first three games, they could insert two defensive midfielders to break up play and re-distribute the ball.
The U.S. had Andi Sullivan and Lindsey Horan connect in defensive midfield spaces in the past, but they’ve worked best with Lavelle on the field. There’s also the possibility of inserting Julie Ertz into the midfield in place of Sullivan, but that might irreparably disrupt a center-back pairing that has been the USWNT’s brightest spot thus far. There’s no perfect solution with the roster that Andonovski has constructed, nor with the way he wants to play.
So, at risk of blowing things up even further, the U.S. could fully commit to the grind. Put Ertz in the midfield alongside Sullivan (they occupied many of the same spaces against Portugal anyway), and set Horan as a box-to-box midfielder. Insert Alana Cook into the defense with the understanding she has more support in front of her than in the past, and make the spine of your defense incredibly difficult to play through.
Ertz and Sullivan are then given greater dexterity to send the ball out to the fullbacks, or up to the No. 9 who can deliver to the wingers. Basically, instead of being the U.S. team that lost to Canada in the semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics, absorb some of the qualities of that Canada side that made them so resilient on their way to a gold medal.
Under the grind mentality, starting Alex Morgan at center forward actually makes more sense than in the game-plan in the group stage. Morgan has expanded her skill set greatly in the last four years, becoming the kind of connective back-to-goal player Andonovki has prioritized. Her bigger issue in the group stage, other than clinical finishing, was a lack of service both from the midfield behind her and the wingers to either side of her.
With a very defensive-minded No. 6 duo and the freedom for Horan to run box-to-box, Morgan could slip into the space in front of Sweden’s defense and play the false No. 9 role she’s been trying to occupy since her return to the squad in 2022. The wingers could then make runs in front of Morgan, and give the outside-backs the freedom to get high and wide in possession to present different problems for Sweden’s defenders.
But this ideal probably relies on too much change for the team to comfortably withstand, especially if advancing in a World Cup is on the line. So if the midfield shape must remain the same as in past games, the frontline has to emphasize speed over everything. This would mean starting Lynn Williams, Sophia Smith and Trinity Rodman as a front three that has the ability to make any defense have to chase, even if chances are few and far between.
If the U.S. is going to bypass midfield channels and send long balls forward, they should have their best 1v1 attackers trying to find the gaps and win individual duels. Smith has had trouble progressing the ball on the dribble from a winger position in recent games. Starting her in her more natural role could be the kind of incremental improvement that gives the U.S. a shot at advancing to the quarterfinals.
Ultimately, the USWNT could rely on the strength of their recovery defense and individual quality to carry them to the next round. Or they could lean even further into an ill-fitting identity, with the hope of clarifying roles. If they have a chance at a deep run, those fine margins could make all the difference.
GK: Alyssa Naeher
D: Emily Fox, Julie Ertz, Naomi Girma, Crystal Dunn
M: Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan, Savannah DeMelo
F: Lynn Williams, Sophia Smith, Trinity Rodman
D: Emily Fox, Alana Cook, Naomi Girma, Crystal Dunn
M: Julie Ertz, Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan
F: Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan, Lynn Williams
Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.