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USWNT starting XI: Projecting lineup changes vs. Sweden

The USWNT will be without Sophia Smith for its September friendlies against South Africa. (Ulrik Pedersen/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

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.

How to replace Rose Lavelle

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.

Re-thinking the midfield entirely

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.

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Julie Ertz has been starting at center-back but remains an option for the midfield. (Jose Breton/Pics Action/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Picking one of two attacking philosophies

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.

Projected starting lineups

No. 1: Speed and stability

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

No. 2: Commit to the grind

GK: Alyssa Naeher

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.

Athing Mu Falls at Trials, Will Not Defend 800-Meter Olympic Title

Athing Mu competes in the women's 800 meter final on Day Four of the 2024 US Olympic Team Track & Field Trials
Mu won the 800-meter final at the Tokyo Olympics, crossing the line in 1:55.21 to break the American record. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Reigning Olympic Track & Field champion Athing Mu will not have the opportunity to defend her 800-meter title in Paris after falling during the event's US Track & Field Trials final on Monday. 

About 200 meters into the race, Mu uncharacteristically got tangled up in the middle of the track and lost her footing. Coming to her defense, her coach Bobby Kersee said that she had been spiked, suffered track burns, and hurt her ankle. The 22-year-old filed an appeal that saw USA Track and Field officials sorting through replays, but it was later denied. 

As a result, Mu did not qualify to run the 800-meter at the 2024 Summer Games, as the US has a standing rule that only the top three Trials finishers make the official Olympic-bound roster. 

At her first-ever Olympics in 2021, Mu took home the gold at the 800-meter final, crossing the line in 1:55.21 to break the American record.

"I’ve coached it, I’ve preached it, I’ve watched it," Kersee told The Associated Press after Mu's appeal was rejected. "And here’s another indication that regardless of how good we are, we can leave some better athletes home than other countries have. It’s part of our American way."

Mu finished more than 22 seconds behind eventual winner Nia Akins, but could still make the Olympic team as part of the US relay pool. Mu was a key part of the Team USA's 4x400-meter gold medal win three years ago in Tokyo.

Dearica Hamby Tapped to Replace Cameron Brink on 3×3 Olympic Team

Dearica Hamby playing for Team USA in 2023
Dearica Hamby is no stranger to Team USA's 3×3 lineup. (Lance King/Getty Images)

Dearica Hamby has been named to USA Basketball's official 3×3 Olympic roster, replacing an injured Cameron Brink.

The Los Angeles Sparks forward has extensive experience with the 3×3 team, including taking home both a gold medal and MVP honors at the 2023 FIBA AmeriCup

Brink originally made the roster in early June, but suffered a season-ending ACL injury during Los Angeles’s June 18th loss to Connecticut. 

"It is an honor to announce Dearica Hamby's addition to the USA 3×3 women's national team and we look forward to getting to work as a squad very soon," USA Basketball 3×3 national team director Jay Demings said in a statement. "USA Basketball continues to keep Cameron Brink in our thoughts as she focuses on her recovery."

Hamby will join 2023 FIBA 3×3 World Cup champions Hailey Van Lith (TCU), CIerra Burdick, and Rhyne Howard (Atlanta Dream) in Paris.

San Diego Wave Parts Ways With Head Coach Casey Stoney

ex-wave fc head coach casey stoney in 2023
Casey Stoney joined Wave FC in 2022 from the WSL's Manchester United. (Ira L. Black - Corbis/Getty Images)

San Diego Wave FC announced on Monday that the organization has parted ways with head coach Casey Stoney. 

The announcement comes amid a seven-game winless streak for the Wave. Stoney joined San Diego from WSL side Manchester United a few months before their inaugural season, winning the 2022 NWSL Coach of the Year Award that same year. She went on to lead the expansion team to two trophies in three years. 

Just this past January, the club agreed to a multi-year contract extension that kept Stoney with the club through 2027, with a mutual option for 2028. 

Despite their prior success, San Diego currently sits ninth in the NWSL standings, one point out of playoff contention. Their last win came on May 8th, having most recently played to a scoreless draw against Houston over the weekend to cap off a three-game road trip. 

"We are immensely grateful to Casey for her commitment to our club and the positive impact she has had both on and off the pitch,” Wave president and former USWNT manager Jill Ellis said in an official team statement. "Over the past seasons, Casey has guided us to significant milestones, and her contributions have been instrumental in laying a strong foundation on which to build.

"The decision to part ways was very hard and not made in haste, but given the ambition of this club, and where we are in our season, we felt a change was necessary at this time."

The staffing change comes a little less than two weeks after the Wave brought on former Kansas City Current general manager Camille Ashton. Ashton resigned from her position with Kansas City in May of this year.

On Tuesday, Ellis commented that Stoney is "self aware" and called her a "complete professional."

"I don’t think you have to have a conversation when it comes to know where they are, she knew,” she said. “I think Casey knew results matter. Casey’s ambitious. And was she happy with where we were? Of course not.

"I think a coach also understands that sometimes this is the nature of the beast of coaching. It’s tough and hard at times."

Kansas City, Orlando Raise the NWSL Bar With Weekend Wins

NWSL Orlando Pride forward Barbra Banda in action during a NWSL match against Seattle Reign
Banda registered a brace on Sunday, bringing her NWSL total to 10 goals in just 10 games. (Nicholas Faulkner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Pride star Barbra Banda continued on her historic NWSL trajectory this weekend, scoring twice in Orlando’s 6-0 win over Utah on Friday. 

She’s the first NWSL player to register 10 goals in their first 10 league appearances. It was also her fourth brace this season, and marked her first goals in two games after her first multi-game scoring drought.

"For me when I have an opportunity and a chance, I have to take it wisely," Banda said in her postgame remarks. "When I get a chance, I have to put the ball in the back of the net. If any game I didn’t score, I just have to go to my drawing board and work hard so that in the next game so I can find a goal."

Meanwhile, Kansas City also kept up their winning ways, beating Portland 4-1 behind a brace from midfielder Lo'eau Labonta on Sunday.

Later that day, the Washington Spirit, who sit just a point behind KC in third place, topped fourth-place Gotham FC in a decisive 2-0 victory.

And after drawing with Seattle, eighth-place Louisville has 16 points on the season — representing a growing gap between the league’s top and bottom teams. Bringing up the bottom of the ladder, both Seattle and Utah have yet to surpass 10 points this year.

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