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3 things the USWNT must improve to succeed at the World Cup

Trinity Rodman’s second goal against Wales was an example of the type of attack the U.S. needs to replicate at the World Cup. (John Todd/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The U.S. women’s national team is officially off to New Zealand, after a 2-0 win over Wales in their send-off game on Sunday. The team looked in command but slightly uncomfortable in a grinding, physical match that recreated a number of World Cup scenarios.

With a sharp eye on fitness and form, here are three things the U.S. will need to improve upon overseas, from their group-stage opener against Vietnam all the way to a hopeful run at a third straight World Cup trophy.

Let the ‘artists’ work

For better or worse, head coach Vlatko Andonovski has the USWNT operating like a “system team,” in which process and principles take precedence over free-flowing, individual brilliance. At its best, the team’s passing triangles allow them to move the ball around opponents with ease and find the final tap-in for a goal. The system also theoretically cuts down on defensive pressure, which was obvious in the send-off game against Wales — when the U.S. opened up, they faced more counterattacking opportunities.

This approach is likely why Andonovski prefers the midfield of Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Andi Sullivan, who have the best chemistry for creating passing lanes through their sheer number of minutes played together. Then there’s Crystal Dunn, who has assumed a somewhat hybrid position even while technically playing outside-back. The NWSL midfielder frequently alternates with Horan on who takes the widest angle and who cuts into the midfield.

But Lavelle isn’t available, and likely won’t be for a full game until well into the group stage of the World Cup and maybe even in the knockout rounds. Ashley Sanchez has moved into the attacking midfield role, and deservedly so with the amount of creativity she brings to the position in the NWSL. But she is less of a “system” midfielder, and the disconnect between composure and freedom was obvious as the U.S. moved into the final third against Wales on Sunday.

It wasn’t shocking that the team started operating with more cohesion when Lynn Williams, Andonovski’s secret weapon, subbed into the game. Williams was nominally playing left winger, but she also was comfortable slipping into the midfield to generate turnovers and get on the ball, generating the key pass that led to the U.S.’s opening goal. The best USWNT lineup likely has a combination of — to steal Andonovski’s terminology — “artists” and “warriors,” but the artists aren’t getting the freedom to create inside the system the head coach prefers.

Ashley Sanchez's creativity could be a USWNT strength if she's given the freedom. (John Todd/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Develop composure

For as methodical as the USWNT’s build-up was at times against Wales, as they created tight passing triangles to weave around a tight defensive press, the final pass or shot was frequently lacking. The U.S. did try a variety of tactics: Sometimes the ball would be played out wide, sometimes Naomi Girma would dribble up as far as the opponent’s penalty area, and sometimes they’d favor short, one-touch passing. Regardless of the build-up approach, play usually ended in a cross sent in from the endline or a player failing to find a teammate after dribbling into a triple team.

Dribbling is a USWNT superpower, and something every opponent is going to focus on taking away from them. Against Wales, that meant a higher level of physicality, with Sophia Smith in particular bearing the brunt of small tugs and toe digs to disrupt her motion on the ball.

A physical defensive strategy can whittle a talented opponent down, and the USWNT debutantes are going to have to get used to what teams throw at them. In her time with the U.S., Alex Morgan has become a consummate pro at knowing when a foul is coming, and it’s one of the reasons Andonovski is reluctant to move away from the veteran at starting center forward.

But the U.S. also needs to solve an opposite problem, which is a lack of composure on the ball when the final pass does arrive. Anticipating contact can make a player more likely to try to volley the ball out of the air or get their foot too far underneath the ball for power. More than once against Wales, a USWNT attacker received a pass in from the endline, only to send it far over the crossbar when they had more time to settle and shoot.

Trinity Rodman’s second goal provided the blueprint for taking a millisecond to line up your shot and send it into the back of the net. Her attempt also came off three blocked shots in quick succession. A few more moments like that for the U.S., and the hard stuff might become a lot easier.

Use their depth wisely

It’s easy to look at the way the game against Wales opened up once Andonovski made his substitutes, but that also appears to be part of the plan. The USWNT’s depth has long been lauded as a strength, and it’s already been tested in 2023 with multiple injuries depleting the squad.

That Williams and Savannah DeMelo were both able to enter the match and bolster the specific seam needed in the attacking midfield is a fantastic asset, as was the ability to bring in Rodman off the bench. If Rodman starts, as she likely should, the team can then sub in Alyssa Thompson to wreak havoc against tired legs. The attacking depth of the USWNT isn’t an issue, nor is the fact that it sometimes takes changes for a game to open up.

The closer you get to the spine of the team, however, things begin to feel less secure.

Andonovski subbed Emily Sonnett into the central defense against Wales. He almost surely won’t do that in an important game (barring injury), but in restricting Alana Cook’s minutes slightly, he acquiesced to the reality that his preferred starting duo can’t play every minute of a World Cup. Sonnett doesn’t have much experience playing alongside Cook or Girma, and she’ll likely be relied upon more than she was in the 2019 World Cup or at the Tokyo Olympics.

Julie Ertz has been considered at center-back as well, but she has spent even less time in the position for the U.S. than Sonnett has in recent years. The USWNT didn’t suffer any serious defensive breakdowns against Wales due to substitutions, but Andonovski still seems to be making decisions in the back as a survival tactic, rather than moving from strength to strength.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Sofia Huerta signs contract extension with Seattle through 2027

(Daniel Bartel-USA TODAY Sports)

Former Oregon soccer players detail instances of verbal abuse from former USWNT assistant

(Chris Pietsch/The Register-Guard via Imagn Content Services)

Members of the Oregon women’s soccer team are saying they received harsh treatment and even verbal abuse from head coach and former USWNT assistant Graeme Abel. 

During the 2023 season, the team had zero wins, and upon its conclusion a total of 12 of the team’s 29 players departed the team. Former players told The Oregonian that Abel would verbally attack them, threaten to kick them off the team and at times would even throw objects.

"When I’d make a mistake at practice, it felt like he made it a job to embarrass you to the point where you just wanted to walk off the field,” one player said. “He’d stop the practice – and I know it’s college soccer, it’s very competitive — but he’d stop practice and just keep going nonstop on this one thing."

In total, the Oregonian spoke with 14 former players – including 12 who agreed to be interviewed in depth. All said that they experienced verbal abuse. Six of the players were among those who transferred following the season. 

One instance of Abel’s tirades included him throwing a water bottle that narrowly missed players’ heads. 

“He kicked all of our staff out of the locker room, kicked a trash can, threw a white board, sat on the trash can and started screaming,” one player recounted. “He wanted us to tell him what we thought went wrong in the game. Me and another player spoke up, and he said, ‘You’re just (expletive) wrong.’ And that if we didn’t want to be in this program, we could all quit, and he’d sign our release paperwork tomorrow.”

While Abel was not made available for an interview, he did say in a statement that “at no point have I used threatening statements or financial repercussions as a part of coaching.”

Instances of emotional distress stemming from Abel’s alleged harsh treatment date back to 2021 – his first full year leading the team following an abbreviated 2020 campaign.

One former player contacted by The Oregonian detailed positive overall experiences, and described his style as “normal coaching.”

Others, like USWNT players Becky Sauerbrunn and Lindsey Horan, did not respond to requests for comment, although Sauerbrunn wrote in 2019 that she had a “great relationship” with Abel. 

Still, multiple players interviewed had similar stories, with one saying that girls would be “crying in the locker room” after practice because of what he would tell players. Attempts to speak with the administration about his behavior, players say, was “discouraging.”

“His office is like the scariest place,” one player said. “You’d have to sit there while he’d belittle you and say all these nasty things, and gaslight you into believing you’re not good enough. ... Our team fell apart because of the environment he created. We were just trying to get through the day. There was no way we could focus on soccer.”

Multiple players said they experienced suicidal ideation while playing at Oregon. In part of his statement, Abel wrote that “at no time do we put our student-athletes in any danger.”

Abel is currently in his fifth and final year of his contract at Oregon.

Gotham FC unveil Championship rings ahead of banner reveal

Gotham FC players celebrate Lynn Williams' goal in the first half of the 2023 NWSL Championship. (Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY Sports)

Gotham FC has unveiled their 2023 NWSL championship rings — and safe to say, they deliver.

The reveal has led to a little bit of trash talk ahead of the team’s matchup with Kansas City this weekend, as both teams have NFL owners. While the Current are co-owned by Patrick and Brittany Mahomes, former Giants quarterback Eli Manning is a co-owner of Gotham. 

On Wednesday, Manning took to Sportscenter to give Mahomes a bit of a hard time.

“He may have one more Super Bowl ring than me, but he does not have a NWSL championship ring like I do,” Manning joked.

“Come Sunday night at Red Bull Arena, April 14th, we’re dropping the banner on Kansas City. We got the ring ceremony, the players get their rings and their championship afterwards. This is it, I’ve got something to talk a little trash to him about because I can’t do it about football anymore, I gotta find something else.”

The appearance came after Manning posted to social media, inviting Mahomes to “come see [the championship ring] up close this Sunday.”

Mahomes responded in kind, writing that “we’ll see y’all Sunday!”

Gotham takes on current league-leaders Kansas City on Sunday at 6pm ET. The game is available on NWSL+.

Oregon State hit by transfer portal again as Raegan Beers departs

ALBANY, NEW YORK - MARCH 31: Raegan Beers #15 of the Oregon State Beavers shoots a free throw during the first half against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Tournament at MVP Arena on March 31, 2024 in Albany, New York. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Oregon State leading scorer and rebounder Raegan Beers announced on Thursday that she is entering the transfer portal. 

"Thank you for all of your endless love and support these past two years," she posted on social media. "I will never forget my time at OSU and I am thankful for the opportunity I had to meet and play with incredible people. My journey as a Beav was a special one and I am grateful for my teammates, coaches, fans, and friends who have changed my life throughout my time here."

A sophomore forward, Beers is a two-time All-Pac-12 selection who averaged 17.5 points per game last season while shooting 66.4 percent from the field. She also added 10.3 rebounds en route to earning third-team All-American honors from the AP. 

She’s the fourth Oregon State starter – and seventh player overall – to hit the portal this offseason. She joins Talia von Oelhoggen and Timea Gardiner in the transfer portal, as well as starting freshman Donovyn Hunter. 

Beers and Gardiner were both top-10 recruits in ESPN rankings coming out of high school. 

With the dissolution of the Pac-12, the program will join the WCC next season and no longer be a part of the Power 5.

Conference realignment is hitting the team hard, with coach Scott Rueck saying during the tournament that he knew it could seriously affect his team moving forward. 

"That's reality," Rueck said. "I can't control that, other than just keep doing what I'm doing. I think the opportunity within that for a leader provides a discipline that you'd better be on your A-game all the time. You'd better take care of people, and you'd better provide a great experience. That's the approach going forward and what happens, happens. We'll find a way."

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