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There are few managers more synonymous with success than OL Reign’s Laura Harvey. In a league currently dominated by a constantly moving carousel of open coaching positions, the original manager of the Seattle Reign has endured, leading the team to their first NWSL Championship appearance since 2015.

Known for her humor, candor and proclivity for sitting on an ice cooler in the coach’s box during games, Harvey is already an iconic figure in NWSL history.

When you speak to her players, Harvey’s strengths as a manager are reflected in their words. She’s described by forward Megan Rapinoe as “the best manager I’ve ever had,” and by defender Sofia Huerta as the only coach she’s had that “knows what they’re talking about, and really cares about the players.” Midfielder Jess Fishlock says her managing style is “just successful, man. It works. It’s such a respectful way of working.” And defender Alana Cook says “she looks after us as humans before players.”

All players say that Harvey is the person who sets the culture upon which everything in the locker room is based. And if the Reign win the 2023 NWSL Championship by defeating Gotham FC in San Diego on Saturday, it will be because they leaned further into that culture rather than turned away from it.

Harvey is the longest-tenured coach in the NWSL, even after stepping away from the Reign from 2018-21. NWSL coaching positions as a whole have become difficult jobs to hold in recent years, either due to off-field misconduct or on-field results.

Harvey has the staunch support of her players for the way she treats them off the field, but the Reign also could be rewarded for patience with results over the years. Harvey famously has led the Reign to three NWSL Shields, an honor many on the team feel is more reflective of a truly successful season than the two- or three-game playoff run to the championship. But the team has also become synonymous with struggling in the playoffs, falling to lower seeds in recent years after earning top-two finishes in the regular season.

Consequently, Harvey’s record in knockout matches has seeped into the conversation about her reputation as a manager over time. Prior to 2023, Seattle had won only two playoff matches in the club’s history — two semifinals in 2014 and 2015. In both of those postseasons, the team fell in the championship match to Vlatko Andonovski’s FC Kansas City, and until this year had not registered another postseason win despite making the semifinals every single season from 2018-22.

Harvey’s knockout record (and her old coaching battles with Andonovski) have followed her, especially after Andonovski was named manager of the U.S. women’s national team in 2019. Harvey, who’d made the jump to become a coach at the U.S. development level in 2018, was considered a contender for the USWNT job after Jill Ellis stepped down in the aftermath of the 2019 World Cup victory. But Andonovski had the consistent record in playoff matches, one of the closest equivalents to international tournament play available at the domestic level.

Fast forward to 2023, and Harvey’s name again was in the mix for the USWNT job after Andonovski struggled to continue the program’s history of excellence with a disappointing Olympic and World Cup run. And once again, the well-respected Seattle coach appears to be left on the shortlist, with reports indicating that the job will go to current Chelsea manager Emma Hayes instead. Hayes, like Harvey, has a history of excellence at the club level, but she also has domestic knockout tournament wins in the FA Cup.

So if the Reign appear to go out of their way to win for their manager on Saturday, the intensity is warranted. The Reign have doubled their playoff win count in 2023, with two assertive victories in the quarterfinals and semifinals. And Harvey’s players have been steadfast in their desire to get over the top of that one final hill and earn their manager the respect they feel she deserves.

(Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

“I actually think a lot of people still underrate Laura Harvey as a coach anyway, which is absolutely mind-boggling to me. I don’t understand what else she needs to do,” says Fishlock, who has played for the Reign since their founding in 2013. “Laura has a structure. She knows what she wants, she has her principles, but within that she has fluidity.”

The Reign are known to play some of the most beautiful, free-flowing soccer in the league, stringing long series of passes together to find an opening in the opponent’s defense and put the ball in the back of the net. They’re also strong defensively, with well-drilled pressing triggers that can set an opponent on their heels.

That consistency has been a clear asset to the Reign’s ability to rule the regular season, but Harvey’s players similarly credit their communication structure and steady principles with their ability to execute in the postseason.

“She’s very tactical but also is able to put together a really good group or lineup per game, depending on who shines,” says Emily Sonnett, who has flourished as a holding midfielder for the club after spending most of her professional career as a defender.

She credits the Reign coaching staff with not overcomplicating the game plan, a helpful tool when a player is getting used to a new position: “Laura and the coaching staff have done a really good job of each game [asking] ‘What is actually needed, and can we accomplish that?”

Harvey communicates with the team through her leaders, notably the Reign’s original three of Fishlock, Rapinoe and defender Lauren Barnes.

“She doesn’t really have an ego like that, and really wants that collaboration, and really relies especially on us older players to be her lieutenants out there,” says Rapinoe, who says she wants her final professional game to be a win for her manager almost more than she wants it for herself. “She’s always pulling us in and wanting our opinion, and allowing us the space to be f—ing annoying and ask a million questions all the time. But she empowers us to do that.”

Both the Reign’s desire to win and the tools are clearly there, and have been for years. But the players’ execution of the game plan, Rapinoe says, has let Harvey down in the past more than her own preparation as a coach.

“The thing about Laura, she’s always gonna get up and own the entire loss,” Rapinoe says. “But I think a lot of the knockout games, we’ve just played terrible and haven’t shown up as players.”

“I think being a coach is really difficult,” Huerta echoes. “It’s really hard to have success as a coach, because when the team loses, it’s your fault. [But] the team wins, and the players played amazing. I think it’s hard to be in that position. There’s a lot of turnover, I don’t think a lot of people are on your side. But we’re on Laura’s side. She’s a good coach, she’s really one of the main reasons we’re here.”

(Michael Thomas Shroyer/USA TODAY Sports)

Harvey’s principles have guided the Reign to this point, but it’s their newfound ability to play a less beautiful, more punishing style that the team feels could earn them the trophy they’ve long been searching for.

“This year, I don’t think really anybody on the outside envisioned us being in the finals,” says midfielder Rose Lavelle. “And I think we maybe had more of a chip on our shoulder that helped us get here.”

To win an NWSL Championship, the Reign will have to be willing to endure touchy passages of play and lean into their defensive identity against the consistently dangerous Gotham FC attack.

“I think obviously you want entertainment, you want goals, you want flair,” says Cook. “But I think we can make our living on just being solid in that regard and being organized, being hard to break down.”

In other words, it’s possible that this version of OL Reign looks and plays more like a knockout-round winner than any other Reign team in the past. Through injury and absence, they’ve found a toughness that hasn’t always been a part of their identity.

“I think just the overall grit and discipline of the squad this year took a really big step, which is really necessary,” says Rapinoe.

With newfound confidence in their ability to weather the storm, the Reign feel ready to prove they can join the ranks of NWSL champions and forever take the asterisk off the legacy of their manager. Because in the NWSL final, it doesn’t always have to be pretty — you just have to end on a win.

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

Sophia Smith, Becky Sauerbrunn and Alex Morgan are among the 13 players at the U.S. women’s national team’s October training camp still competing in the NWSL playoffs.

All those players are seeking to strike a balance between focusing on their national team duties and staying sharp for the NWSL semifinals on Nov. 5. Smith, Sauerbrunn and the Portland Thorns will take on Lynn Williams and Gotham FC, while Morgan and the San Diego Wave will face Emily Sonnett and OL Reign.

Other players competing in the postseason include: Sam Coffey, Crystal Dunn and Olivia Moultrie with Portland; Naomi Girma and Jaedyn Shaw with San Diego; Midge Purce with Gotham FC; and Alana Cook and Sofia Huerta with OL Reign.

“You come into camp and it’s so busy because you have so many different meetings — a set piece meeting, a defenders meeting,” Sauerbrunn said after Thursday’s scoreless draw with Colombia. “And so you’re just trying to remember, OK, these are the national team tactics. And then you get back to Portland and it’s like you’ve got to relearn everything that Portland was doing. And so it is really tough.

“You have to be wherever you are and give it everything that you’ve got with the team that you’re with. But it can be really tough because, I’m so excited to be back with Portland as well, but also I really want to beat Colombia in a few days.”

The USWNT will face Colombia again at 5:30 p.m. ET Sunday to finish out the two-match friendly series.

The U.S. coaching staff is aware of its players’ dual priorities, and they are “managing minutes with players in different parts of the NWSL season,” interim head coach Twila Kilgore said Thursday.

“The key is just that when they do go in, that they make a difference that they’re asked to make,” Kilgore said.

Becky Sauerbrunn has come close to scoring for the U.S. women’s national team, but has never quite found the back of the net. Thus, her 217-game scoreless streak continues – a record for the USWNT.

That doesn’t mean the 38-year-old defender isn’t thinking about it. After all, she nearly scored in her hometown of Saint Louis earlier this year. But if she ever did find the back of the net, she isn’t sure she would be able to appreciate the moment.

“Alana [Cook] and I were like, we can switch every once in a while, so we were taking turns going up there,” she said after Thursday’s 0-0 draw with Colombia. “I mean, one of these days I think it might happen. If it happens, it happens.”

And Sauerbrunn doesn’t have a celebration picked out for if that day comes.

“I think I would faint,” she said. “I don’t think it would be a celebration.”

Of the 27 players called into the October training camp for the U.S. women’s national team, 17 are set to compete in the NWSL playoffs.

Every one of the six teams competing in the postseason will send players to the USWNT for its friendlies against Colombia on Oct. 26 and 29. The Portland Thorns lead the way, with five players heading to the national team — not counting captain Christine Sinclair, who will play for Canada as her career winds down.

The NWSL playoffs kick off at 10 p.m. ET Friday, as the OL Reign host Angel City FC in the first round. After the quarterfinal round, the postseason will take a one-week break to allow players to join their national teams for the October international window.

Among the playoff teams, Angel City FC features the least number of international players, per team announcements. Just three are set to join their national teams in October – and two (Alyssa Thompson and M.A. Vignola) will remain here in the United States.

2023 NWSL playoffs: USWNT players

(1) Portland Thorns

  • Sam Coffey
  • Crystal Dunn
  • Olivia Moultrie
  • Becky Sauerbrunn
  • Sophia Smith

(2) San Diego Wave

  • Alex Morgan
  • Jaedyn Shaw
  • Naomi Girma

(3) North Carolina Courage

  • Casey Murphy, USWNT
  • Emily Fox, USWNT

(4) OL Reign

  • Alana Cook, USWNT
  • Sofia Huerta, USWNT
  • Emily Sonnett, USWNT

(5) Angel City FC

  • Alyssa Thompson, USWNT
  • M.A. Vignola, USWNT

(6) Gotham FC

  • Lynn Williams, USWNT
  • Midge Purce, USWNT

2023 NWSL playoffs: International players

(1) Portland Thorns

  • Christine Sinclair, Canada

(2) San Diego Wave

  • Kyra Carusa, Ireland
  • Sofia Jakobsson, Sweden
  • Kailen Sheridan, Canada

(3) North Carolina Courage

  • Sydney Collins, Canada
  • Mille Gejl, Denmark
  • Rikke Marie Madsen, Denmark
  • Denise O’Sullivan, Ireland

(4) OL Reign

  • Angelina, Brazil
  • Quinn, Canada
  • Jordyn Huitema, Canada
  • Jess Fishlock, Wales

(5) Angel City FC

  • Claire Emslie, Scotland

(6) Gotham FC

  • Sinead Farrelly, Ireland
  • Esther González, Spain
  • Ify Onumonu, Nigeria

The U.S. women’s national team got their mojo back during the September international break, sending Julie Ertz and Megan Rapinoe off in style with two dominant wins over South Africa. The games were filled with emotion, and goodbyes off the field influencing the USWNT’s sharpness on the field.

The performances also shined a light on a few of the lingering questions from the Vlatko Andonovski era that new management will have to investigate as the team looks toward the 2024 Olympics.

The Alex Morgan question

Alex Morgan had two perfectly-placed assists in each game against South Africa, bringing her assists total for the USWNT in 2023 to five, the most since her breakout year in 2012. The 34-year-old showcased an ability to slide into wide areas to pull South African defenders out of position and free up space for her teammates, most notably Trinity Rodman.

Both of Morgan’s assists offered a glimpse into the all-around player the striker has become later in her career, providing an improvisatory spark that opened up both matches and set the U.S. up for comfortable leads. The plays could also be indicative of the way Morgan has had to adapt her natural tendencies in order to work in a system that still reflects the way Andonovski asked her to play at the 2023 World Cup.

But for all the positive play Morgan brings to the USWNT frontline, she is still struggling to find the back of the net herself. With another international break behind her, the 34-year-old hasn’t scored for the USWNT since February nor for her club team since May. Her scoring drought has seemed to stem less from a significant decline in pace or touch (her ball control on Sunday’s assist was world-class), and more from positioning and poise. Whatever mental block is holding Morgan back hasn’t stopped her from impacting games, but it has limited her effectiveness in the role she is primarily brought in to play.

The Emily Sonnett question

Emily Sonnett now consistently plays defensive midfielder for her club, OL Reign, and she started in that role in both of the USNWT’s games against South Africa. She’s looked increasingly confident there, but her usage in recent months begs the question: Is the former defender in the midst of a true position change, or is the team simply tapping into the versatile talent she’s been known for her entire career?

Sonnett was the unlikely hero of the USWNT’s 4-2-3-1 formation change in their Round of 16 match against Sweden at the World Cup, and she looked just as steady when paired with Ertz and then Andi Sullivan against South Africa. But the new commitment to what seemed at the time to be a last-minute position switch could also be holding the team back from moving on from Andonovski’s style of play. Portland Thorns standout No. 6 Sam Coffey got another call-up in September but did not see the field in either game. Based on positioning, Coffey would ostensibly step into Sullivan’s role alongside the ball-winning Sonnett.

There’s no doubt that the 4-2-3-1 could be a sturdy formation for the team going forward under new management, and position switches have happened with success before — such as Ertz moving from center-back to defensive midfield in 2017. But Sonnett’s emergence as a midfield option rather than as a defender could also reshape the team’s roster approach altogether.

The Alana Cook question

Ertz’s retirement and Sonnett’s emergence as a starter in the defensive midfield prompted the return of Alana Cook to the USWNT’s central defense in both September games. Cook had a very strange 2023, with Andonovski abruptly benching her in favor of Ertz for the entirety of the World Cup after she had played the most minutes of anyone in 2022.

Now, she is again being asked to anchor the U.S. backline, a task she likely thought would have come in much bigger games. Cook partnered with Naomi Girma in the first match of the international break, and then with Tierna Davidson in the second game. Davidson is looking to return to a USWNT tournament roster after being left home during the World Cup, and with Becky Sauerbrunn’s return in question, the team’s center-back depth is just as questionable as it was earlier in the year.

Andonovski decided to push questions about the central defense into the future when he went all-in on Ertz and Girma in Australia and New Zealand. Those decisions will now be made by a new coach, and Cook missed out on major tournament experience that could have been a foundational point of the next cycle.

Ashley Sanchez didn't see the field for the USWNT at the World Cup. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The Ashley Sanchez question

The team’s renewed commitment to a defensive 4-2-3-1 in the absence of Rose Lavelle also leads to questions about the future of the playmaker role. The defensive midfield double-pivot came out of necessity, as the U.S. struggled to retain and progress the ball through the midfield with only one defensive midfielder feeding two attacking midfielders.

But the team’s realignment has left a few of the USWNT’s pure playmakers adrift. Ashley Sanchez subbed into the first game of the September series, and Savannah DeMelo did the same in the second, but the current starting lineup indicates a trend. Interim manager Twila Kilgore appears most comfortable with a conservative, possession-based approach that attacking playmakers can stretch later in matches.

Kilgore’s logic is sound, as the U.S. continues to build on the positive play of their Round of 16 match against Sweden. But after Sanchez was left on the bench during the World Cup, and DeMelo got thrown into the fire of the group stage without much midfield support, the USWNT has too much attacking firepower to line up as conservatively as it has been in recent months. Lavelle’s expected return will force the new coach’s hand one way or another on whether the defensive priorities should take precedence over the team’s attack.

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

The U.S. women’s national team is abruptly moving into a new cycle, as it tries to shrug off a disappointing World Cup campaign and bounce back at the 2024 Olympic Games. The team has yet to name an official successor to head coach Vlatko Andonovski, and all assumptions about the USWNT player pool are off while the team resets.

A number of players on the World Cup roster this summer didn’t get the opportunities they perhaps deserved, but that doesn’t mean the future isn’t still bright for the four-time World Cup champions. So, what comes next for the USWNT’s bench players?

Let’s take a look at how they are currently contributing to their club teams, and why they’re still in the mix for permanent USWNT roster spots.

Ashley Sanchez, M, Washington Spirit

Sanchez explained to the media upon her World Cup return that she was a bit surprised by her role at the tournament. “Let’s just say the role [I was told I would fill] was not what I played,” she told the Washington Post after returning to the Spirit.

Sanchez is a player who can exploit space as both an attacker and a playmaker and isn’t afraid to take shots on goal. She made that clear with a ripper of a goal just 40 seconds into her first game back with Washington. Under Andonovski, Sanchez was frequently asked to sit on the backline of the USWNT’s opponent and as an additional attacker rather than a traditional midfielder. The finishing pressures placed on the player in that role have never suited Sanchez, who thrives when she has the freedom to collaborate with teammates like Trinity Rodman. As the U.S. works out its midfield shape, allowing Sanchez to create her own space will be paramount.

Alana Cook, D, OL Reign

Cook had one of the USWNT’s strangest World Cup experiences. After carrying the most minutes of any U.S. field player in 2022, she never saw the field at the World Cup, abruptly dropped in place of Julie Ertz at center-back. She’s since returned to a starting role at OL Reign, as she further develops her club partnership with Sam Hiatt.

Cook is a talented player who has struggled with the timing of the game at the international level. The Reign are currently battling for NWSL playoff position, sitting just above the playoff line and five points away from the top of the league table. The team is also on a two-game regular season losing streak heading into September, with an urgency to shore up their formation in defensive transition. Cook is now in the difficult position of needing to step up for her team at home without having gained the playing experience of a World Cup.

Alyssa Thompson was the youngest player on the U.S. World Cup team at 18 years old. (Brad Smith/USSF/Getty Images)

Alyssa Thompson, F, Angel City

Alyssa Thompson didn’t feature much for the U.S. during the World Cup, but she perhaps returned to a better situation at the club level than the one she left. Angel City is undefeated in nine games under interim manager Becki Tweed, rising in the NWSL standings and pushing for the club’s first-ever playoff berth.

Thompson has seen some of her scoring responsibilities lessened by the Angel City midfield and the team’s newfound tenacity on set pieces. She continues to stretch defenses with her speed and positioning, while benefiting from a team no longer dependent on getting her the ball on the dribble to have a shot at creating quality chances. The best-case scenario for Thompson is that she continues to grow in her rookie season without the weight of a playoff spot on her shoulders, and so far Angel City is succeeding.

Emily Sonnett, D/M, OL Reign

Emily Sonnett played the part of a World Cup hero in the USWNT’s Round of 16 matchup against Sweden. The 29-year-old has mostly excelled as a center-back at the professional level but also has experience at defensive midfield. After short stints at outside back for the U.S., Sonnett rediscovered her No. 6 roots when Andonovski turned to her unexpectedly to partner with Andi Sullivan and help shore up the team’s shaky formation in the knockout stage.

She has since returned to a Reign team that is firmly set on Cook and Hiatt as their center-backs, and she will likely continue to develop as a defensive midfielder as the Reign jockey for playoff position. Sonnett filled in for an injured Quinn in the early stages of OL Reign’s 2023 regular season, using her natural ability to command space from the midfield. She most recently paired with Quinn in a double-pivot shape, showing the respect she has earned as a midfielder in a very short period of time.

Sofia Huerta, D, OL Reign

Sofia Huerta didn’t see much of the field during the 2023 World Cup, as Andonovski took a conservative approach to his defense. The Reign defender is one of the most reliable contributors in the NWSL, bringing quality on the ball in attacking areas and the ability to drop crosses into the box on a dime. She likely doesn’t need further development as a player nor a confidence boost to be in the mix for the USWNT in 2024. She’ll always be a fair option for a USWNT call-up, depending on how the new coach wants the team to play.

Lynn Williams' usage was questioned after she played in just two games at the World Cup. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

Lynn Williams, F, Gotham FC

Lynn Williams’ vulnerability as part of the USWNT player pool has never made much sense. Her understanding of the team’s defensive pressing triggers are better than almost any other available player. She can fit into both wide and central spaces, and she can thrive in high-volume shooting schemes and in taking key chances without controlling possession.

Williams is a legitimate NWSL Golden Boot and MVP candidate in her first season with Gotham. The forward should be a valued part of the USWNT’s plans going forward, rather than held at arm’s length by the program, as she has been in the past.

Kristie Mewis, M, Gotham FC

Kristie Mewis has always shown flashes of sophistication at the international level that she’s never had significant time to develop. Mewis is known as a galvanizing locker room presence and a versatile midfielder who can slot into a number of roles as a substitute. She also brings quality on set-piece delivery, and yet hasn’t been given many of those opportunities nor been relied upon to hone one particular position.

Mewis was a starting midfielder for what was arguably the USWNT’s best win in 2023, a 1-0 victory over Japan at the SheBelieves Cup. She was able to combat Japan’s quick-trigger possession approach with her defensive positioning to keep them off the scoresheet. Mewis’ prowess in that moment only takes on greater weight after the World Cup, where Japan was one of the best teams before losing to Sweden in the quarterfinals, and should be considered in future USWNT evaluation.

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

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.

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.

If the old adage goes that defense wins championships, U.S. women’s national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski might be taking his faith in the statement a little too far.

The U.S. has given up only one goal so far in the 2023 World Cup, on a single shot on goal. But they’ve also looked disjointed in possession and frantic in the attack en route to a second-place finish in their group.

Despite the legacy of the USWNT’s “Department of Defense,” fans weren’t expecting a defensive lockdown of this magnitude going into the World Cup. As different players with varying strengths rotated in and out of the backline in the lead-up to the tournament, the odd mistake in the defense became a regular occurrence and, to Andonovski, a risk worth taking.

There was a feeling that the team was willing to live or die by their defensive mistakes in the pursuit of strengthening the attack. But what Andonovski has actually prioritized under the glare of the spotlight is shoring up the team’s backline issues at the steep cost of freedom in front of the defense.

A hyper-conservative game plan to limit shots on goal is both a problem the U.S. is having trouble solving and their current lifeline. It doesn’t appear to be a mistake as much as an intentional gamble. But it’s a gamble the USWNT players are not accustomed to executing, even under Andonovski’s management.

The loss of reliable contributors

Injuries to USWNT forwards have rightly gotten a fair amount of attention, but the team’s group stage suggests that Andonovski’s current approach is a way to offset absences in the defense.

What the U.S. defense is missing, as compared to 2019 or even 2021, is the result of incremental loss. While Abby Dahlkemper wasn’t available for selection due to her ongoing recovery from back surgery, other players have been in and out of match fitness. Tierna Davidson returned from her ACL injury in 2023, but was unable to claim her spot as the heir apparent to a USWNT center-back role. Captain Becky Sauerbrunn played sporadically to begin the 2023 NWSL season, and the variable nature of her recovery kept her off the roster entirely.

Other members of the defense are clearly important to team chemistry but cannot get on the field consistently. Kelley O’Hara’s influence on the USWNT is clear, with her leading the huddle after the team’s disappointing draw with Portugal to close out the group stage. But her return to soccer fitness has not been linear in 2023 — before departing for the World Cup, she even played in an attacking role for Gotham FC because she was not getting minutes on their backline.

So Dahlkemper, Davidson and Sauerbrunn are not in camp, and O’Hara’s role is tied more to off-field contributions. O’Hara and Sauerbrunn’s limitations are a consequence of the passing of time and the USWNT’s inability to develop heirs to match their skill sets. Dahlkemper and Davidson’s absences are the result of the twists of fate that saw other notable teammates miss out on a World Cup opportunity.

A lack of confidence in new faces

Two players who rounded out the top five in minutes played for the USWNT in 2022 were center-back Alana Cook and outside-back Sofia Huerta. Both made the 2023 World Cup roster but have yet to make an impact on the field: Huerta played seven minutes against Vietnam, and Cook hasn’t seen the field at all.

Based on their 2022 contributions, their very limited roles at the World Cup might surprise, but the writing has quietly been on the wall in recent months. At the end of 2022, Andonovski began pairing Naomi Girma and Sauerbrunn together consistently, after previously rotating them at left center-back and giving Cook heavy minutes on the right.

The sample size was small enough to register as experimentation, but it could now be read as a coach sensing that Cook’s reaction times in key moments weren’t going to be reliable enough against top competition. In Sauerbrunn’s absence, Andonovski has now seemingly replaced Cook with Julie Ertz, making a conscious decision to prioritize the defense over the midfield and trusting the two-time World Cup champion in partnership with Girma.

Huerta is on the team as a crossing specialist, a player who makes up in attacking generation what she gives up in 1v1 defending. Signs in the early stages of the tournament are that Andonovski feels more comfortable with Emily Fox out of position on the right side of the field than getting Huerta settled in games that make sense for her abilities. Emily Sonnett also appears to be a player Andonovski brought to see games out in their final stages, and not as a reliable starter.

Alana Cook has not seen the field at the World Cup after leading the team in minutes in 2022. (Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

The benefit of a conservative approach

There have been clear positives to the way the U.S. has locked down its defensive roles. The USWNT has given up just the one goal, their xG against ranks fourth among the entire World Cup field, and goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher has not had to register a single save so far in the tournament.

That last point is probably a statistic Andonovski has taken very seriously, based on Naeher’s struggles with the Chicago Red Stars this season. The USWNT goalkeeper player pool is more wide open than ever, but the best-performing American keepers statistically (outside of third keeper Aubrey Kingsbury) are not with the team right now. Again, experience and leadership have taken priority over clearing the way for a brand-new goalkeeping core based on current shot-stopping ability.

Naeher is the player Andonovski wants organizing his defense, and she has progressed year after year with distribution with the ball at her feet. But the USWNT’s hopes for clean sheets seem to rely on her seeing as few shots on goal as possible, which the team so far has been achieving (the one shot on target they did face, against the Netherlands, went in for a goal).

Ertz actually recorded the most impressive save of the group stage, putting in a crucial block against the Netherlands that saved a point for the team and a place in the knockout rounds.

The overwhelming cost of limited freedom

The cost of Andonovski’s approach appears to be everything else that’s recognizable about the USWNT right now. They’ve ceded control of the midfield almost by design, with a resignation that Ertz will control tempo from a deep-lying position. It’s taken further control away from Andi Sullivan, who has lacked reliable passing outlets when she has the ball and struggled to execute a defensive press without it.

With the understanding that the midfield is not intended to hold the ball, Andonovski’s creative players have been tasked with melting into the attack. At times against Portugal, the U.S. lined up with four or five players on their opponent’s backline, waiting for deep-lying players to provide long-ball service without the creative runs necessary to create space.

Andonovski has also settled on playing both of his outside-backs out of position, which has appeared to limit Crystal Dunn and Emily Fox in their movement. Dunn, of course, is a creative midfielder for the Portland Thorns, and Fox plays most freely on the left for the North Carolina Courage. Both players have been mindful of their defensive assignments to a fault in the group stage, sitting back against Vietnam and staying wide rather than filling empty midfield spaces against the Netherlands and Portugal.

Tactics have also taken a toll on the USWNT’s vaunted mentality. As players process their positional assignments in real time, those split-second moments of doubt have disrupted the team’s defensive press and ball progression. Rather than being empowered to play to the team’s strengths, players seem preoccupied with the weaknesses. Those weaknesses are also on display in the team’s substitution patterns, with Andonovski lacking trust in those he brought with him and leaving the team’s depth unused.

Andonovski’s transformation of the U.S. into a team that grinds out results based on conservative tactics is both an indictment of his management of the team over the last four years, and an objective assessment of the team he has constructed. If the U.S. bows out in the Round of 16, he’ll have to answer for both his preparation and his approach.

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

Heather O’Reilly knows the U.S. women’s national team needs to make some changes in order to succeed at the 2023 World Cup. But will head coach Vlatko Andonovski make those changes? The World Cup champion turned Fox Sports analyst isn’t so sure.

The USWNT advanced to the Round of 16 by the grace of a goalpost, which preserved a scoreless draw with Portugal to close out the group stage. The defending champions will face Sweden, and they’ll do so without Rose Lavelle, who must sit after picking up two yellow cards in the past two games.

Andonovski has faced his fair share of criticism for USWNT’s poor performance relative to its usual World Cup results. And for O’Reilly, who won three Olympic gold medals and a World Cup during her 14-year career with the team, those results will not come without tactical changes.

“We would all be naive if we thought we could win this World Cup with the way that we look right now,” O’Reilly said after Tuesday’s draw with Portugal. “So there needs to be changes. And there needs to be big changes. Whether or not Vlatko Andonovski is going to make the changes, well, that’s another story.”

What are the changes O’Reilly suggests? For one, move Julie Ertz back to the midfield, which has sorely missed her absence as she spent the group stage at center-back. In her place, start Alana Cook on the backline.

“I want to see Julie Ertz in the midfield, OK?” O’Reilly said. “We don’t have Rose Lavelle. This is exactly what happened in 2015. Lauren Cheney got a yellow card, that forced Carli Lloyd up the field, and we all know what happened. Maybe Rose Lavelle getting yanked because of the yellow card situation is the exact catalyst that we need to spice it up, to have a new look.”

If, by some miracle, Andonovski does decide to switch up his formation in any way, shape or form, O’Reilly promises to go cage diving with sharks, per a bet she made with her fellow Fox Sports analysts.

“I think we could take this conversation two different ways: what would I do, and what do I think Vlatko Andonovski (is going to do),” she said when asked about whether or not Crystal Dunn should shift from the defense to the midfield.

“Because there’s no way that Vlatko Andonovski is going to change his defensive shape at this point,” she continued. “I would be shocked… I will shark dive if Vlatko Andonovski changes his backline for this game — shape or personnel… He ain’t doing it.”

When asked about her suggestion to shift Ertz back to the midfield in the absence of Lavelle, with Alana Cook as Ertz’s replacement center-back, she conceded the point.

“Well, we’ve got to make some change in the midfield, so that’s a decent bet,” she said. “So I guess I’d be swimming with the fishes.”

Ertz could play the role of “an enforcer” in the midfield — and the USWNT might not have any other choice, without Lavelle in the mix. The team needs something – anything, really – to spark some life.

“It’s a trade-off,” O’Reilly said. “[Ertz in the midfield] is going to be an enforcer. She’s going to make things happen. She might even get on the end of a cross. You have to. The chips are all in.

“There’s no way we are going to win the World Cup in the state that we are right now. I really do think Vlatko Andonovski knows that. I think he’s happy about a couple things, not conceding any goals, but he’s not an idiot. He’s got four more games to plod through.”

The U.S. women’s national team roster is here, and preparations will soon begin for the team’s World Cup title defense later this summer.

Before the 23 players named to the U.S. roster board the plane for New Zealand and kick off the group stage against Vietnam on July 21, test your knowledge on the USWNT with our interactive quiz!