With Sophia Smith out, Trinity Rodman will have a chance to prove herself against New Zealand. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The USWNT kicks off their packed 2023 calendar this week with two friendlies against the Football Ferns in New Zealand.

The games are outside of the FIFA international window, which means the U.S. will be much closer to full strength than New Zealand, who are currently No. 24 in the FIFA rankings. Regardless, the trip allows the U.S. to get a feel for 2023 World Cup travel and provides New Zealand with a stern opponent as it prepares to host the tournament with Australia later this year.

Vlatko Andonovski’s roster for the January friendlies held few surprises, but here’s what I’d like to see from the team this week.

More attacking opportunities

The USWNT is missing 2022 Player of the Year Sophia Smith for these friendlies. The 22-year-old is rehabbing an old injury that the team decided would be best fully healed going into next month’s SheBelieves Tournament.

Smith was a consistent spark for the U.S. in 2022 and will surely be a locked-in starter going forward, but her absence allows the team to cycle in a few players who haven’t gotten as much playing time. Alex Morgan can handle the center-forward position (backed up by Ashley Hatch if necessary), and Mallory Swanson likely will still be the first choice on the left wing, but the right wing is open. Andonovski can take advantage of the opportunity to rotate players who are pushing for playing time.

Trinity Rodman should start one of this week’s friendlies. The Washington Spirit forward has had ups and downs while trying to break into the front three rotation after a good performance against England in October. Rodman’s instincts increasingly include dropping closer into the midfield to progress the ball, which suits Andonovski’s system of having the attack linking up with the players behind them.

This is also Margaret Purce’s chance to remind Andonovski what she can do on the right side. The Gotham FC forward returns to the squad after being left off for what Andonovski described as form in late 2022. Purce brings energy as a substitute that’s difficult to replace, and if she gets a start, she can establish chemistry with the attacking players around her.

Finally, with the understanding that New Zealand might sit back in a lower block, Ashley Sanchez should get more time to partner with Rose Lavelle as dual-attacking midfielders. Sanchez is one of the USWNT’s most creative players, but Andonovski appears to be reluctant to insert her into high-stakes games. The New Zealand friendlies are an opportunity for her to shine.

Rose Lavelle could use more support in the attacking midfield in 2023. (Randy Litzinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

More variety, in spades

Sometimes in 2022, watching the USWNT meant watching the same actions over and over again. Even the things the U.S. does well, like forcing turnovers and moving quickly on the counterattack, felt like they belonged to a single script.

It’s good to have a game plan, but the U.S. needs to move away from some of the tactical rigidity that has permeated Andonovski’s tenure and let the playmakers simply play.

That sentiment is perhaps easier said than done, but the U.S. could make a few adjustments to re-balance the squad, particularly against a team unlikely to press high up the field. The USWNT currently plays with attacking-minded outside-backs, who are instructed to make overlapping runs and cross the ball into the box with frequency. It’s a good option to have, but a lack of patience in the midfield can turn into route-one soccer, with long balls sent over the top or wide and lobbed back centrally in the air. The tactic has been exposed against top competition, creating gaps behind the outside backs that leaves the defensive structure vulnerable and the USWNT’s wide attacking players tracking back to provide help.

The answer lies primarily in the midfield, where strict roles have hindered the team’s ability to progress the ball and simultaneously make runs that open up space. Solutions? Solidify the distributive relationship between the No. 6 and the two center backs, let Lindsey Horan float box to box, and don’t rely too heavily on Lavelle to create in the attack and leave her on an island.

With the focus on results, the U.S. looked too nervous to introduce freedom at the end of 2022. These friendlies should give them the space to try new things.

Naomi Girma should continue to make her case for a starting center-back role this month. (Roy K. Miller/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

Clean sheets

With the advantages of roster cohesion and and the expectations for the No. 1-ranked team in the world, defensive lapses leading to goals against would be a disappointment for the USWNT this week. There’s no shame in being beaten on your best day, but too often last year, the U.S. missed marks on set pieces and showed a lack of urgency on recovery runs, leading to chances that never should have happened.

Part of the reason for traveling so early in the year is to see how the squad handles the ebbs and flows of the mental side of the game. If the defense looks flat-footed while holding a lead or pushing forward in numbers, the same questions about the team’s ability to stay focused when results matter will linger.

Watch for who Andonovski selects at center-back: The final game 2022 marked a departure from his favored pairing of Alana Cook with either Becky Sauerbrunn or Naomi Girma. Emily Sonnett is also back with the team, and likely eager to make her mark on these games with the returns of Tierna Davidson and Kelley O’Hara looming in the near future. This week’s friendlies should also allow Crystal Dunn to keep building her minutes at left back and for Sofia Huerta to hone her defensive positioning on the right.

A year out from a World Cup, it’s not necessarily fair to expect any team to be 100-percent mentally focused as they begin the slow build toward the group stage. But the U.S., now seven months away from tournament kickoff, is in the middle of that slow build. At this stage, we can expect players and their manager to be progressing toward the best version of what the USWNT can be in 2023.

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