Will USWNT tactics work against tougher teams? 4 questions after the World Cup/Olympic Qualifiers

Well it was fun. What a beautiful final match Monday night between the United States women’s national team and Canada during the CONCACAF W championship, frankly less than brilliant!

A lot was at stake as the winner automatically qualified for the 2024 Olympics; both teams had already qualified for the 2023 Women’s World Cup by qualifying for the last four. The game was great in terms of quality and chances created, but I thought USA clearly had the best chance and deserved the 1-0 win.

It took a penalty for the USA to finally penetrate the Canadian defense and their fantastic goalie, Kailen Sheridan, in the 78th minute. In what seemed like a fitting end to this rivalry game, it was Sheridan’s San Diego Wave teammate Alex Morgan who stepped up for the United States and calmly put her penalty into the back of the net.

USA national team coach Vlatko Andonovski will be pleased with his team’s performance for many reasons – the biggest, of course, being that the USA have now officially qualified for the 2023 World Cup. and the 2024 Olympics. The team can tick those two critical boxes and sigh deeply knowing everything is secure.

Andonovski will also be pleased to see how well his side fared against a top opponent, a rare commodity lately due to scheduling issues, and how well his young stars shone. I thought Sophia Smith, Mal Pugh and Emily Fox were in fantastic shape.

There are certainly still areas of growth for Team USA – finishing their chances, finishing their first chances, finishing a game with a goal – but you saw all the smiles inside Team USA on Monday night, and for a good reason. It was a huge victory. But I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity, after watching five competitive games for the USWNT, to highlight some questions I had before the tournament and some that linger.

Will Andonovski finally settle for a coherent composition of the USWNT?

The short answer is “not yet”. Andonovski made five changes ahead of their second game against Jamaica, six changes ahead of their third game against Mexico, three changes ahead of their semi-final match against Costa Rica and two changes ahead of Monday’s final against Canada.

I know some of that rotation is necessitated by injuries and COVID issues. I also know that Andonovski and his team are given recommended player minute restrictions based on loads, so surely part of the rotation is necessary… but at the same time it was a Cup qualifying tournament of the world and the Olympic Games. On top of that, you are now entitled up to five substitutions, providing more mid-game flexibility than ever before. And there comes a time when you constantly need your best team to grow together, build cohesion and build momentum.

I fully understood and agreed with the need for rotation and experimentation over the past year as Andonovski watched a younger group. But once you step into a high-stakes qualifying tournament, even if the level of competition doesn’t stretch the team, you need to create some continuity and consistency, because both breed trust.

The four USWNT defenders were different in every game of this tournament. The three midfielders were different every game until the semi-final and the final. The top three only became consistent once Ashley Hatch was injured.

And here’s an example where I struggle to understand the changes: Morgan scored two goals in the opener against Haiti – and as we’ve seen with her performances in the NWSL – she’s brimming with confidence. Instead of keeping her in the starting lineup for the very next game, Andonovski rotated Morgan and placed Hatch as the starting No.9. After that, Morgan didn’t score again until the winning penalty in the final. Why not stick with Morgan as a starter in a situation like this and let her ride that two-goal momentum? Let her continue to grow in the tournament. Eliminate her from the next game if you’re worried about minutes, but start her.

And because I’m covering the Women’s Euros for ESPN right now, I’ll give you an example of a team that did nothing but be consistent in their Euro rosters. : England. They rolled, looking like the most unstoppable team in the tournament. To be fair, I understand that England are a team that are more advanced in developing their players, so it’s not a perfect comparison, but still: you could say they had a similar situation before the game. Euro 2022 with their position of n°9. Ellen White, England’s veteran and all-time top scorer, had been battling for the starting spot, with a young and talented Alessia Russo set for more minutes.

England coach Sarina Wiegman has opted to accompany veteran White for their opener against Austria. England won 1-0 and although White didn’t score they had a good game, but not great. You could say the England team in general had a good game, but not a great game. Still, Weigman continued with the same starting XI for the second game against Norway, and in that second game White scored two great goals. The team hit eight in total for a full masterclass against Norway, and have been flying ever since.

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England have chosen the exact same starting line-up for all three Euro games so far, although England didn’t need a result in Game 3 as they had already won their group. If White had been knocked out after Game 1, along with four or five other players – as we’ve seen so often with Andonovski’s game-to-game management of the USWNT – White and the team wouldn’t would never have gotten the chance to score those goals, play well together and build confidence as the Euro progresses.

Hopefully the constant rotation of starters under Andonovski will be minimized going forward given the talent you see within this group. Give them time together. Let them grow. Then maybe early misses in front of goal eventually turn into early leads. That in itself would have made Monday’s final very different.

Who will be number 6 in the USWNT, and will it be Andi Sullivan?

I think Andi Sullivan had a good final game against Canada, but I don’t think she did enough to put her name firmly on that No. 6 position throughout these qualifiers.

I know it’s a tough comparison when it comes to Julie Ertz, who’s been fantastic on both sides of the ball, but the reality is that Sullivan isn’t yet able to connect players offensively or defend as tenaciously as Ertz. And maybe the United States doesn’t need her to do both, but right now if Sullivan isn’t an outlet to take the pressure off offensively then I think they need to get more of her on the defensive end.

We’ll see if Sam Coffey or Jaelin Howell will impress enough in the NWSL to get more time at No. 6 with the USWNT, but right now that seems like a position yet to be determined.

Who is Andonovski’s favorite centre-back?

I thought Alana Cook and Naomi Girma had a strong argument to win this centre-back pairing at this tournament, but Andonovski has shown he prefers Cook and the constant Becky Sauerbrunn.

I think Cook and Sauerbrunn were impressive in the final. Most of the defensive problems for the United States came out wide, not through inside channels or behind the central defending pair. The concern, however, is that Sauerbrunn can be vulnerable with their pace against a quick and creative striker like Haiti’s Melchie Dumornay, as we saw in America’s opener.

Regardless of the centre-back pairing, I would again argue that they need consistency and time together.

Has the USWNT’s lack of top-tier opponents since the Olympics hurt the team?

I fear that a lack of top-level competition will be a problem for the United States in the future. These European teams are improving rapidly, and this steep trajectory is largely due to the fact that they play much more top-quality competition than the United States.

The reality is that the United States is going to have to start playing a lot more games outside of the United States if they want to reach the top teams. Between European qualifiers, World Cup qualifiers, ongoing COVID issues and now countries wanting to run their own tournaments – finally realizing there’s revenue to be made by hosting games – I thinks bringing the best teams to the United States, especially European teams, is going to be a constant struggle.

For the first time, the United States must start going to where the best opponents are – it’s not an easy thing to do when sponsors and budget forecasts force the United States to play at home to bring more money and visibility. But the fact remains, the United States must play against the best in the world, and right now, that is in Europe.

OK, OK – enough Debbie Downer. Back to the ongoing celebration – there really is a lot to celebrate with that fabulous win on Monday night for Andonovski and the team.

This moment should be applauded and toasted. Knowing that you have both the World Cup and the Olympics is such a relief. But as this American team knows as well, the celebrations are over and tomorrow it’s back to the glorious grind. After all, July 20 marks one year before the start of the World Cup in Australia/New Zealand.

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