It’s 2023, less than six months before the World Cup, and U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Vlatko Andonowski is still answering the question: What about midfielder Julie Ertz? When can we return to the team?
In the latest media poll, which was conducted ahead of last week’s two U.S. games in New Zealand, Andonowski offered an updated version of an answer he’s been repeating for more than a year:
“We spoke to Julie and obviously she needs more time to prepare, even before she starts training with the team. We are happy to give her more space and time until she is fully ready to join. “
The “when” question, which was phrased to Andonowski, assumes the question is not “if.” But all available evidence suggests that Andonowski and the United States need to — and are — preparing for the 2023 World Cup, with Ozil arguably the most irreplaceable player on the 2019 World Cup-winning team.
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Ertz last represented the United States nearly 18 months ago, when the team won the bronze medal over Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Eight months after that win, Ertz revealed she was pregnant and gave birth to her first child in August.
She has not indicated in any way whether she intends to return to action, and she has not signed a contract with a professional team since the end of 2021. Even if she returns to Team USA at the next available opportunity, the SheBelieves Cup in February — which is not something she or Andonovsky has hinted at — it may take some time to return to the form that made her so important to the United States, more than The U.S. has even longer before the World Cup.
So Andonovski & Co. charted a path forward, and their identified replacement for the defensive midfielder in 2022 is Washington Spirit captain Andi Sullivan. Sullivan’s task was, and still is, a thankless one: play an integral role while constantly being compared to Ertz, who suddenly left a void that America was hard to fill. Whatever she does is viewed through the lens of what Ertz has done in the past.
Sullivan was less of a disruptor than of a deep, spreading defensive midfielder, the defining feature of Ertz’s game. Ertz’s ability to cover every blade of grass in midfield and make precise tackles – first as a centre-back in the 2015 World Cup and then as a defensive midfielder in 2019 – freed up Team USA’s more creative side. Players do what they please. Ertz is a safety valve.
After the 2021 Olympics, Andonovsky left several other veteran players who were the core players on the list of winners of the previous two World Cups. The U.S. struggled at times early last year, but that was to be expected given the influx of new talent. Less challenging opponents also make it hard to judge how good things really are. Then came October and November, with the U.S. on its first three-game losing streak in 30 years against England, Spain and Germany at the end of 2022.
Many of the problems against top 10 opponents in the world are due to the spine of the team, especially the midfield. There are growing calls for the US to move to double pivots in midfield, an implicit acknowledgment that two players are needed to replace the work Ertz has done himself.
However, looking at the problem from this perspective is still counterproductive. Ertz is not on the team. Then it couldn’t be now. Andonowski has to find a solution with his players.
Those late 2022 struggles have led to a renewed search for alternatives, so Andonowski started 2023 with Tyler Kornik starting 2023 in defensive midfield for the first time against New Zealand.
What followed was a poor first-half performance by the U.S., with Kornik and midfielder Lindsey Horan often stretching out wide, leaving the U.S. with no core options to bolster the attack. Sullivan replaced Kornik at half-time, the pass started to connect and four more goals followed. Nevertheless, the United States set up their formation in the same way: a three-man midfield, a No. 10 (Ross Lavelle), a two-way attacking No. 8 (Horland) and a defensive No. 6 (Kornik, then Sullivan).
The rematch three days later brought changes, but there was a turning point: Lavelle and Sullivan retreated side by side to form a double center, and Ashley Sanchez took over at the 10th position. This resulted in a smoother, more cohesive performance from Team USA, which was encouraging, despite lower-quality opponents. Ashley Hatch’s opener with 13 passes was the type of passing the U.S. has been trying to make. The sequence also included Sullivan, who found newfound freedom in a defensive midfield partner.
Lavelle playing alongside Sullivan was a surprise — even for Lavelle.
“It’s definitely new to me, but I’m excited to go deeper down the field and catch the ball,” she said after the game. “I think we connected a lot of passes and I think it was a really good game for us.”
Has Andonofsky finally found a solution? yes and no.
A myth about starting lineups is that the preferred XI never changes. However, any good team will adjust some things – whether it’s personnel or tactical approach – to the opponent. Playing alongside Sullivan and having Sanchez play a creative role as the 10 is a good solution to America’s long-standing problem of breaking down low-post defensive teams. That could work for Vietnam, or any team that emerges from the global playoffs and joins the U.S. team at the World Cup.
It’s also easy to see how Katharina Macario will fit into the playmaker’s No. 10 role in the system once she recovers from her torn ACL, which should come soon. Macario can play as an attacking midfielder or as a striker, and having her as a No. 10 would also allow Alex Morgan – the team’s most established striker – to stay on as a striker. Lavelle and Marcario are two of the boldest players on Team USA, and they started building a great partnership before Marcario was injured early last year.
Or perhaps the defensive No. 6 role behind Lavelle and Macario could be occupied by Horan, who missed her second game against New Zealand and returned to her club Lyon. Andonovsky has two attempts in 2022, putting Horan behind Lavelle and Sanchez during June’s friendly against Colombia and the CONCACAF W Championship against Jamaica. Each time, Lavelle and Sanchez played as double 10s, with Horan cleaning up behind them.
Such an aggressive line-up should only be used with caution and is unlikely to go up against a team with strong playmaking in midfield, as England and second-choice Spain showed in their friendly match last year.
Defensive midfield is not Holland’s strongest position. During Ertz’s absence from the Tokyo Olympics due to injury, she filled the void, but an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sweden opened that game and ended the experiment, with a battered Ertz playing in every game remaining. Back to 90 minutes.
There are few other options to change the midfield. Andonowski said last week that the list of 23 players he was considering for the World Cup roster had been reduced to 32, leaving little room for surprise. Sam Coffey is another player on the recent list who plays in defensive midfield for her club, but she didn’t play a minute against New Zealand.
Possibly the biggest concern for the US midfielder right now is the continued absence of Sam Mewes, who, like Ertz, hasn’t played for the US since that bronze-medal game 18 months ago. What was considered a minor knee injury in early 2022 has become a more serious problem for Mewis.
“Sam’s going to take longer, and at this point, I don’t want to speculate on what the timing is or whether she’ll be back,” Andonowski said ominously in New Zealand last week.
Many thought Mevis would be back in time to make a difference at the World Cup, but that now appears to be in doubt. Mevis was considered the best midfielder in the world when he was at Manchester City two years ago. She’s the best at the 8, but she has a playmaking ability similar to Sullivan’s and could help the ever-seeking 6.
The World Cup reality of a growing U.S. women’s national team looks to have been around for a year. Whereas in 2022, a host of injuries to the team brought a wait-and-see attitude, now it’s 2023 and not much has changed — the World Cup is less than six months away.
The two games in New Zealand last week provided at least some further clarity: Sanchez can play the No. 10, Lavelle works in a deeper position and Kornik is not a No. 6.
It’s clearer than ever, though, that the midfield trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan is what Team USA will deploy more often at the World Cup. Between now and the opener against Vietnam on July 22, there are only a few friendlies left to fine-tune.