- The United States women’s national team have just months left before the start of the 2023 World Cup
- Here’s what Vlatko Andonovski and Co. need to accomplish before that tournament kicks off
While the United States women’s national team still sits in the number one spot in the latest FIFA rankings, their recent performances and results have raised some questions. The USWNT lost three games in 2022 – all of them came in the last few months in matches against England, Spain, and Germany.
What does the USWNT have to do to get back to their winning ways ahead of the 2023 World Cup? Let’s run through their checklist for the start of 2023.
1. GET HEALTHY
This is the most obvious item on this list, but that doesn’t make it any less important. The USWNT’s injury list neared double digits for most of 2022 and impacted the defense, midfield, and attack. Some of these players, like Tierna Davison (ACL), Catarina Macario (ACL), and Lynn Williams (hamstring), are set to return early in 2023, per head coach Vlatko Andonovski. Others have a longer – and less certain – recovery timeline, like Abby Dahlkemper (back) and Sam Mewis (knee).
Once these players return, Andonovski will have to figure out how and where they fit into his system, and do so rather quickly. He mentioned back in November that “no matter what, we have to get better, but there are some things that may change by changing the personnel.” It’s clear the USWNT will look a little different next year as injured players return to strength.
2. IRON OUT AN ATTACKING GAMEPLAN
There is no shortage of starpower in the United States’ attack.
With Sophia Smith, Mallory Pugh, and Alex Morgan in the lineup, the U.S. should be scoring a lot of goals. However, they’re averaging one goal-per-game in their last four outings, games against England, Spain, and two against Germany. That’s not terrible, but it’s not great, either.
The USWNT have been inconsistent in the final third. They’ve been playing a heavy crossing game for most of 2022. For reference, in one of their matches against Germany, the USWNT registered 3.5 times more crosses than their opponent (StatsPerform).
Crosses aren’t always bad, but the attack looks best when the USWNT build up play and finds runners darting through their opponents’ backlines. Coincidentally, that’s also when the national team’s leading scorer in 2022, Sophia Smith, excels both for club and country. Smith scored the eventual game-winning goal in the NWSL Championship earlier this fall after receiving a ball through Kansas City’s backline.
It would be great to see (more of) this in a U.S. uniform!
While the U.S. would benefit from limiting aimless crossing, it would be unfair to say that the USWNT attack has been awful. They’ve been doing a decent job at creating chances, even if they’re not finding the back of the net.
Regardless, expected goals can’t win trophies – and some of the team’s inconsistency is troubling. The USWNT will have to figure out ways to convert these chances into goals and put themselves on the scoreboard more often.
3. (FINALLY) FIGURE OUT THE NO. 6 POSITION
I have been beating the “USWNT needs a No. 6” drum all year. I’m just not convinced that Andi Sullivan – who has gotten the most defensive-midfield minutes in 2022 – is the right pick for this position.
Don’t get me wrong, Sullivan is a good player. She can see the field well and excels at connecting the backline to the attack, but she’s only done that in flashes for the national team. One such flash of brilliance was in the USWNT’s last game of the year.
Sullivan’s distribution here was perfect, and the sequence ended with the ball in the back of the opposition’s net. With that said, though, Sullivan hasn’t been great on the ball for the U.S. in 2022, and unfortunately, dangerous turnovers in the defensive third––like the one in the clip below – weren’t rare for Sullivan this year.
So, who should slot in for Sullivan? It’s worth seeing what Sam Coffey can do with extended minutes in the USWNT midfield since she was lights out in Portland last season. She made four international appearances in 2022, and I’m hoping we see her on the field more often next year.
4. CHOOSE A STARTING GOALKEEPER
While Alyssa Naeher has been a mainstay in the USWNT defense for the last several years, Andonovski has been exploring his options. Of the 17 games the USWNT played in 2022, Casey Murphy was tabbed nine times, Naeher seven times, and Aubrey Kingsbury once.
It’s interesting to see this goalkeeping swap from Naeher to Murphy (and back), since neither player had the best club season this year. Of goalkeepers that recorded at least half of their team’s regular-season minutes, Murphy and Naeher ranked in the bottom five in goals minus expected goals and goals added per 96’ (American Soccer Analysis). Though these stats don’t paint either player in the best light, they should be considered with North Carolina’s defensive struggles and Chicago’s defensive injuries in mind.
Recent NWSL stats aside, I doubt Andonovski’s starting goalkeeper next year will be anyone other than Murphy or Naeher. Either way, though, he needs to make that decision soon. It’s obviously important for a goalkeeper to get game reps, but it’s also important for them to gel with their backline, which brings me to my last point…
5. PIN DOWN A CENTER BACK PAIRING
Andonovski rotated his starting lineup a ton this year, and that certainly includes his backline.
There were many combinations of players at the center back position, but Alana Cook, Becky Sauerbrunn, and Naomi Girma made the most center back starts in 2022. Cook started the most consistently, making the lineup 15 times. She was paired with Sauerbrunn six times, and Girma five. It’s likely that Tierna Davidson would have gotten significant minutes this year, too, if she hadn’t torn her ACL at the start of the NWSL season.
Though signs are pointing to some combination of these four players, it’s hard to tell which will be called on.
Sauerbrunn has been a staple in the U.S.’s backline for the last two World Cups, but she’ll be 38 by the time the next one kicks off. Davidson has World Cup experience, and she has the most international experience of defenders not named Becky Sauerbrunn (48 appearances). Cook and Girma have fewer than 20 international appearances each, but Girma especially has begun to make her case as a USWNT-caliber defender, having won Rookie of the Year and Defender of the Year in the NWSL last season.
All this is to say that Andonovski probably can’t go wrong with any pairing of Sauerbrunn, Davidson, Cook, and Girma. The winning pair will undoubtedly need game minutes in front of the USWNT’s starting goalkeeper ahead of the World Cup, though.
Much of the USWNT’s success next year will hinge on Andonovski’s – and the team’s – ability to complete this checklist as soon as possible. And whether they’re ready or not, the World Cup is set to kick off in just seven months.