Earlier this week, Vlatko Andonovski named 23 players to the U.S. women’s national team roster for the Concacaf W Championship that’s set to kick off next month. I’ve already written a bit about what the W Championship is and what’s at stake for the U.S., but here’s the short version: this tournament is a chance for the USWNT to qualify for the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup and the 2024 Paris Olympics all at once.
The roster is made up of three goalkeepers, seven defenders, six midfielders, and seven forwards. While there’s been a fair amount of discourse over the group of forwards that Andonovski selected (i.e., Christen Press’s pre-ACL-injury omission), what I’ve really been focused on is the midfield pool.
Of the six midfielders that were called in, I’d say only one of them is a true defensive midfielder, or what we’d typically refer to as a No. 6. That’s Andi Sullivan. She’s one of three midfielders, along with Ashley Sanchez and Taylor Kornieck, who weren’t with the U.S. in Tokyo, though she’s appeared 27 times for the senior team, including all five games in 2022.
I have no doubt that Sullivan is capable of bridging the gap between the center backs and the attackers, though what gives me pause is her recent injury record. She’s been sidelined for a significant portion of the NWSL regular season so far, only having recorded ~200 minutes for the Washington Spirit.
So, if Sullivan can’t play full 90s during these qualifying matches, who’s the next person up? There might not be a clear answer to that question.
Kristie Mewis, Rose Lavelle, and Ashley Sanchez will stay higher up the pitch in the attacking midfield roles, given their track records for both club and country. That leaves Lindsey Horan and Taylor Kornieck as potential defensive midfielders for the United States.
We’ve seen Horan play in the No. 6 role before with the U.S., most notably when the team’s go-to defensive midfielder, Julie Ertz, was injured leading up to the 2021 Olympics. She excelled in a similar role with Lyon last season, though they typically played with dual defensive midfielders. Still, because of her creativity and ability to play forward into the attack, Horan is better suited to play higher in the midfield. Just look at this skill and pass from Horan in the Champions League this season. I mean, come on.
Kornieck, who happens to be the only player on the qualifying roster with zero appearances at the senior level, has done a bit of everything for the San Diego Wave. She’s lined up in both attacking and defensive roles so far this season. When Kornieck plays deeper, she’s shown some real quality on the ball. You can see that on this pin-point assist.
In recent games, though, she’s really been playing in a more attacking midfield position. That may be where she’s most comfortable, given it’s where she excelled in college at the University of Colorado Boulder.
However, if Sullivan doesn’t play every minute at the W Championship (which she almost certainly won’t) Adonovski could call on Kornieck to fill in at the 6. If that happens, I’ll be interested to see whether Kornieck can keep up the hot streak that’s helped keep the San Diego Wave at the top of the table since Week 2 of the NWSL Regular Season.
INTRIGUING OPTIONS OUTSIDE THE SQUAD
Qualifying roster aside, this defensive-midfield dilemma makes me question why Andonvoski chose to list both Sam Coffey (Portland Thorns FC) and Jaelin Howell (Racing Louisville FC) as ‘additional players’ for the upcoming June friendlies against Colombia. Like Kornieck, Coffey hasn’t yet appeared for the USWNT. However, she’s having quite the season with the Portland Thorns as their starting No. 6, filling the hole left by NWSL legend Angela Salem after she retired at the end of the 2021 season.
Of defensive midfielders with at least 300 minutes played in the 2022 Regular Season, Coffey is second overall in goals added (g+) per 96’ (0.08), but first in dribbling and passing g+ among these players. Coffey also has the best passing score per 96’ of all defensive midfielders (2.43). In my view, Howell is being outshined by fellow rookie Savannah DeMelo in Louisville this season, though DeMelo isn’t in the USWNT conversation right now. Howell is second in interrupting g+, third in passing g+, and fourth in overall g+ in the group of defensive midfielders who have played at least 300 minutes this season, though.
So, all of that said: I’m excited to see Kornieck potentially fill the No. 6 role for the United States. I do think that Coffey or Howell, playing in their natural positions, might have been safer bets at this point. In any case, it’s possible that Andonovski and the USWNT coaching staff are banking on the fact that the U.S. might not have to be the most defensively sound team to succeed at the W Championship.
Based on how much their attack has generated through five games in 2022 (a whopping 28 goals), their stacked list of attacking players might be enough to secure them the Concacaf W Championship title along with berths to the next Women’s World Cup and Olympics. But only time will tell.