What’s the plan? 3 questions the USWNT must answer before the World Cup

Quick Hits
  • The United States women’s national team beat Germany by a 2-1 scoreline on Sunday, snapping their three-game losing streak
  • Despite the win, the USWNT isn’t out of the woods. With just eight months until the 2023 World Cup, the United States’ last four performances have raised plenty of questions

The United States women’s national team lost to Germany by a 2-1 scoreline on Thursday, and they found themselves trailing the Germans yet again after only 19 minutes of play on Sunday night. 

Seven minutes into the second half, though, Sophia Smith bodied her way through four German defenders and hit a right-footed shot that sailed off the goalkeeper’s fingers and into the side netting to pull the U.S. level. Two minutes later, Andi Sullivan played a perfectly weighted ball over Germany’s backline and into the path of a sprinting Mallory Pugh. Pugh prevailed against two defenders and found the back of the net after yet another goalkeeper deflection. Those two goals ultimately snapped the USWNT’s three-game losing streak and helped them avoid losing four straight games for the first time in their history. 

Despite the win, the USWNT isn’t out of the woods just yet. With just eight months to go until the 2023 World Cup, the United States’ last four performances have raised plenty of questions – and head coach Vlatko Andonovski doesn’t seem to have answers.

Now, what exactly are those questions? Let’s talk about that. 

What’s going on with the USWNT defense?

Put simply, the defense has been underperforming. In the last four games, the USWNT has been scored on seven times. Many of these goals were the direct result of disorganization, poor clearances, and miscommunication in the back. On Sunday in particular, the United States allowed Germany to play right through their backline into the wide areas of the field.

This put the USWNT defenders in one-v-one situations that didn’t always go their way.

In fact, Germany’s only goal in the second matchup came after they played a long ball down the left side of the field and beat Becky Sauerbrunn to send a cross into the box. Then, the USWNT backline failed to clear the ball, and an unmarked player at the penalty spot slotted a shot past goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher to give Germany the lead.

Given these mishaps, it’s not surprising that the USWNT is still trying to figure out who their starting defensive personnel will be.

The only lineup changes from Thursday to Sunday were in the goalkeeper and center back positions, with Naeher slotting in for Casey Murphy in goal, and Sauerbrunn returning to the starting XI in place of Alana Cook. Of all the players who started in the U.S. backline in the last four games, only Sauerbrunn had more than 25 international appearances. 

So, while the USWNT defense has been lackluster, getting these younger, (internationally) inexperienced players game reps against the number-three team in the world is only going to make them better. And the United States backline will definitely need to be better if they want a chance to secure their fifth World Cup trophy next summer.

Who should the No. 6 be?

As of late, Andonovski’s answer has been Andi Sullivan. Sullivan started back-to-back games against Germany, with Sam Coffey subbing in for her in game one and Kristie Mewis coming in late in game two. 

Is Sullivan the correct answer, though? I’m not sure. Sullivan’s vision and ability to connect play is one of her major strengths, but that was rarely on display in the USWNT’s recent games. The U.S. attack has been disjointed for large stretches of their last two performances (and really for the majority of Vlatko’s tenure) and there just wasn’t much build-up play from the midfield. 

So, if the midfield is being bypassed when the USWNT attack is surging forward, it’s hard for players like Sullivan to shine.

Even so, Sullivan showed flashes of brilliance on Sunday, including a lights-out play that saw her send a perfect ball over the German defense, starting the sequence that ended in the game-winning goal for the United States (thanks to Mallory Pugh).

More of that please, Andi Sullivan.

Is there an attacking gameplan?

Well, that depends on what ‘gameplan’ means. Andonovski has started a Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh frontline for the USWNT’s last two outings against Germany, and he played them together for the team’s matches in September, too. The attacking trio probably would have been called on against England and Spain last month as well, if Morgan and Pugh were available for the national team. 

Despite the continuity in attacking personnel, though, the USWNT’s play in the attacking third has been inconsistent.

The team’s attack looks best when they connect passes and find runners cutting through their opponents’ backlines. But for the majority of the first half of Sunday’s match against Germany, the U.S. weren’t connecting passes at all and had trouble finding any success in their opponent’s half. Case in point: the United States didn’t register a single shot on goal in the first 45 minutes of Sunday’s game.

Then, as the scoresheet suggests, the USWNT attack finally came alive in the second half. The United States’ signature high-press was on full display after the break, and their quick counterattacks helped them find the back of the net twice, after scoring just two goals in their previous three matches against England (1), Spain (0), and Germany (1).

The USWNT started capitalizing on the German backline’s mistakes, and even though they didn’t put away every chance they had, it’s a positive sign that the United States attack was finally creating chances.

That positive note aside, it really shouldn’t take over 45 minutes for the USWNT to turn on the jets. There needs to be a clear goal-scoring strategy for this team for the jump, and players need to execute it from the second they step on the field. 

With the United States’ 2022 campaign wrapped up, all eyes are on the next calendar year. Andonovski and the USWNT will enter World Cup preparation crunch time. And to be frank, these questions will need answers if the U.S. want a shot at defending their World Cup title in 2023.