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  • Writer's pictureWomen's Sports Exchange

Opinion: USWNT Brings Too Little, Too Late

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

The U.S. women’s national soccer team (USWNT) played their best game as a team in the past year against Sweden in the Round of 16 of the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup. In a dramatic penalty shootout after a 0-0 draw in overtime, the USWNT fell 5-4 in penalties after Sweden’s last penalty rolled fully over the goal line by mere millimeters. After struggling in the group stage already, the USWNT’s performance was too little too late in the knockout round.

This marks the USWNT’s earliest World Cup exit ever, with the players’ biggest fault being less than clinical in front of goal. But, the most obvious sticking point in the USWNT’s quest for a three-peat might be Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski and his coaching staff.

A Note on Finishing

Before discussing what went wrong from a coaching perspective, it’s important to acknowledge that the United States didn’t just underperform in front of goal, they tanked. They couldn’t score for over 250 minutes and their G-xG stat (goals scored to expected goals scored) was -5.09. Out of 32 teams, their G-xG was the lowest. Let that sink in: the reigning champions of the world had a lower goals to expected goals statistic than every other team in the World Cup.

The blame for this scoring drought is not squarely on the players, however. It became apparent in the Netherlands game onwards that each forward was playing their own game. There seemed to be no concrete game plan that took into account how each player could complement the other or how to get everyone on the same page. Instead, the decision about which forwards started seemed to boil down to simply to who would individually play the best game.

Individuals don’t win matches. Teams do.

Starting XI Management

When the starting XI was released for the second group stage game against the Netherlands, fans may have had a sense of déjà vu. It was the exact same lineup as the previous match against Vietnam. For the Portugal match, only two changes were made from that lineup.

Group stage games are often a time to rotate players and experiment. For example, every USWNT field player got at least a few minutes in the 2019 World Cup group stage. Instead, Andonovski did not rotate and in fact, barely even used substitutions. These decisions meant that six field players had over 350 minutes on them during the Sweden match.

And did those 350 minutes show. Poor passing, skying simple shots, lack of pace — the list goes on. Had Andonovski simply rotated more players in the group stage matches, it’s quite possible the USWNT would have found enough momentum to beat Sweden and advance to the quarterfinals.

Effectively Utilizing Substitutes

Hand in hand with the severe lack of starting XI rotation, the use and timing of substitutions have been another huge pain point for the team. Given the USWNT’s deep bench, there are no excuses for the mismanagement of using close to or the maximum five subs in three windows at reasonable times for each game, with a heavy emphasis on reasonable timing.

The most effective use of subs for the USWNT came in the very first group stage game when Andonovski maxed out all the available number subs and windows at the reasonable timings of 61st, 76th, and 84th minutes.

It was only downhill from there for effective substitution choices. In the second game, Andonovski only made one substitution at the beginning of the second half. After Lindsey Horan leveled the game in the 62nd minute, Andonovski had the perfect opportunity to sub in fresh legs immediately to ride the momentum and find the game-winning goal. But he didn’t. His reasoning? He “didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm at that point.” There was still an entire 30 minutes left to play, plenty of time for a sub to adjust to the rhythm. Two-time World Cup winner Tobin Heath described his baffling decision best on The RE-CAP Show: “Vlatko raved about Lynn Williams being the best 15-minute player he could put on this roster. And in that moment we needed a 15-minute player to come in.”

The effective use of subs would have been easy to make in this second game too. To name just a few game-changing options: the tenacity of Lynn Williams, the creativity of Ashley Sanchez, and the fierceness of Kristie Mewis were all at Andonovski’s disposal. Williams especially would have been the perfect sub.

Against Portugal, Andonovski utilized all his subs in the windows of the 61st, 84th, and 90th minutes, Only one of the 90th minute subs was a defender, Kelley O’Hara, who possesses the skills to effectively bolster up USWNT defenses in a must win or draw game. So once again, with the entire USWNT bench at his disposal, Andonovski failed to make sensible tactical decisions.

The ineffective use of the right subs at the right time greatly hindered the USWNT’s ability to fully succeed at this tournament and build quality chemistry with a mix and match of players. It also showed a clear distrust by Andonovski in his bench to make an impact on the field, an awful addition to the growing dissonance between Andonovski and his player management abilities.


The team’s lack of chemistry shows on the field. Many seemed to question the team’s mentality, but they were really questioning their chemistry. There was no time for the team to build rapport on and off the field even before the World Cup. Injuries plagued many FIFA windows, lineups changed drastically game to game, and there wasn’t enough time for this group to bond and grow into the game plan that was presented to them.

In many instances, players were standing and waiting for the ball to come to them, being too far ahead for the ball to get to them, or simply too far behind. A perfect example of this lack of understanding was when Emily Sonnett and Julie Ertz fought for the same corner ball against Portugal. Things just weren’t adding up, the players weren’t connecting. If the on-field chemistry was present between players, then there wouldn’t have been much scrambling in key moments that could have led to game changing goal opportunities.

There were moments of chemistry gained through off-the-field fun or club play appearing in every group stage match. When these moments were capitalized on, there were shot opportunities and creativity in the run of play. However, they were just moments, not minutes. In 2019, the team spent plenty of time together on the field that built their chemistry off the field, and appeared to have created a style of play that was fun and joyful for them to play. Not much of that was seen until this last match versus Sweden, and it was only after an underwhelming group stage performance.

Player Selection

With an extensive list of star USWNT players injured, the 2023 World Cup roster was no doubt much different than what the coaching staff would have wanted to send to Australia and New Zealand. Despite the injuries shaking up the USWNT’s dream roster, two selections piqued fans’ curiosity above all other choices: midfielder Savannah DeMelo and forward Alyssa Thompson. Both players were large gambles for Andonovski. Arguably, neither paid off.

DeMelo had never made an appearance with the USWNT until the World Cup send off match in June. While she was on fire with club team Racing Louisville, she had not yet been tested at the international level. That being said, DeMelo played valiantly in the group stage. She wasn’t perfect, but she certainly surprised many with her commitment and willingness to do the dirty work an international midfielder must do.

The larger problem with DeMelo is that she was starting. Dropping a brand new player into a starting lineup in the World Cup is risky on a chemistry level. Players who had been getting consistent minutes with the team, such as Sanchez (who played zero minutes in the World Cup), had suddenly been benched in favor of DeMelo. All of the work the team had put into learning the midfielders’ runs and play styles had completely gone out the window with the addition of a new player.

Starting DeMelo could have had a demoralizing effect on the benched players as well. To be playing consistently all year for the USWNT and then have the rug pulled out from under them has to be difficult. Again, this problem is not DeMelo’s fault, but rather something the coaches either failed to consider or brushed aside.

Setting a player up to fail seems to be a larger issue for the team, as the same could be said of 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson. She was having a fantastic first season with Angel City, bringing a speed and intensity unlike any other forward in the USWNT player pool.

However, the Thompson on the field at the World Cup was a different player, which is unsurprising considering her lack of international experience and young age. Of course nerves are common, especially at a World Cup, but Thompson's emotions appeared heightened, unable to settle the ball or her nerves. If she had gotten more minutes with the team leading up to the tournament, perhaps her play would have been better. But it's likely she hadn't yet shaken off the anxiety of playing with the national team, let alone at a World Cup.

Players are expected to deal with nerves and it is a given obstacle for any professional athlete. But Andonovski could have better anticipated the result of placing the pressure of a World Cup win on a player who is not settled in with the squad yet. Thompson is extremely talented, no doubt, but her abilities were masked by added nerves of a youngster that players with more experience may not have been affected by.

Both DeMelo and Thompson did the best they could given the lack of support from the coaching staff. Unfortunately, the effects of their selection had larger implications for the rest of the team.

What’s Next

The hard truth is that Andonovski and his coaching staff were unable to create a successful game plan around the players they had brought in. Additionally, they did not create an environment over the past couple of years since Andonovski’s tenure for the players to build team chemistry and thrive. Evidently, what didn’t work for building team chemistry at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in 2021 was not thoroughly addressed at the 2023 World Cup. The coaching staff cannot keep using the same tactics and expecting different results. This moment demands not just a change, but a transformation of the USWNT.

The past two United States World Cup squads are remembered as legends. With the mismanagement of the depth and the talent on this World Cup squad, all they’ll be remembered as is “the team that could have been.”


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