Playing Vlatko: Ideal Improvements for the USWNT Against Familiar Foe, Sweden
It’s no secret that the United States women’s national team (USWNT) coaching staff has made some poor decisions in the group stages of the 2023 Women’s World Cup. Ahead of their Round of 16 matchup against Sweden, we at the Women’s Sports Exchange thought we’d play coach and see if we could help the team out. Here are some of our points of improvement and ideal starting lineup.
1. Earlier subs (and more of them)
Some teams call substitutes “game changers” on their social media. This name isn’t just a courtesy - subs can shift the energy of a game, help with tactical adjustments, or even just provide some fresh legs. However, if the USWNT coaches want subs to change the game, they have to let them play the game.
Rather than substituting at the 90+7th minute as in the Portugal match, Andonovski should substitute players earlier. This allows for younger players, such as Ashley Sanchez or Alyssa Thompson, to get valuable World Cup minutes and have the potential to make an actual difference. This isn’t to say he doesn’t substitute players at more standard times (such as Megan Rapinoe for Sophia Smith in the Portugal match), but he should do it more consistently.
In their already-infamous group stage match against the Netherlands, head coach Vlatko Andonovski only made one substitution: Rose Lavelle on at halftime for Savannah DeMelo. Rather than rotating out some of his starters, he tired them out. Had some substitutes came in around the 70th minute, perhaps the fresh legs of the United States would have overpowered the frail Dutch defense. USWNT two-time World Cup winner Tobin Heath said it best when she observed on her World Cup show 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.”
Andonovski’s response to not subbing in Williams was simply: “I just didn't want to disrupt the rhythm at that point because sometimes a substitute comes in and it might take a minute or two to get into a rhythm.”
Of course it takes substitutes a minute or two to get acclimated to the match. That being said, the cost of two minutes of adjustment is more than paid off by a substitute goal or clutch tackle. Not to mention, if a team rhythm is clearly not working as in the Netherlands game, substitutes should disrupt the rhythm and find a better one.
This lack of substitutions points to the coaching staff’s lack of trust in the bench. The morale of the bench players will suffer if they don’t feel wanted. The USWNT has historically had one of the deepest benches in the world - use it!
The coaching staff’s message ahead of final roster selection was “club play matters.” If this is true, players such as Sofia Huerta, Kristie Mewis, Ashley Sanchez, and Alana Cook should be trusted to be game changers. Without subs, there is no way to change the game.
2. Push Ertz up to midfield
Andi Sullivan and Lindsey Horan are not, despite what the USWNT coaches have decided, natural 6s. It makes no sense to force them to play there when the team has one of the world’s best 6s in Julie Ertz sitting on the bench. Wait - she’s actually playing at center back alongside Naomi Girma. Given that Alana Cook is on the bench, it makes sense to allow Ertz to cook at the 6 and give Cook the nod in the backline. This change becomes especially pressing when one remembers that Rose Lavelle is out against Sweden due to yellow card accumulation. The midfield is screaming for Julie Ertz. Let her be more in her element and the byproduct is a more connected forward and back line. It’s a win-win.
3. Start Sofia Huerta over Emily Fox
Yes, Emily Fox has been a regular starter for the USWNT. However, against both the Netherlands and Portugal, Fox constantly played too far up the field leaving a wide open wing for the opposing team to use to their advantage. She’d often find herself too centrally as well in the midfield or right up next to the center backs exposing the wing once again. And despite going far up the field, Fox has been unable to serve up effective crosses which is exactly what the USWNT forwards needs when Fox is up on the right flank.
Contrast this with Huerta. She does not have any World Cup minutes ahead of this match, but that seems to be the result of a larger attitude towards subs and rotation rather than performance. With club side OL Reign, Huerta is a more attack-minded wingback, delivering crosses with pinpoint accuracy for players such as Rose Lavelle or Megan Rapinoe weekly. In a team that is missing 2019 World Cup Champion Abby Dahlkemper's, long balls, Huerta’s clinical crosses are exactly what the team needs to create more chances in the box.
In starting Huerta, Crystal Dunn would still start and Fox becomes a key game changing sub for either Huerta or Dunn, given her versatility, around the 70th minute. Having Huerta and Dunn on both sides of the pitch could unlock some new ideas both offensively and defensively. Huerta's inclusion will also prove to be a good match with Reign teammate, Cook.
4. Start Lynn Williams again
Although Williams has a reputation on the USWNT for being a “15-minute player,” her energy and speed was a welcome addition to the starting XI that faced Portugal. She had some of the best chances in that match; letting her start again will likely build her confidence and inject some intensity into the forward line.
Williams’ defensive workrate is a highly underrated aspect of her game. This differentiates her from players like Alex Morgan or Sophia Smith. Her speed allows her to double back faster than even some midfielders. Coupled with Trinity Rodman, who possesses a similar defensive workrate, Williams could find herself dominating both ends of the field.
5. Starting XI vs Sweden
Putting all of those ideas into practice, here’s our ideal Starting XI against Sweden with the use of Rodman, Fox, and Rapinoe as subs in the second half at a minimum.