The year is 2023 now, the World Cup is less than six months away and US women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski is still answering the question: When will midfielder Julie Eerts return to the team?
The latest media inquiry came last week, ahead of the US’s two games in New Zealand, and Andonofsky provided an updated version of the answer he’s been repeating for over a year:
“With Julie, we’ve had a chat, and it’s clear she needs more time to prepare before she starts training with the team. We’re excited to give her more space and time so she’s all ready to join.”
The “when” question, which is the formulation put to Andonovsky, assumes that the question is not an “if”. But all the available evidence suggests Andonovski and the US need to – and are – prepare for the 2023 World Cup without Ertz, arguably the indispensable player from the 2019 World Cup-winning team.
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Erts last played for the United States nearly 18 months ago, in the team’s bronze medal victory over Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Eight months after that win, Ertz revealed that she was pregnant, and gave birth to her first child in August.
She hasn’t somehow indicated whether she plans to return to action, and hasn’t been under contract with a pro team since late 2021. Even if she is to return to the U.S. team at the next available opportunity, the SheBelieves Cup in February — which isn’t something she or Andonovsky has hinted at — Getting back into the form that made them so important to the United States will likely take some time, more so than the United States was in before the World Cup.
So, Andonovsky & Co. charted a path forward, and the replacement they settled on in defensive midfield in 2022 was Andy Sullivan, captain of the Washington Spirit. Sullivan’s job was, and remains ungrateful: to fill an integral role while enduring constant comparisons to Aertz, who suddenly left a void the United States has struggled to fill. Whatever you do, it’s seen through the lens of what Ertz used to do.
Sullivan is more of a deep defensive midfielder than a destroyer, the latter being Erts’ hallmark. Ertz’s ability to cover every blade of grass in midfield and make precise, precise tackles—first as a centre-back in the 2015 World Cup and then as a defensive midfielder in 2019—freed America’s most creative players to do just that. what they like. Ertz was the safety valve.
After the 2021 Olympics, Andonovsky moved on from several other veterans who were key players in two previous World Cup-winning rosters. The US struggled at times early last year, but in predictable ways given the influx of fresh talent. Less challenging opponents also made it difficult to judge how well things really worked out. Then came October and November, when matches against England, Spain and Germany brought the US team the first three-match losing streak in three decades at the end of 2022.
Many of the issues against these top ten competitors in the world were due to the backbone of the team, specifically the midfield. Calls grew louder for the United States to switch to a double pivot in midfield, a tacit acknowledgment that players were needed to replace the work Ertz had done herself.
However, looking at problems through that lens can still backfire. Ertz is not with the team. What was then cannot be now. Andonovsky has to find solutions with the players he has.
Those struggles in late 2022 brought a renewed search for alternative options, so Andonovsky kicked off 2023 by giving Taylor Kornic her first start in defensive midfield against New Zealand.
What followed was a poor half of the USA as Cornick and fellow midfielder Lindsey Horan moved wide more often than not, leaving the USA without central options to build up their attack. Sullivan replaced Kornic in the first half, and the passes began linked and four goals followed. However, the United States defined their form the same way: a three-man midfield with a creative playmaker No. 10 (Rose Lavelle), a two-way No. 8 (Horan) and a defensive No. 6 (Kornick, then Sullivan).
A rematch three days later brought change, but with a twist: Lavelle fell deep alongside Sullivan to create a double pivot, and Ashley Sanchez took over No. 10. This resulted in a looser, more consistent American performance that was encouraging, regardless of the low quality of the opponent. 13 assists accumulating Ashley Hatch’s opening goal was the kind of ball movement the USA was constantly trying to produce. The sequence also included Sullivan, who had a newly acquired freedom to move forward with a defensive midfield partner.
Lavelle’s alignment with Sullivan came as a surprise – apparently even Lavelle.
“It’s definitely something new for me,” she said after the match, “but I enjoyed the kind of drop and being able to get the ball a little bit deeper down the court.” “I think we connected a lot of passes and I think it was a really good game for us.”
Did Andonovsky finally find the solution? Yes and no.
One of the myths about starting lineups is that the favorite XI never changes. However, any good team will adjust something – be it individual or tactical style – based on the opponent. Lavelle dipping deep alongside Sullivan and allowing Sanchez to play a creative role as the 10th-place finisher is a great solution to long-running U.S. issues of breaking teams playing low blocks. That could work against Vietnam or any team that falls out of the global qualifiers to join the US group at the World Cup.
It’s also easy to see how Catarina Macario can fit into the No. 10 playmaking role in this system once she returns from a torn ACL, which should be soon. Macario can play as either a midfielder or a striker, and playing her in the tenth position would also keep Alex Morgan – the team’s most proven goalscorer – on the field as a striker. Lavelle and Macario, the two most daring players in American pool, began developing an impressive partnership early last year before Macario was injured.
Or perhaps the defensive No. 6 role behind Lavell and Macario could be occupied by Horan, who missed the second match against New Zealand to return to her club Lyon. Andonovsky tried this twice in 2022, fielding Horan behind Lavelle and Sanchez in a June friendly against Colombia and during the CONCACAF W Championship against Jamaica. Each time, Lavelle and Sanchez would play double ten, leaving Horan to clean up behind.
Such a daring line-up can only be used sparingly, and is unlikely to be used against a team with a solid midfield and playmaker, as England and Spain’s No. 1 showed in friendlies last year.
The defensive midfield is not Horan’s strongest position. She filled in during Erts’ injury absence prior to the Tokyo Olympics, but an embarrassing 3–0 loss to Sweden to open that tournament ended the trial, and Erts returned to playing 90 minutes in each of the remaining matches. .
Few other options remain to change midfield. Andonovski said last week that his list of 23 players in the World Cup squad has been reduced to 32, leaving little room for surprise. Sam Coffey is the other player on the most recent lists to play defensive midfielder for her club, but she didn’t play a single minute against New Zealand.
Perhaps most worrisome about the current iteration of the US midfield is the continued absence of Sam Mewes, who, like Ertz, hasn’t played for the US since that bronze medal match 18 months ago. What was thought to be a minor knee injury at the start of 2022 has developed into something more for Mewes.
“Sam is going to take a little bit longer and at this point, I don’t want to guess what time it is or if she’ll be back at all,” Andonofsky said last week in New Zealand.
Many assumed Moyes would return in time to play a part in the World Cup, but now that appears to be in doubt. Two years ago, Moyes was considered the best midfielder in the world while at Manchester City. She’s best at #8, but she has a similar profile in the game industry as Sullivan and could have helped the continued hunt for #6.
Increasingly, the reality of the U.S. Women’s World Cup looks like it has been around for a year now. While the squad’s array of injuries in 2022 has put the squad into a wait-and-see situation, it’s now 2023 and not much has changed – the World Cup kicks off in less than six months.
Last week’s two matches in New Zealand at least provided more clarity: Sanchez can handle the role of No. 10, Lavelle works in a deeper position, and Cornick is not the No. 6.
However, it is more evident than ever that the midfield trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan is the player the United States will field more often in finals. There are only a few friendlies left to improve on that between now and the opening match on July 22 against Vietnam.