What will the USWNT do without Julie Ertz at the World Cup?

The year is now 2023, and with the World Cup less than six months away, U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski is still answering the question: When will midfielder Julie Ertz return to the team?

The latest media question came last week, ahead of the U.S. Games in New Zealand, and Andonovski offered an updated version of an answer he repeated more than a year ago:

“We’ve had discussions with Julie, and it’s clear that she needs a little more time to prepare before she can start training with the team. We’re excited to give her a little more space and time until she’s fully ready to join.”

Andonovsky’s phrase suggests that the question of “when” is not the question of “if.” But all available evidence points to Andonovski and the U.S. preparing for the 2023 World Cup without Ertz, the most irreplaceable player on the 2019 World Cup-winning team.

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Ertz last played 18 months ago in the team’s bronze medal win over Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Eight months after that win, Ertz announced she was pregnant and gave birth to her first child in August.

She has not indicated one way or the other that she plans to return to the game and has not been under contract with a professional team since the end of 2021. Even if she returns to the U.S. team at the next opportunity, the Shebelivs Cup in February — not something she or Andonovski have indicated — it may take more time for the U.S. to return to the form that made her so important to the U.S. before the World Cup.

So, Andonovski and company changed their ways moving forward, and their replacement in defensive midfield in 2022 was Washington Spirit captain Andy Sullivan. Sullivan’s task remains a thankless one: play a pivotal role while enduring constant comparisons to Ertz, who suddenly leaves a void that the U.S. struggled to fill. Whatever you do, Ertz is seen through the lens of what you were doing.

Instead of being a destroyer, Sullivan is a deep lie that spreads the defensive midfield, the latter being a hallmark of Ertz’s game. Ertz’s ability to cover every patch of grass in the midfield and deliver precise shots — first as a center back in the 2015 World Cup and then as a defensive midfielder in 2019 — freed up the Americans’ more creative players. They made him happy. Ertz was a safety valve.

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After the 2021 Olympics, Andonovski moved on from several veterans who were key players in the previous two World Cup-winning rosters. The US struggled at times at the start of last year, but in an expected way given the amount of new talent. Less challenging opponents make it difficult to gauge how well things are actually working. Then came October and November, with games against England, Spain and Germany as Team USA snapped its first three-game losing streak in three decades at the end of 2022.

Most of the issues with those top 10 contenders in the world were due to the spine of the team, especially the midfield. There have been calls for the U.S. to switch to a two-pivot in the midfield, which would require two players to replace the work Ert has done on her own.

But looking at the problems through that lens is counterproductive. Ertz is not with the team. What was then cannot be now. Andonovski has to find solutions with the available players.

Those late 2022 struggles brought a renewed search for options, so Andonovski began 2023 by giving Taylor Cornick her first start in defensive midfield against New Zealand.

What happened next was a poor first half for the US, with Cornick and fellow midfielder Lindsay Horan often pulling away from distance, leaving the US running out of central options to build its attack on. Sullivan replaced Cornick at halftime, the passes began to connect and four goals followed. Still, the U.S. kept its formation the same way: a three-man midfield with creative play at No. 10 (Rose Lavelle), a two-way No. 8 (Horan) and a defensive No. 6 (Cornick then Sullivan). .

A replay three days later brought a change, but with a twist: Lavelle dropped deep with Sullivan to create a two-pivot, with Ashley Sanchez taking over the No. 10 role. That led to a more fluid, cohesive American performance regardless of the quality of the lesser opposition. 13 passes for Ashley Hatch’s opening goal was the kind of ball movement the US was trying to produce. The sequence also included Sullivan, a newfound freedom with a defensive midfield partner.

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That Lavelle lined up with Sullivan came as a surprise — even to Lavelle, it seemed.

“It’s definitely new for me, but I’m excited to get down there and be able to get on the ball a little bit more downfield,” he said after the game. I think we connected a lot of passes and I think it was a really good game for us.

Andonovski finally found the solution? Yes and no.

One myth about starting lineups is that the preferred XI never changes. But any good team adjusts something — whether it’s personnel or tactics — depending on the opponent. Dropping Lavelle deep with Sullivan and allowing Sanchez to play a more creative role as a No. 10 would be a good solution for the United States to break down teams that have been playing low blocks for too long. That could work with Vietnam, or whichever team made it out of the international playoffs to join the U.S. team at the World Cup.

It’s also easy to see how Catarina Macario could step into the No. 10 role in that system once she returns from her torn ACL, which should be soon. Macario can play as an attacking midfielder or as a striker, and playing her as a number 10 also puts the team’s most proven goalscorer, Alex Morgan, on the pitch. Two of the boldest players in US pool, Lavelle and Macario formed a formidable partnership before Makaro’s injury early last year.

Or perhaps the defensive number 6 role behind Lavelle and Macario can be occupied by Horan, who will return to his club Lyon for the second game against New Zealand. Andonovski tried this twice in 2022, deploying Horan behind Lavelle and Sanchez in June’s friendly against Colombia and in the CONCACAF W Championship against Jamaica. Each time Lavelle and Sanchez played as a double number 10, leaving Hora to clean up behind them.

As England and second-placed Spain showed in friendlies last year, such an aggressive line-up can only be used sparingly and is unthinkable against a team with a strong central midfielder.

The defensive midfield position is not Horan’s strong suit. She filled in during Ertz’s absence due to an injury sustained prior to the Tokyo Olympics, but an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sweden to open that tournament ended the campaign, with Ertz returning to play 90 minutes in the remaining games.

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There are few other options for changing the midsection. Andonovski said last week that the roster has been whittled down to 32 players for the 23 World Cup roster points, leaving little room for surprises. Sam Coffey is another player on the recent list who plays defensive midfield for her club but has not played a minute against New Zealand.

Most concerning to the current U.S. midfield iteration may be the continued absence of Sam Mewes, who, like Ertz, hasn’t played for the U.S. since that bronze medal game 18 months ago. In the year What was thought to be a minor knee injury at the start of 2022 turned out to be much more for Mewis.

“Sam’s going to take a little bit longer and I don’t want to guess what time it is at this point or guess she’s ever going to come back,” Andonovski said in New Zealand last week.

Many had speculated that Mewes would be back in time to play a role at the World Cup, but that now appears to be in doubt. Two years ago, Mewis was considered the best midfielder in the world when he was at Manchester City. She is best at No.8 but has a similar playing profile to Sullivan and could help in the quest for No.6.

The ever-increasing reality of the World Cup looks a lot like it did a year ago for the US Women’s National Team. In the year In 2022, the team’s spate of injuries brought a wait-and-see attitude, now it’s 2023 and not much has changed – the World Cup starts in less than six months.

The pair of games in New Zealand last week provided at least a little more clarity: Sanchez can fill the No. 10 role, Lavelle will operate in a deeper position and Cornik is no No. 6.

But more than ever, the midfield trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan is clearly the one the United States will deploy most often at the World Cup. There are only a few friendlies left to fine tune the situation between the opening match against Vietnam on July 22.

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