AUCKLAND, New Zealand – The task for USA Women’s National Team head coach Vlatko Andonovski seems simple: field the best possible lineup and start the Women’s World Cup with a strong statement of intent.
But when the squad for the opener against Vietnam was announced, it became clear Andonovski wasn’t playing it safe or easy.
The question that will be answered once this World Cup is over: is Andonovski thinking about it too much or is he just being smart? The answer certainly didn’t come on Saturday at Eden Park Stadium against Vietnam (a Friday night start for US fans), and it wasn’t expected. The talent gap between the two teams is so great that you would still have expected a USA team that is a total second pick to win.
In the end, the USWNT won 3-0, missing a number of quality scoring chances – 28 shots in total – and it didn’t really matter who Andonovski put on the field.
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But the US coach appeared to be setting the stage for a tournament where the USWNT will be difficult to predict and the idea of ”the best possible lineup” will be less straightforward than it seems.
At previous editions of the World Cup it was easy to predict who and where a coach would start, but Andonovski assembled a squad that had no easy answers. Julie Ertz – a player seemingly added to the squad at the last moment as a defensive midfielder solution after not playing competitive football for two years – started out as a centre-back.
Ertz hasn’t started as a central defender since 2019 and hasn’t played that position regularly for years before that. But when captain Becky Sauerbrunn retired too late for the World Cup due to a lingering foot injury, he decided not to replace her with someone currently playing in that position.
“When we knew Becky wasn’t going to make it, we started looking into it even more,” Andonovski said after the game. “We chatted with Julie before we even tried and did a lot of work before we got into the (pre-WM) camp on video analytics.”
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And yet, Andonovski didn’t necessarily have a better choice, in part due to how he had assembled his squad for the World Cup. He could have instead opted to field Alana Cook alongside Naomi Girma, but that would have left him with a very inexperienced centre-back. Cook has 25 caps and Girma – the better defender – has just 16.
It was logical to use Ertz’s experience, especially to calm the younger Girma’s nerves. Finally, the only other option in this World Cup roster is Emily Sonnett, a player who has spent more time for the USWNT as a full-back than a center-back.
Ertz didn’t seem entirely comfortable with her return to the role at the back. Vietnam were hardly dangerous and therefore not exactly under pressure, but with the ball at her feet she appeared unsteady at times and took unnecessary risks. However, she played along and seemed more and more relaxed as time went on.
“I’m glad we made that decision and I know the defense going forward will always get better,” Andonovski said, also declining to say if Ertz would keep that role throughout the tournament.
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Savannah DeMelo, a player who made the World Cup squad without ever having played for the USA, was a surprising choice to also start in midfield. Ahead of the game, Andonovski suggested the pick was based on their recent form, including a closed-door tie against the Philippines here in New Zealand.
DeMelo is a playmaker, capable of unlocking defenses and creating chances for her teammates. What Andonovski has managed, however, is to build a World Cup roster that hasn’t played very much together — in DeMelo’s case, she earned an international cap as the USWNT bid farewell ahead of the World Cup opener.
This lack of time together showed. The Americans’ game against Vietnam looked like a version of what they had come to expect throughout the Andonovski era: static, sluggish, and overly reliant on single highlights.
For his part, Andonovski is aware of the risk he has taken and seems confident in his decisions. He told reporters after the game: “If you look at this team, it’s the first time this eleven has been on the field together. They’ve never been on the pitch together for a minute in a game scenario, so it was very positive to see some of the connections and combinations they were able to pull off.”
But he also admitted that this USWNT didn’t look like everything the group could be.
“If there’s one thing we need to do better besides finishing, it’s how we can help the players who are able to finish by giving them a little serve,” he said. “Whether it’s about finding the right step or finding the right foot, the finishing touches – the service before the finish.”
For a team as attacking-oriented as USA and anxious to play up front, finishing and serving are significant missing pieces. The USWNT had 297 touches in the last third compared to 20 in Vietnam, but for the most part it wasn’t the free-flowing and dynamic attack we’ve seen from the United States in the past. They fell short of their expected 4.34 targets and struggled to capitalize on the flanks, trying to push through through a crowded middle.
Yet everyone on the outside seemed to be expecting a repeat of 2019, when the USWNT opened the World Cup with a 13-0 win over Thailand, the most lopsided result in Women’s World Cup history.
The day before Saturday’s game, a Vietnamese reporter asked Andonovski, “Are you going to crush us like you did against Thailand four years ago?” After the game, another Vietnamese reporter asked, “Did you expect to score more goals?”
It’s perhaps unfair to compare this game to this one – the Thai team weren’t as good and disciplined as the Vietnamese team. But even this USWNT doesn’t seem to have the chemistry of the 2019 team.
“I definitely think it will work,” defender Emily Fox said of team cohesion. “In training we feel that it works and we will continue to build on that. It’s the first game of the tournament so we want to keep building on that performance.”
With a team that has only completed a few repetitions so far, the chemistry has to be right quickly. Vietnam couldn’t punish the USA for their incompetence, but the Netherlands – runners-up at the last World Cup – are next in the group stage.
As former USWNT coach April Heinrichs once said, “In coaching, you’re either an idiot or a genius.” The decisions Andonovski made could be the ones to be talked about for years to come – adored or ridiculed, depending on how the tournament goes.