AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The road to a World Cup title is riddled with detours and alternate routes. Such a path may still get a team to its ultimate destination, just not in the way that was originally planned. So it is proving for the U.S. women’s national team, especially when it comes to its lineup choices in midfield and defense.
It was back on April 22 that U.S. captain and Portland Thorns defender Becky Sauerbrunn first injured her foot against Racing Louisville. She made it back on the field in a June 3 encounter against OL Reign, but a setback meant that she was ultimately left off the U.S. World Cup roster.
The U.S. has been feeling the aftereffects ever since.
Julie Ertz, brought back to assume the holding midfield spot she filled with distinction in helping the U.S. claim the 2019 World Cup, has been deployed in Sauerbrunn’s old central defensive spot alongside Naomi Girma. The domino effect then left Andi Sullivan to replicate Ertz’s rather outsized role in midfield.
The results have been mixed. Ertz has been her usual steely self in the back, dominant in the air (winning 60% of those encounters) and in her ground duels (to the tune of 64.3%). She’s delivered in big moments, too. In Thursday’s match with the Netherlands, Ertz’s vital block of Esmee Brugts‘ shot in the 80th minute helped preserve a 1-1 draw.
Meanwhile, Sullivan’s play in midfield has been uneven and at times, she’s been a liability. While she was solid enough in the 3-0 win over Vietnam, Sullivan was badly beaten on the turn by Dutch forward Lieke Martens in the sequence that led to Jill Roord‘s 17th-minute opener. She also had immense difficulty dealing with a Netherlands midfield that dominated possession in the first half and imposed its will physically on the Americans.
The eye test indicates that Ertz is the preferred option in that spot. She certainly wouldn’t have allowed Martens to spin away so easily, even if it meant delivering a tactical foul. Comparing the numbers from Ertz’s performance as a midfielder in the 2019 World Cup to Sullivan’s in the current tournament — granted, the latter is just two games so far — bear this out as well.
According to TruMedia, Ertz plays a higher percentage of her passes forward (44.9% to Sullivan’s 37.5%) which would have the effect of allowing other midfielders to deploy themselves further up field. She also carries the ball further on the dribble when those opportunities present themselves. Defensively, Ertz has the edge in tackle percentage/duels won and percentage/aerials won (36.4%/55.9%/52.9% to Sullivan’s 33.3%/50%/50%). There is an argument to be made that Ertz isn’t the same player she was in 2019, but she’s shown so far in this tournament that she’s pretty darn close.
But while the decision to replace Sullivan with Ertz seems obvious, there is a ripple effect on the rest of the lineup that needs to be considered. As a whole, the U.S. is playing well defensively. The Americans are conceding an average of 2.5 shots per 90 minutes, the lowest such mark in the tournament so far, and have a xG allowed per game of 0.18, which ranks second behind Japan‘s 0.10. A strong argument can be made that manager Vlakto Andonovski shouldn’t mess with a defense that is performing so well.
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There’s also the issue of who would replace Ertz in the back if she moves into midfield. The only real candidate would be Alana Cook — Emily Sonnett is more of a “break glass in case of emergency” option if there is a glut of injuries or suspensions.
So, the question would then be: How much would the U.S. lose defensively if Cook replaces Ertz in the back? The answer is plenty. When taking their respective center-back performances in 2023 into account, Ertz has a considerable edge in aerial challenges (60 to 42.9) and an advantage in duels (64.3 to 57.1). Cook has the better tackling percentage (75% to 50%). Distribution would appear to favor Cook (88.2% to 77.3%), but only 29.5% of Cook’s passes go forward, revealing a penchant for being overly safe, compared to 50.3% for Ertz.
There’s also Cook’s penchant for major errors, with a giveaway to Canada‘s Janine Beckie during the SheBelieves Cup last February just one example. (Alyssa Naeher‘s save bailed out Cook in that sequence.) These factors explain why Naomi Girma supplanted Cook in the starting lineup, and why Ertz is in the backline now.
Andonovski himself admitted at the news conference prior to the Netherlands game that the decision to play Ertz in the back was made right before the pre-tournament training camp, when they realized that Sauerbrunn wasn’t going to the World Cup. This line of thinking reveals that barring injury, Cook isn’t a candidate to log many minutes at the World Cup.
All of this doesn’t leave Andonovski with a lot of options. He’s clearly made the calculation that a defensive triumvirate of Ertz, Girma and Sullivan is preferable to one that includes Cook. It’s akin to the situation involving Crystal Dunn playing left-back. Sure, Ertz might be better in a midfield role, but the team might not be.
So where does that leave Andonovski? With personnel options limited, a premium is placed on executing the tactical game plan with precision, which includes a properly coordinated team press. At Saturday’s news conference, Sullivan admitted this wasn’t the case in the first half against the Dutch. Sometimes the forwards weren’t stepping high enough, which made it difficult for the midfield to read. If the midfield isn’t reading, the forwards might not be confident enough to step up.
“I think we weren’t in sync,” Sullivan said. “That happens, and we were able to adjust and respond.”
The U.S. was more on the same page in the second half, which coincided with the Americans getting back into the game. But the U.S. can’t afford to take that long to get such aspects sorted out, especially as the tournament stakes increase.
Another option is to play with a double pivot in midfield, with Lindsey Horan dropping deeper to help out defensively. Andonovski has experimented with that approach in the past, but that tactical wrinkle isn’t desirable given that it would prevent Horan from contributing more to the attack. Using Horan in the holding role falls into the same bucket of solving one problem, but creating two more.
This particular lineup challenge continues, and what the team will do against Portugal on Tuesday at Eden Park remains to be seen. What is clear is that the team’s on-field coordination and tactical chemistry will need to improve in a hurry.