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

The yr is now 2023, the World Cup is lower than six months away and US girls’s nationwide crew head coach Vlatko Andonovski continues to be answering the query: When will midfielder Julie Ertz return to the crew?

The newest media inquiry got here final week, forward of a pair of US video games in New Zealand, and Andonovski offered an up to date model of the reply he has repeated for over a yr:

“With Julie, we had a dialog, and clearly she wants slightly extra time to arrange earlier than she even begins coaching with the crew. We’re simply excited to offer her slightly extra space and time till she’s totally prepared to hitch. “

The query of “when,” which was the phrasing posed to Andonovski, presumes the query isn’t “if.” But all out there proof means that Andonovski and the US must — and are — making ready for a 2023 World Cup without Ertz, arguably the most irreplaceable participant from the 2019 World Cup-winning squad.

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Ertz final performed for the US practically 18 months in the past, in the crew’s bronze medal-winning victory over Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Eight months after that win, Ertz revealed that she was pregnant, and he or she gave beginning to her first baby in August.

She has not indicated a technique or one other whether or not she plans to return to taking part in, and he or she has not been underneath contract with an expert crew since late 2021. Even if she had been to return to the US crew at the subsequent out there alternative, the SheBelieves Cup in February — which isn’t one thing she or Andonovski have hinted — returning to the type that made her so essential for the US would probably take a while, extra time than the US had earlier than the World Cup.

So, Andonovski & Co. plotted a path ahead, and the alternative they settled on at defensive midfield in 2022 was Andi Sullivan, the Washington Spirit’s captain. Sullivan’s process was and stays thankless: fill an integral function whereas enduring fixed comparisons to Ertz, who abruptly left a void that the US struggled to fill. No matter what she does, it’s considered by way of the lens of what Ertz used to do.

Sullivan is extra of a deep-lying, distributing defensive midfielder than she is a destroyer, the latter of which is a defining attribute of Ertz’s recreation. Ertz’s means to cowl each blade of grass in the midfield and put in crunching, exact tackles — first as a center-back at the 2015 World Cup after which as a defensive midfielder in 2019 — liberated the Americans’ extra artistic gamers to do what they happy. Ertz was the security valve.

After the 2021 Olympics, Andonovski moved on from a number of different veterans who had been core gamers on the earlier two World Cup-winning rosters. The US struggled at instances early final yr, however in anticipated methods given the inflow of recent expertise. Less-challenging opponents additionally made it tough to guage how effectively issues actually had been working. Then got here October and November, when video games in opposition to England, Spain and Germany introduced the US crew’s first three-game shedding streak in three many years at the finish of 2022.

Many of the points in opposition to these top-10 world opponents had been as a consequence of the backbone of the crew, particularly the midfield. Calls grew louder for the US to shift to a double pivot in midfield, an implicit admission that two gamers had been wanted to exchange the work that Ertz did by herself.

Viewing the issues by way of that lens stays counterproductive, nevertheless. Ertz isn’t with the crew. What was then can’t be now. Andonovski should discover options with the gamers he has.

Those late-2022 struggles introduced a renewed seek for different choices, so Andonovski began 2023 by giving Taylor Kornieck her first begin at defensive midfield in opposition to New Zealand.

What adopted was a poor first half from the US through which Kornieck and fellow midfielder Lindsey Horan pulled vast far too typically, leaving the US without central choices to construct its assault. Sullivan changed Kornieck at halftime, the passes began connecting and 4 objectives adopted. Still, the US set its form the identical method: a three-player midfield with a artistic playmaking No. 10 (Rose Lavelle), a two-way No. 8 (Horan) and a defensive No. 6 (Kornieck, then Sullivan).

The rematch three days later introduced change, however with a twist: Lavelle dropped deep alongside Sullivan to create a double pivot, and Ashley Sanchez took over the No. 10 roles. That led to a extra fluid, cohesive US efficiency that was encouraging, no matter the decrease high quality of the opponent. The 13-pass buildup to Ashley Hatch’s opening purpose was the sort of ball motion the US retains attempting to provide. The sequence additionally included Sullivan, who had a newfound freedom going ahead with a defensive midfield associate.

That Lavelle lined up alongside Sullivan got here as a shock — seemingly even to Lavelle.

“Definitely one thing new for me, however I had enjoyable form of dropping down and having the ability to get on the ball slightly deeper in the discipline,” she mentioned after the match. “I feel we linked lots of passes and I feel it was a extremely good recreation for us.”

Did Andonovski lastly discover his answer? Yes and no.

One fantasy about beginning lineups is {that a} most popular XI by no means modifications. Any good crew, nevertheless, will tweak one thing — whether or not personnel or tactical method — primarily based on the opponent. Lavelle dropping in deep alongside Sullivan and permitting Sanchez to play a artistic function as the No. 10 is a superb answer to the USA’s long-standing problems with breaking down groups that play low blocks. That would possibly work in opposition to Vietnam or whichever crew emerges from the international playoff to hitch the USA’s group at the World Cup.

It can also be straightforward to see how Catarina Macario may step into the playmaking No. 10 function in that system as soon as she returns from her torn ACL, which ought to be quickly. Macario can play as the attacking midfielder or striker, and taking part in her as the No. 10 would additionally hold Alex Morgan — the crew’s most confirmed purpose scorer — on the discipline as the striker. Lavelle and Macario, the two most audacious gamers in the US pool, started creating a powerful partnership early final yr earlier than Macario’s damage.

Or maybe the defensive no. 6 function behind Lavelle and Macario may very well be occupied by Horan, who missed the second match in opposition to New Zealand to return to her membership, Lyon. Andonovski tried this twice in 2022, deploying Horan behind Lavelle and Sanchez in a June pleasant in opposition to Colombia and through the CONCACAF W Championship in opposition to Jamaica. Each time, Lavelle and Sanchez performed as double No. 10s, leaving Horan to wash up behind them.

Such an aggressive lineup may solely be used sparingly, and unlikely in opposition to a crew with a powerful, playmaking midfield, as England and a second-choice Spain aspect confirmed in friendlies final yr.

Defensive midfield isn’t Horan’s strongest place. She stuffed in there throughout Ertz’s absence as a consequence of damage forward of the Tokyo Olympics, however an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sweden to open that event ended the experiment, and a beat-up Ertz returned to play 90 minutes in every of the remaining video games .

Few different choices stay to vary the midfield. Andonovski mentioned final week that his checklist of gamers in consideration for the 23 World Cup roster spots is all the way down to 32, which leaves little room for shock. Sam Coffey is the one different participant on the most up-to-date rosters who performs defensive midfield for her membership, however she didn’t play a minute in opposition to New Zealand.

Most regarding for the present iteration of the US midfield could also be the continued absence of Sam Mewis, who, like Ertz, has not performed for the US since that bronze-medal recreation 18 months in the past. What was regarded as a minor knee damage at the starting of 2022 developed into one thing extra for Mewis.

“Sam will take slightly bit longer and at this level, I do not wish to guess what the time is or if she goes to be again at all,” Andonovski mentioned ominously final week in New Zealand.

Many assumed Mewis could be again in time to play a task at the World Cup, however now that seems to be unsure. Two years in the past, Mewis was thought of arguably the greatest midfielder in the world whereas at Manchester City. She is greatest as a No. 8, however she has an identical playmaking profile as Sullivan and will have helped in the ongoing quest for a No. 6.

Increasingly, the World Cup actuality for the US girls’s nationwide crew appears like the one which has been current for a yr now. Whereas in 2022, the crew’s bevy of accidents introduced a wait-and-see perspective, it is now 2023 and never a lot has modified — the World Cup begins in lower than six months.

The pair of video games final week in New Zealand at least offered some additional readability: Sanchez can deal with the No. 10 function, Lavelle works in a deeper place and Kornieck isn’t a No. 6.

More than ever, although, it’s clear that the midfield trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan is the one the US will deploy most of the time at the World Cup. Only a handful of pleasant matches stay to be fine-tuned between now and the July 22 opener in opposition to Vietnam.

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