The U.S. women’s national team will not change the way it’s been playing. Coach Vlatko Andonovski was defiant following the 0-0 draw with Portugal, saying, “We have to stick to our principles, we have to stick to our game model, and we have to stick to our philosophy.” He has his preferred lineup and tactical style, and he will not change.
The following exercise is about engaging in pure fantasy. Andonovski will swap out Rose Lavelle for another midfielder due to suspension, and he might put Trinity Rodman back in for Lynn Williams, but that is likely the extent of the changes. Any analysis of possible adjustments is bunk; this team is what it is.
But all of us would like to see something different for the round of 16 match against Sweden, so here is a series of imagined possibilities for a better world from five of The Athletic’s writers, even if we know deep down that a better world isn’t possible.
Your XI (4-2-3-1): Casey Murphy; Emily Fox, Naomi Girma, Julie Ertz, Kelley O’Hara; Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan; Lynn Williams, Crystal Dunn, Trinity Rodman; Sophia Smith
Sell it to us: Here I am, once again, in the world of “never gonna happen in a million years,” but honestly I prefer it to what feels inevitable (Andonovski rolling out pretty much the same XI minus Lavelle). I think there are pros and cons to a massive shake-up — I certainly don’t love the idea of a goalkeeper getting their first minutes at a World Cup in a knockout match, for instance. But if I had three main points to get across on what I have going here they’re: (1) the 4-3-3 isn’t working, please stop it, (2) disrupting the Girma-Ertz CB pairing feels bad despite needing Ertz in the midfield, and (3) please just let Sophia Smith cook. Again this is fantasy but I do have to note O’Hara was held out of the first part of training Friday due to an injury precaution.
Your XI: (4-2-3-1): Murphy; Dunn, Girma, Ertz, Fox; Sullivan, Horan; Kristie Mewis, Alex Morgan, Williams; Smith
Sell it to us: Do I think the U.S. will change their starting keeper in a knockout? Nope! But I think it has to happen. For the rest of the formation, I want something that helps Sullivan out from being so isolated, and I want to add in some more numbers who can present themselves for the ball between the lines while moving Smith into the outright 9. Keep your back line cohesive, particularly Girma and Ertz, because honestly, they’ve been fine.
Your XI: (4-3-3): Murphy; Dunn, Girma, Ertz, O’Hara; Sullivan; Horan, Savannah DeMelo; Williams, Smith, Rodman
Sell it to us: A few things here. First, the concerns I had about Naeher’s poor club form following her across the Pacific have not subsided following the last two matches (as in, the ones in which she faced at least one shot). Second, I don’t think it’s inherently bad to have Dunn working in the left-central half-space; the issue has been playing with both fullbacks in the same gambit which stretches both center backs wide. Bringing O’Hara in helps involve a player who has clearly been a vital leader and who can shift to something of a three-defender shape whenever Dunn progresses. Alternatively, she’s well-versed in working the overlap with Rodman following their interplay in 2021. I understand the desire to move Ertz to midfield, but her partnership with Girma has arguably been the biggest highlight of the tournament and should not be messed with.
Morgan will be needed, but getting the combined dynamism of Williams, Smith, and Rodman on the field in tandem could help unlock what’s been a laboring attack. It also gets Smith into her most dangerous area rather than trying to facilitate from a shallow wing position.
Your XI (4-4-2 diamond): Murphy; Dunn, Girma, Ertz, Fox; Sullivan, Mewis, Horan, DeMelo; Williams, Smith
Sell it to us: Naeher’s catches and claims have been shaky. As long as we’re leaving reality-based analysis behind, we might as well change goalkeepers while we’re here. I don’t think this USWNT is capable of becoming one that dominates with nice passing combinations or creates a lot of turnovers with its press in a short period of time, so I’d just lean all the way into sufferball. Pack the midfield with numbers and make it difficult for the opponent to play. Play forward quickly when you win the ball. Use two strikers to maximize the effectiveness of your directness.
This team cannot play real football. Life is pain. Get it in the mixer. Eat Arby’s.
Your XI (4-2-3-1): Naeher; Dunn, Girma, Cook, Fox; Ertz, Horan; Sanchez; Williams, Smith, Rodman.
Sell it to us: As much as I think not all of the back four have been impressive, you have to keep some consistency especially now in the knockout rounds. Also, it’s too late to drop someone like Murphy or Huerta into the starting XI and have them make their first starts now…against Sweden. Of the two captains, Horan has shown better form so she keeps her spot but I’d ask her to drop deeper and play next to Ertz in midfield to protect the backline better. Finally, Smith has to play as the nine, it’s her most natural position. Sweden can’t deal with speed so what better way to exploit that than to play your fastest forward against them. It’s time to move away from the 4-3-3 before it ends the USWNT’s journey at the World Cup.
(Photo: Brad Smith, Buda Mendes/Getty Images; Design Eamonn Dalton)