AUCKLAND, New Zealand — The task for U.S. women’s national team coach Vlatko Andonovski seemed simple: field the best lineup possible and begin the Women’s World Cup with a strong statement of intent.
But as soon as the team to face Vietnam in their tournament opener was announced, it became clear that Andonovski was not playing well or simply.
The question that will be answered once this World Cup is said and done: Is Andonovski overthinking it, or is he just shrewd? The answer certainly didn’t come on Saturday at Eden Park against Vietnam (a Friday night kick-off for US fans), nor was it expected. The talent gap between the two sides is large enough that an entirely second-seeded USA team would be expected to win.
In the end, the USWNT won 3-0, missing a number of quality scoring chances in the process — 28 shots in all — and it hardly mattered who Andonovski put on the court.
– Meet the USWNT: What you need to know about all 23 players
– Team by Team Predictions: What you need to know
But the American coach seemed to be setting the stage for a tournament where the USWNT will be difficult to predict and the notion of “best possible lineup” will be less straightforward than it seems. In previous editions of the World Cup it was easy to predict who a coach might start and where, but Andonovski has created a squad with no easy answers.
Julie Ertz — a player who apparently made the roster at the last possible moment as a solution at defensive midfielder after not playing competitive soccer for two years — started at center back.
Ertz hasn’t started at quarterback since 2019 and hasn’t played the position regularly in years. But when captain Becky Sauerbrunn was a late scratch for the World Cup due to a lingering foot injury, Andonovski opted not to replace her with someone currently playing in the position.
“When we knew Becky wasn’t going to be able to make it, that’s something we started looking into even more,” he said after the game. “We had a chat with Julie before we tried out, we did a lot of work before we got into camp (before the World Cup) in terms of video analysis.”
– Women’s World Cup: Landing Page | Schedule | Lists | tidings
And yet, Andonovski didn’t necessarily have a better choice, in part because of how he constructed his World Cup roster. Instead, he could have opted to start Alana Cook alongside Naomi Girma, but then he would have been left with a very inexperienced central defence. Cook has 25 caps, and Girma – who is the best defender – has just 16.
Having Ertz’s 100-plus game experience, especially to ease the nerves of the younger Girma, made sense. After all, the only other option on the World Cup roster is Emily Sonnett, a player who has spent more time for the USWNT at center back than at center back.
Ertz looked completely uncomfortable from behind in her return to the role. Vietnam barely threatened, so she wasn’t exactly under pressure, but with the ball at her feet she looked indecisive at times and took unnecessary risks. Still, she played along, looking more comfortable as she went along.
“I’m glad we made the decision and I know the back line will get better and better going forward,” Andonovski said, also declining to say whether Ertz will remain in that role throughout the tournament.
Sophia Smith talks 2-goal performance on World Cup debut
Sophia Smith discusses her 2-goal performance in the United States’ 3-0 win over Vietnam.
Savannah DeMelo, a player who made the World Cup roster without ever playing for the USA, was a surprise choice to start in the midfield as well. Ahead of the match, Andonovski suggested the selection was based on her recent form, including a behind-closed-doors clash against the Philippines here in New Zealand.
DeMelo is a playmaker who is capable of unlocking defenses and creating chances for her teammates, for sure. What Andonovski has done, though, is build a World Cup squad that hasn’t played much together — in DeMelo’s case, she got a chapter in sending the USWNT to its World Cup opener.
This lack of time together showed. Americans vs. Vietnam looked like a version of what they had been looking for for much of the Andonovski era: static, sluggish and too reliant on individual flashes of brilliance.
Andonovski, for his part, is aware of the game he has made and seems confident in his decisions, telling reporters after the match: “If you look at this team, it’s the first time this 11 has been on the pitch together. They’ve never been on the pitch together in a game scenario for a minute, so to see some of the connections and combinations was very positive.”
But he also admitted that this USWNT didn’t look like all the group could be.
“If there’s one thing we need to do better besides finishing, it’s how we can help players who are in a position to finish by giving them some service,” he said. “Whether it’s getting them on the right pitch or the right foot, the final touch — the service before the finish.”
For a team as attack-oriented and eager to play on the front foot as the USA, finishing and serving are no small pieces that are missing.
The USWNT had 297 touches in the final third compared to Vietnam’s 20, but it was largely not the free, dynamic attack we’ve seen from the United States in the past – Sophia Smith’s first goal the only exception. They fell short of their expected goals of 4.34 — including due to Alex Morgan’s missed penalty — and tried to use their wings, trying to get through the congested middle.
And yet, everyone on the outside seemed to expect a retrenchment in 2019, when the USWNT opened the World Cup with a 13-0 win over Thailand, the slowest shutout in Women’s World Cup history.
A 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 match, another Vietnamese journalist asked: “Did you expect to score more?”
It’s probably unfair to compare that game to this — that the Thailand team wasn’t as good or as disciplined as this Vietnam team. But this USWNT doesn’t seem to have the chemistry of that 2019 team either.
“I definitely think it’s coming together,” defender Emily Fox said of the team’s cohesion. “In training, we can feel it’s coming together and we’re just going to keep building on this. It’s the first game of the tournament so we want to keep building on this performance.”
For a team that has had little repetition together, the chemistry should come together quickly. Vietnam were unable to punish the USA for their inability to click, but the Netherlands — runners-up from the last World Cup — top the group stage. The elimination rounds will be even more difficult.
As former USWNT coach April Heinrichs once said, “In coaching, you’re either a jackass or a genius.” The choices Andonovski made could be ones that will be talked about for years to come — honored or mocked, depending on how the tournament goes.