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Why USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski is under fire for near USA soccer disaster in Women's World Cup

Jun 09, 2023Jun 09, 2023

The United States secured a spot in the Round of 16 at the 2023 Women's World Cup, keeping their 100 percent qualification streak alive, now in their ninth knockout stage appearance in nine FIFA tournaments.

In truth, that mark is generous. Simply based on performances, they probably should be heading home with a first group stage elimination in team history. In the end, they remain in contention, but the flirtation with disaster was enough to raise alarm ahead of the knockouts.

USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski, leading the USWNT at the Women's World Cup, has to start making significant changes, or else this team will be handed a ticket back home sooner rather than later.

To this point, Andonovski has gotten away with some personnel and tactical decisions that have been exposed on the pitch. As the competition ramps up in the knockouts, any further miscalculations will not go unpunished, especially with the upcoming opponent.

The USA's second-place finish in Group E leaves the Americans with a far more difficult path to a potential final. For the Round of 16, the USWNT will likely meet an in-form Sweden team ranked No. 3 in the world and ready to give their long-time rivals another nightmare matchup in a major tournament.

MORE: USWNT player ratings vs Portugal tell story of another disappointing performance

When Vlatko Andonovski started Julie Ertz in defense against Vietnam to open Group E play at the Women's World Cup, it seemed to make sense. While her true position is at defensive midfield, the U.S. roster only boasts two natural center-backs, and keeping one sidelined against a lesser opponent seemed sensible.

Yet when he did it again, deploying Andi Sullivan in Ertz's natural No. 6 spot against the Netherlands to fill the gap, eyebrows were raised. Sullivan has not shown herself to be a starting caliber player at this level, and arguably never has been. Meanwhile, Ertz is clearly a central midfielder, and hasn't played defense in years.

It showed. The United States were overwhelmed in midfield by the Dutch who made life difficult. Sullivan was totally invisible in the game, and her absence left Lindsey Horan and Savannah DeMelo to pick up the slack, which they could barely manage.

Yet after clear signs that the midfield needed a new progressional marshal, Andonovski deployed this setup for a third straight time against Portugal, ignoring each previous warning that every fan could hear blaring as loud as the Eden Park fire alarm. And for the third straight match, Andonovski saw his lineup decisions result in another poor midfield performance which everyone saw coming.

And yet Andonovski stuck to his guns, making no changes as the second half began. Ultimately, Andi Sullivan played all 90 minutes, and Ertz was stuck in defense the entire way.

"I'm not American and it drives me crazy to see [this performance]," said German analyst Ariane Hingst on Fox's coverage of the Women's World Cup in the United States. "This is not the face of an American team I've known before. It kind of shocks me."

Andonovski clearly must sort out the midfield, and quickly, because if not, Sweden will pick the USA apart in the Round of 16. The obvious move is to shift Julie Ertz back into her natural position, replacing Andi Sullivan. If he sticks with the makeup from the group stage, they will be punished, plain and simple.

What changes do you feel the USWNT need to make or could make going forward?@stuholden, @HeatherOReilly, and @karinaleblanc on the changes they would make for the United States 🇺🇸

Against both the Netherlands and Portugal, Vlatko Andonovski has been reluctant to dip into his substitutes bench.

In the 1-1 draw against the Netherlands, the USWNT head coach used just one substitution the entire match, bringing on Rose Lavelle at halftime.

While Andonovski could be forgiven for his desire to stick with the players on the field, who began to dominate that match as the final 20 minutes arrived, there still was a clear argument to be made for the introduction of Lynn Williams or Alyssa Thompson to give an exhausted and wasteful Sophia Smith or Trinity Rodman a rest and snatch the game against tired Dutch legs.

If the minimal changes against the Netherlands were at least somewhat reasonable, the lack of subs against Portugal were tougher to justify. Until the 84th minute, Andonovski again had made just a single change, bringing on 36-year-old Megan Rapinoe who didn't impact the match in her half-hour of action.

Rapinoe was ineffective, while Trinity Rodman's game-changing talent was left on the bench until the final six minutes. Andonovski resisted bringing her on, despite Rodman proving her worth in this very situation only weeks before by scoring a brace off the bench against Wales in their pre-World Cup tuneup friendly.

Eventually, Andonovski relented in the 84th minute, but by that point, it was far too late to have an impact, with Portugal throwing the kitchen sink at the U.S. in a last-gasp effort to secure the victory that would send them to the knockout stages.

As the U.S. attack sputters at every turn, it's becoming evident that Vlatko Andonovski's tactical approach to the Women's World Cup is far too simplistic.

Every indicator shows that the U.S. tactical setup can be boiled down to some version of "give Sophia Smith the ball and let her beat defenders." While that's fine in theory, once other teams caught on, they began to shut off that valve, and Andonovski has had no backup plan.

The U.S. has been far too reliant on attacking down the left wing, while the middle of the pitch remains a gaping hole. At halftime against Portugal, the USWNT touch map looked a scattered mess, sporting a gaping hole in midfield in favor of a push to play down the left flank.

It's time to play....Choose Your Favorite Mediocre First Half Graphic!Is it the touch map?

Yet no changes were made, either in personnel or on the chalkboard. The U.S. continued to push down the left, first until Smith got tired and again when Megan Rapinoe entered the game in her place. Left-back Crystal Dunn finished with 72 touches, 18 more than anyone else on the United States, and often she had nobody to pass the ball to. Rapinoe collected 35 touches in just 29 minutes of play.

Meanwhile, defensive midfielder Andi Sullivan, at a position usually responsible for distribution and early progression, had just 17 touches at halftime and finished with 43, a paltry total for what the team required centrally. Lindsey Horan's 54 was second-most on the team, but still fewer than five Portuguese players.

At the end of the match, the pass network graphic proved the United States had very little approach besides hoofing the ball up the flank, while Francisco Neto's side sported a clear tactical plan executed by the Portugal midfield, which passed its way around and through the U.S. players.

Portugal vs USA pass network| #FIFAWWCWell this tells a story.-Portugal's midfield diamond clearly visible, USA's midfield non existent-Portugal's strong connections & possession ideas compared to USA's left side bias and reliance for progression & creation

It would not have been so much of an issue that the midfield lacked possessional cohesion had the counter-attacks out wide been effective. But as they continued to instead result in repeated turnovers, there were no changes across the 90 minutes of action.

Former USWNT star Carli Lloyd criticized the team's mentality and passion after the draw against Portugal. While that's fine, and not exactly wrong, it's also pointless to debate if the team can't get its tactical setup right. As long as Andonovski remains resistant to adaptation and married to his now obsolete plan for this tournament, the U.S. will prove little threat to hoist the trophy for a third straight time.

Kyle Bonn is a soccer content producer for The Sporting News.

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