What’s on USWNT’s to-do list for World Cup send-off game?

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Ninety minutes. That’s all that stands between the U.S. women’s national team and its first match at the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

Before you whip out your calculators, yes, there are technically more than 90 minutes between now and kickoff of the United States’ group stage opener against Vietnam on July 21. For the team’s on-field preparation ahead of this summer’s action, though, Sunday’s send-off match against Wales (4 p.m. ET) is the last step.

This close to a World Cup, you don’t want to make changes that will drastically alter your team’s course. We shouldn’t expect U.S. manager Vlatko Andonovski to make any sweeping alterations to the tournament favorite against Wales. However, the USWNT’s final World Cup squad features a surprising lack of depth at both ends of the field and a couple of potential pitfalls in the middle. Those things create real questions that need answering before this team heads to Australia and New Zealand.

So, to ensure the U.S. is fully prepared before the show starts, here’s what should be on Andonovski’s to-do list for Sunday’s game.

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Find your third center back — and play them

With veteran Becky Sauerbrunn missing this World Cup because of a foot injury, Andonovski opted to place just two true center backs on the U.S. roster. San Diego Wave FC‘s Naomi Girma and OL Reign‘s Alana Cook are projected to play the lion’s share of the minutes in the middle of the team’s back four. Girma, even at just 23, is one of the most well-rounded center backs in the world, and Cook is a phenomenal athlete, even with a few inconsistencies.

After Girma and Cook, though, who’s ready to step into action?

There are two primary reserve options for the United States: Emily Sonnett and Julie Ertz.

Sonnett, 29, has played most of her NWSL minutes this year as a defensive midfielder for the Reign. The same goes for Ertz, 31, with Angel City FC. Still, both players have played center back in the past and can bring at least a baseline level of competence to that position.

Sonnett doesn’t excel in any one specific area of the game. She’s not especially clean on the ball and isn’t a powerful defender, either. She does, however, bring a bit of everything. She can string a few passes together, she can track down a runner in the open field and she can deputize anywhere across the backline. Despite her limited ceiling, Sonnett may be the best option to play after Girma and Cook. Unlike with Ertz, who would have to vacate her role as the team’s probable starting defensive midfielder to drop into the back line, Andonovski wouldn’t directly weaken another part of his team by using Sonnett at center back.

Regardless of whom Andonovski chooses as his third central defender, this weekend is the last low-stress chance to get them a late-game rep.

Test Ertz’s sharpness

One of the biggest questions facing the USWNT as it marches to the World Cup is this: How close is Ertz to her best?

After being away from the professional game for nearly two years, in which the U.S. dealt with plenty of sluggish, uninspired midfield play, the 31-year-old shined in her return to action against Ireland in April. Since then, she signed with Angel City in the NWSL and squeezed in eight club matches before rejoining the national team for its World Cup preparation.

All told, though, she has spent a lot more time off the field than on it since stepping away after the Olympics in 2021. Ertz has played only 10 games and 652 minutes this year.

At, or even near, her best, Ertz is a generational athlete. Her defensive range, strength, aerial ability and vision make it nearly impossible for opposing teams to play through her in the open field. While she is an option at center back for Andonovski, her primary job this summer will be the same as it was before her hiatus: anchoring the midfield.

What Ertz lacks on the ball as a No. 6, she makes up for with her ball-winning — she’ll lose possession but win it back 10 times over, setting up her attacking teammates for success in the process. The United States needs that quick, forceful version of Ertz to give it the best possible chance of winning a third straight World Cup trophy.

Given how she can raise the team’s ceiling, Andonovski should let Ertz test her sharpness Sunday. How does she move in midfield? How are her reads in transition? Can she elevate her attacking teammates? There’s no time like the present to have the No. 6 play her first full 90-minute match for the USWNT in almost two years.

Give Smith 45 minutes up top against Wales

Of the 23 players on the U.S.’s World Cup squad, only one regularly plays up top for both club and country: Alex Morgan.

Morgan, even in the midst of a down year for San Diego in the NWSL, is expected to start at striker for the United States. Similar to the team’s center-back situation, we don’t know Andonovski’s preferred deputy for Morgan. That said, we can make an educated guess that Sophia Smith, who plays as a No. 9 for the Portland Thorns and currently leads the NWSL in goals (10), will shift from winger to striker to spell Morgan this summer.

Because she’s mostly been used on the wing for the United States in the past, we don’t have a lot of data on Smith, The Striker for the USWNT. We’ve seen her play centrally on occasion, including last fall in a 2-1 loss to England, but a sustained runout for Smith in the No. 9 position will help set the tone for the World Cup.

With how dominant she’s been playing through the middle for Portland, there’s a chance this World Cup ends with Smith starting over Morgan, who’s goals per 90 rate has dropped from 0.94 last year to 0.47 this year in the NWSL. Let’s walk before we run, though, and see how Smith performs in, say, 45 minutes up top against Wales.

Get DeMelo her USWNT debut

Every player on the United States’ World Cup roster has played at least once for the national team — every player, that is, except Savannah DeMelo. The 25-year-old Racing Louisville FC attacking midfielder has been in USWNT camps in the past, but is yet to make her U.S. senior team debut.

That should change this weekend.

DeMelo has been fantastic in the NWSL this year. She has tallied five goals and a pair of assists and has shown a special combination of efficiency, creativity and hard running. That combination helps her conduct counterattacks, create chances in possession and press opponents into oblivion.

Sure, DeMelo lacks the international experience of the rest of the midfield group, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that she’s ready to help the U.S. compete for a trophy this summer. She has played competitive games more recently than both Rose Lavelle, who has been out since April with a knee injury, and Lindsey Horan, who finished the French league season in May. She has also outperformed both Kristie Mewis and Ashley Sanchez in the NWSL this year, averaging more goals, non-penalty expected goals and expected assists than those two, according to FBref.com.

Andonovski already has a good idea of what his four more-established advanced midfielders bring to the USWNT. Why not see what DeMelo can do? Even a cameo could calm some nerves and provide a piece of useful information ahead of the World Cup.

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Continue preparing to face low blocks

That’s what teams do against the United States, isn’t it? They defend in low blocks.

Because opponents are (understandably) terrified to leave space behind their defenders for players like Smith to exploit, teams set up shop in a low block when facing the USWNT. In a World Cup group with Vietnam, the Netherlands and Portugal, the U.S. will face teams that can throw a few different defensive schemes at them. However, it’s safe to expect compact defending first and foremost.

This game against Wales, then, gives the United States a much-needed chance to refine its play in the final third when facing a low block. In its most recent match, a 1-0 win over Ireland on April 11, the U.S. generated just 0.61 expected goals while averaging 53% possession. That game was a reminder of a troubling theme under Andonovski: The U.S. often lacks attacking ideas against a set defense.

The team has enough talent to force its way to victory — you try hanging with Smith or Trinity Rodman or Lynn Williams for an entire game — but what happens when the USWNT’s talent advantage narrows against better opposition? That’s when the U.S. has to fall back on a few patterns and coordinated plans in its attack.

For the USWNT’s players and coaches, focusing on those sequences in the final third on Sunday will be like eating vegetables as a kid: It will pay off in the long run.

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