28 Jul Why is USWNT’s Andonovski not really using subs at the World Cup?
AUCKLAND, New Zealand — As the clock ticked on for the U.S. women’s national team in its biggest fixture of the Women’s World Cup group stage, the game seemed to be crying out for an American substitute or two.
With the USWNT level with Netherlands, 1-1, wingers Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith started to look tired. They were pushing hard for a game-winning goal — in fact, three of Rodman’s four missed shots of the match came in the final 15 minutes. But the players’ passing accuracy started to drop and their tendency to lose the ball went up, particularly after Lindsey Horan‘s 60th-minute equalizer.
In the period from the opening minute of the second half to the 75th, Rodman completed zero of the nine passes she attempted, according to ESPN Stats & Information. But USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski stood pat, opting not bring in a player with fresh legs as a second-half substitute. It was a controversial decision and after the U.S. settled for a draw, it’s one that will continue to be scrutinized if the Americans fail to win Group E and are forced to take a much tougher path through this knockout stages of this tournament.
Former USWNT defender Ali Krieger, who played major roles in the USWNT’s 2015 and 2019 World Cup wins, said she thought substitutes could’ve put the game away for the Americans.
“They started to get tired — the Dutch really showed that — and that was the moment I was thinking Vlatko would sub one or two extra players in,” Krieger said on Futbol Americas on ESPN+. “That decision was a bit surprising to me. In a moment like that, experience could’ve been key.”
Former USWNT midfielder Tobin Heath, also a member of the 2015 and 2019 squads, said she expected a substitute after Horan’s goal. “The U.S. got momentum from that goal,” Heath said during her podcast, The Re-Cap Show.
“I think you insert — you inject — a Lynn Williams into the game, and all the sudden, the couple instances you saw Trinity break through, I think if you have a fresh Lynn Williams breaking through, there’s a different result at the end of that play.”
After the match, Andonovski was asked repeatedly about his decision, and he defended it by arguing that the USWNT didn’t need reinforcements — and bringing on a substitute might’ve backfired.
“I just didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm at that point because sometimes a substitute comes in and it might take a minute or two to get into a rhythm,” he said. “We just didn’t want to jeopardize anything because I thought all three of our forwards were very good today, dangerous, created opportunities and were a handful.”
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In the end, Andonovski made one substitution against Netherlands, swapping in Rose Lavelle at center midfield for Savannah DeMelo at halftime. That switch undoubtedly changed the game, but why stop there?
“I do think there was a missed opportunity when the Dutch were tiring down,” Krieger said. “Especially in the last few opportunities we had at the end of the game, we could’ve made some changes to try to win the game. So, I don’t know what the ‘rhythm’ was all about, because I do think adding those substitutes could’ve actually created more rhythm than I saw.”
If Andonovski’s view were shared by other coaches — his notion that bringing on substitutes may make the team play worse — then we probably wouldn’t see subs happen with such frequency. But we do see subs most of the time, regardless of whether teams are ahead or chasing the game.
The USWNT’s 1-1 draw with Netherlands was the first time since 2007 that the team only used one or fewer substitutes in a World Cup game, per Stats Perform. The USWNT has never not used a substitute during the World Cup, but the team used just one substitute six previous times, with three of those instances coming in the first Women’s World Cup in 1991.
Making it even more head-scratching that Andonovski declined to use subs: in previous cycles, three substitutes was the maximum number a coach could use. In this World Cup, Andonovski could make up to five.
Carli Lloyd, who also won two World Cups with the USWNT in 2015 and 2019, agreed with Krieger and Heath: a sub could’ve turned the draw into a win, she said. “I would’ve liked to see Lynn Williams come in — I think she’s been having a really great NWSL run this season,” Lloyd told Fox Sports. “And sometimes making subs puts the other players on their toes a little bit — you’re coming off, the next person’s coming in and they’ve got to perform.”
Indeed, Williams is the player who seemed like the most obvious choice to push the USWNT toward a win.
While Smith and Rodman play more like strikers — they like to dribble inside and take shots themselves — Williams can play as a true winger, which would have given the USWNT added width after they were playing in a very narrow shape against the Dutch team. Striker Alex Morgan had some decent service, but could’ve used more of it, which Williams could’ve offered.
Williams is also defensively a much stronger option than the players who were left in the game. No USWNT forward is as good at tracking back and winning balls as she is — going into the World Cup, her 14.01 defensive interventions per 90 minutes in international play was the highest among all USWNT forwards since 2022. She could’ve pressed the Dutch side, forced turnovers for counterattacks, and then helped protect a lead.
“I think Trinity should’ve come out in the 60th and Lynn Williams should’ve come in,” Heath said. “Vlatko raved about Lynn Williams being the best 15-minute player he could put on this roster, and in that moment we needed a 15-minute player to come in.”
Former USWNT coach Jill Ellis, who won back-to-back World Cups with the team in 2015 and 2019, said she thought Megan Rapinoe or Lynn Williams would’ve been good late additions.
“I thought the last 15 minutes of the game would have been perfect for Rapinoe because it was one-way traffic, we had them pinned in, and Megan is arguably one of the best set-piece takers in the world,” Ellis told the “After the Whistle” podcast. “She’s one of the best deliverers of the ball from wide areas. So when you’ve got a team on their back foot, you want that quality world-class service coming from the flanks.
“Lynn, she’s in form, she’s playing well — maybe bring her in for Rodman and give her some time out there on the right side.”
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Andonovski was asked pointedly about Williams after the match and offered a non-committal response: “Yes, we of course talked about substitutes and Lynn was probably one of the first that would’ve been on the field of we needed to change something.” The USWNT didn’t secure a win, so it’s hard to argue they didn’t need to change anything.
So, if Andonovski’s public reasoning doesn’t seem make much sense, then the possibility exists that maybe there is another reason he didn’t use any substitutes — a reason he didn’t want to state publicly.
Could it be that he simply doesn’t trust his bench? Does he not feel confident that the USWNT has game-changers beyond his core starting group? That would be a major concern if so. After all, Krieger stirred outrage outside the U.S. in 2019 when she said the USWNT had “the best team in the world, and the second-best team in the world.”
But Krieger was right. The USWNT has always had extraordinary depth and then-coach Jill Ellis used it in 2015 and 2019, which is arguably how the USWNT won those tournaments.
For instance, Ellis made seven changes from the USWNT’s opener in 2019 to their second group game — that decision gave the starters valuable rest while also giving reserve players the chance to get into the tournament and feel like they had to a role to play. Eventually every non-goalkeeper on the team got minutes. At the 2019 World Cup, the USWNT never once used fewer than three subs, which was the maximum at the time, in a game.
Ellis said after the USA-Netherlands game that regardless of who Andonovski put in, substitutions could’ve helped keep his core group of starters fresh by preventing them from having to play a full 90 minutes again.
“You’re also managing minutes,” Ellis said of the choice not to rotate. “You’ve got players in there right now that have done back-to-back 90s. It’s a long tournament. I always say you want to try to take at least one game off your legs if possible — once you hit the knockout rounds, it’s just not possible.”
For now, though, Andonovski has been sticking with his starting XI that no one would’ve predicted before this tournament began, and that means he’s sticking with them largely until the final whistle. If they aren’t winning and could use some extra help, for whatever reason, it seems bringing on a substitute is a risk that Andonovski may not be willing to take.