As the United States women’s national team’s final World Cup tune-up match dragged on without a goal against Wales on 10 July, a familiar question loomed: Where would the spark come from?
The answer eventually came in the form of forward Trinity Rodman, who entered the game at the start of the second half and scored twice in the final 15 minutes to deliver a 2-0 victory for the United States.
Scoring goals is what the USA do best. From scoring five against Japan in the 2015 World Cup final, to the oddly controversial 13-0 group-stage romp against Thailand four years later, production has never been a problem.
Therein lies the paradox for this United States team. With so much depth at the forward position, there should be little doubt that goals will come. How and from whom? That question leads to a haul of options, from the incumbent No 9, Alex Morgan, to the group of rising stars led by 2022 National Women’s Soccer League MVP Sophia Smith. US head coach Vlatko Andonovski is spoiled for options.
Such depth requires decisions to be made about who starts and where, as well as which group has the most chemistry. Andonovski craves a possession-based, free-flowing system that creates beautiful buildups and makes opponents chase shadows. When it all comes together, it produces a gorgeous brand of soccer. The approach to an (offside) goal in 2021 against Mexico exemplifies this system working at its finest.
Rodman’s first goal in that win over Wales came from a wonderful combination between the three forwards on the field at the time: Rodman, Smith and Lynn Williams. First, Williams checked down into space. Then, she turned and played a ball in behind for Smith, who crossed to Rodman for the finish. The three forwards were swapping positions in the flow of the game and reading each other’s movement, which is exactly what Andonovski wanted.
“I would say the majority of our forwards are very flexible in terms of the position that they are playing and they can play multiple positions and they can do that with success,” Andonovski said after the Wales match. “We saw that Trinity went in as a 9, and then found a little more success wider, so they changed, they switched. Soph started as the 7 and then the goal that we scored, she was the 11, then finished the game at the 9. It just makes it a little more unpredictable. Because of how they play, they play a lot by instinct as well. They understand the game and use their instinct to find themselves into the game. They have the freedom to roam from one to another position to implement or impose themselves on the game.”
Smith will shoulder much of the scoring burden – a pressure she said she craves – from either the wing or the striker role. She is dynamic and “deadly” on the ball, as one teammate describes her. Will she line up on the wing opposite Rodman, with Alex Morgan?
Mallory Swanson was the hottest hand until she tore her patella tendon in April. Swanson scored in five straight USA games to start the year, bagging seven goals in that time. She was unstoppable. Smith is more than capable of carrying the scoring load, but Swanson’s injury was inarguably a blow (among many injury woes) for the Americans.
Another unknown for the US attack revolves around the No 10 position. Rose Lavelle enters the World Cup having not played a competitive match in three months due to a lingering knee issue. She is medically cleared to play and has been training with the team, but was withheld from the Wales match as a precaution.
Lavelle is the orchestrator in midfield, the player capable of breaking down low blocks (as Vietnam are likely to present in the group stage) with a killer through ball or on the dribble, when the ball appears to stick to her feet and she wiggles her way through tight spaces like Gumby. Lavelle is an established force now after announcing herself to the world at the 2019 tournament. Her technical skills are unparalleled on this US team.
Catarina Macario can unlock defenses in a similar fashion, but she too will miss the World Cup due to a torn ACL. Prior to the injury last spring, Macario had been developing a fruitful relationship with Lavelle as the two played off each other’s creativity. Their combination at a major tournament must wait at least another year.
How will Lavelle look after such a long layoff? And could the injury, which was initially deemed a minor “knock” in early April, be a concern for the tournament?
In the past, the US have found solutions to these types of questions, leaving the worrying for those on the outside. That may well be the case again, considering the amount of quality available, from Morgan and Smith, to Williams, Rodman, soon-to-retire Megan Rapinoe, and 18-year-old Alyssa Thompson.
This is a new group, however, one that must work through some synchronization issues as a sum of its parts. Who will be the catalyst?