USWNT’s World Cup title defense begins in earnest with a 2019 Netherlands rematch

WELLINGTON, New Zealand — Cliches spilled out of U.S. women’s national team camp over the past month, and disguised the true nature of the World Cup group stage. Players would insist that they respected Vietnam; that they were taking Group E one game at a time; that they were focused on their opener. But looming on Matchday 2, on Thursday here in Wellington (Wednesday, 9 p.m. ET, Fox), is a rematch of the 2019 final, a showdown with the Netherlands, a meeting of top-10 teams that will likely yield a group winner.

“So, obviously, that was in the back of our minds,” U.S. forward Alex Morgan admitted Tuesday. “For sure. And when we drew [the Dutch back in October], we immediately knew it was gonna be a good matchup.”

“We’ve trained, prepared a lot for this tournament — and especially for this game,” U.S. head coach Vlatko Andonovski said Wednesday.

They didn’t overlook Vietnam. Throughout their weeks-long pre-World Cup camp, they largely focused on themselves anyway. They are preparing to play seven games Down Under, a majority against to-be-determined knockout-round opponents. They didn’t obsess over any one of their three group foes.

But their coaching staff has been scouting the Netherlands for months. Within that pre-World Cup camp, they drilled movements and attacking shapes that would prepare them to break down an organized 3-5-2 — the exact formation they expect to see from the Dutch on Thursday. That tactical training, Morgan clarified, wasn’t necessarily Netherlands-specific, “but we’ve worked on every possible situation so we can pull that out of the bag when necessary,” she said.

So they will be ready for their first real 2023 World Cup test, their first opportunity to answer looming questions and brandish three-peat credentials.

Vietnam was a warmup, “a good place to start,” as Sophia Smith said afterward, “to just get a World Cup game under my belt, see how it felt, know what to expect.”

Thursday is the true beginning of the title defense.

AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND - JULY 22: Sophia Smith (L) of USA celebrates with teammates Alex Morgan (C) and Trinity Rodman (R) after scoring her team's second goal during the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Group E match between USA and Vietnam at Eden Park on July 22, 2023 in Auckland / Tāmaki Makaurau, New Zealand. (Photo by Hannah Peters - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)
Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan and Trinity Rodman will be leading the USWNT’s attack against the Netherlands. (Photo by Hannah Peters – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Meet the Dutch: Similar personnel, different shape

Once upon a time, the Dutch were a women’s soccer afterthought. That changed last decade, and specifically in 2017, when the Oranje stormed to a European championship on home soil. Two summers later, a near-exact replica of that 2017 team reached the World Cup final. And four years after that, here in New Zealand, the team’s core is partially still intact.

But not fully.

Vivianne Miedema, its star striker, tore her ACL in December.

And Sarina Wiegman, its superstar coach, now helms England.

The Dutch, therefore, are different nowadays. They still boast recognizable names — Lieke Martens, Daniëlle van de Donk, Jackie Groenen, and so on — but no traditional striker. Under head coach Andries Jonker, they’ve reverted to a semi-rigid 3-5-2, rather than the classic 4-3-3 they rode to the top of the sport.

And in recent times, they’ve looked rather ordinary. At Euro 2022, they sputtered through the group stage and departed in the quarters. In October, they lost to Norway. In February, they split a pair of friendlies with Austria. Thursday’s match, in that sense, is not a clash of the titans.

But the Netherlands will offer resistance that Vietnam didn’t. Its three experienced center backs — Stefanie van der Gragt, Dominique Janssen and converted midfielder Sherida Spitse — can match the Americans physically and mentally.

“They’re an extremely tough team to break down, defensively,” Morgan said. “As much as we can pull them out of position, we wanna disorganize them and make it so they’re kind of emergency-defending, and we have numbers up in the attack. But it’ll be difficult.”

It’ll be especially difficult for a U.S. team that, under Andonovski, has struggled to break down low blocks. Chance creation wasn’t its problem against Vietnam — finishing was — but nothing against Vietnam was particularly applicable to the rest of the tournament. The Netherlands game, on the other hand, will be the clearest window yet into the 2023 USWNT’s problems and solutions.

Julie Ertz L of the United States vies with Goalkeeper Tran Thi Kim Thanh of Vietnam during the group E match between the United States and Vietnam at the FIFA Women's World Cup in Auckland, New Zealand, July 22, 2023. (Photo by Qin Lang/Xinhua via Getty Images)

Will Julie Ertz remain at center back, a position she hadn’t played since 2019, against the Dutch? (Photo by Qin Lang/Xinhua via Getty Images)

The USWNT’s Julie Ertz question

The Vietnam game actually brought more lineup questions than answers. The assumption all along, ever since captain Becky Sauerbrunn’s injury, had been that Alana Cook would partner Naomi Girma at center back; and that Julie Ertz would eventually, potentially, reclaim her defensive midfield position from Andi Sullivan.

Instead, Ertz started ahead of Cook at center back. And it’s entirely unclear whether this was a temporary twist or a permanent plan.

Ertz hadn’t played the position at all since 2019, and hadn’t played it consistently since 2017. When Andonovski named the World Cup roster, she looked like a fourth in-case-of-emergency center back, not a potential starter. So did Andonovski use the Vietnam game to stress-test that emergency solution? Or does he suddenly prefer Ertz — who only just returned to the sport in April after 20 months away — over Cook?

And if he does, does that mean he’s comfortable with Sullivan — who’s serviceable but exploitable — at the base of midfield?

Or is Ertz still the ideal-world starting defensive midfielder?

Andonovski wouldn’t say Saturday. “For [the Vietnam] game, we needed [Ertz] to be a center back, and she played as center back, and played very well for us,” he said. “For the next game, we’re gonna look into it and decide whether she’s gonna be a midfielder or a center back.”

He and Ertz both seemed to drop hints, though.

“Obviously we’ve been working on possibilities of being in the back for a while, at least since I’ve been back [from maternity leave],” Ertz said.

“When we knew that Becky’s not gonna be able to make it, that’s something that we started looking into even deeper,” Andonovski explained. “We had a conversation with Julie before we even tried it. Did a lot of work before we even got in camp, in terms of videos, analysis on both sides. We were helping her out, but also she wanted to get adjusted, acclimated as soon as possible. And I think today, it showed how good she can be in the back line, in possession and out of possession. So I’m glad we made that decision.”

If that’s the decision, it’s also unclear why Andonovski made it — does he not trust Cook? Or does he believe Ertz no longer has the legs to be the midfielder destroyer she once was?

Either way, the massive midfield hole that Ertz vacated two years ago hasn’t been filled. Can the U.S. adapt around it, and win despite it?

There are other, unrelated questions as well. Rose Lavelle’s health is a major one. Andonovski eased her back into competitive action against Vietnam, for 30 minutes off the bench. Will she start against the Dutch, and going forward?

Lavelle seems to want to. She was chosen to speak at Wednesday’s pre-match news conference, an indication that she will start. She previously said Saturday that she was “ready for whatever,” and reiterated Wednesday that she feels “good.”

She might not be feeling 90-minutes good, at least not yet. But the time for easing into the 2023 World Cup has elapsed. On Thursday, crunch time commences. And whatever lineup Andonovski trots out — if it includes Lavelle — will probably be his preferred 11 for the rest of the tournament.

Projected USWNT starting lineup vs. Netherlands

Goalkeeper: Alyssa Naeher
Defenders: Crystal Dunn, Naomi Girma, Julie Ertz, Emily Fox
Midfielders: Andi Sullivan, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle
Forwards: Sophia Smith, Alex Morgan, Trinity Rodman