COLUMBUS, Ohio — In many ways, Thursday was a beginning. Of a restart and a transition. Of a new coach’s reign. And of a journey that the U.S. women’s national team hopes will end atop a podium, with Olympic gold, next summer in Tokyo.
But Thursday’s 3-2 win over Sweden was, in many other ways, a continuation. Of a dominant run that included a World Cup title, but didn’t conclude with it.
Vlatko Andonovski took charge of the USWNT for the first time on a bitterly cold evening in Columbus. And if you studied his first 90 minutes closely, you could see his influence. You could see it in the team’s shape, in its press, in its patterns, and its fluidity, and in individual roles.
But if you hadn’t followed news of his hire or introduction? And if you hadn’t peered over to the U.S. sideline to see him in a bulging blue coat? You likely wouldn’t have noticed any difference.
Because the U.S. rolled to victory just as it had rolled over so many helpless opponents before Andonovski took charge, with similar personnel and a familiar swagger. It led 3-0 at halftime. The Swedes fought back to make it 3-2. But prior to extensive substitutions and a couple errors, the performance was both impressive and emphatic.
Here are some takeaways from Game 1 of the Vlatko Era.
Carli Lloyd is free
Thursday’s star was undoubtedly Carli Lloyd. She scored twice, and assisted on a third goal. She was lively. She was precise. She was clinical. Her second goal was delightful:
Andonovski was asked after the match what he wants from his No. 9. “Scoring goals,” he said with a smile. And Lloyd did that.
But she also did more. Vlatko, who had spoken earlier about Lloyd’s movement, later continued: “At times, she was popping in different pockets to help us in the buildup, and was very successful.”
Lloyd isn’t a typical midfielder-turned-forward, in that she always had a skill set that belonged higher up the pitch. But as a target striker, with her movement confined, the compartment of her toolbox labeled “midfielder” was sometimes locked. Might Andonovski be the coach to unlock it?
Or, in other words: Did Lloyd feel more freedom in her first match under the new boss?
“Yesss,” Lloyd said with a refreshed, relieved smile. “Yes. I’m allowed to pop off the line, and come into the channel, whether that’s checking off into the space in front of the back line, being able to turn, being able to thread a through ball ...
“... if I have somebody at my back, just gotta lay it, connect it to a midfielder. Sometimes I may check, not get the ball, but the midfielder’s going to be running through. So, yeah, it’s that fluidness, being able to interchange, and that’s the game of football. We see it everywhere around the world. And that’s what he’s trying to implement.”
Lloyd has been waiting not-so-patiently on the USWNT bench for years. At times, it seemed she’d be there for the rest of her career. But with Alex Morgan pregnant, and likely out of the picture until shortly before next summer’s Olympics, Lloyd will be unleashed. She is the undisputed No. 9 until further notice.
She is also 37, and will be 38 when the Olympics kick off in July. Remarkably, though, she’s playing some of the best soccer of her legendary career. Whether or not Morgan recovers in time for Tokyo, therefore, the U.S. will have a world-class striker leading its line.
New wrinkles in the U.S. midfield
If Lloyd was the USWNT’s best player, the midfield was its best unit. Rose Lavelle, Lindsey Horan and Julie Ertz bossed the first half. They did so with individual talent, but also with fluidity and intelligence. And with some quick adaptations to Andonovski’s early teachings.
The most noticeable change was the U.S. attacking shape. With Ertz holding at almost all times, Lavelle and Horan had liberty to connect with Lloyd; to run off her; and to interchange with one another or with wingers. For extended periods of the first half, Lavelle drifted out to the right wing and stayed there, while Tobin Heath took up Lavelle’s attacking central midfield spot.
Heath’s interception in a central area actually led to the second goal – and it was Lavelle who’d raced into the box from the right in case Christen Press needed support. (She didn’t.)
Lavelle’s ability to carry the ball past opposing midfielders, from deeper positions into the attack, is what dazzled the world this past summer in France. But on Thursday, she was making diagonal runs off center backs’ shoulders. She and Horan were closer to Lloyd. Whereas Ellis’ most common formation was a true 4-3-3, with wingers as primary support for the striker, on Thursday, that responsibility fell evenly on the shoulders of the wingers and attacking midfielders.
Yet there were still interchanges deeper in midfield as well. The buildup to the third goal was dictated by Horan in a No. 6 position, with Ertz having pushed higher. Horan solved Swedish pressure with confidence and strength on the ball, and created acres of space for Ertz to pick the forward pass.
“A lot of the play is now going through the midfield, and trying to trust us a little more, and play through us a little bit more, which we obviously love,” Horan said postgame. “To see how much more you can get us in the game, to help others get in the game. It’s a cool change, and an exciting challenge.”
More notes and observations
How much of the U.S. approach was tailored to Sweden, as opposed to being a defined system the U.S. will reproduce in the future? “It was a little bit of both,” Andonovski said postgame.
The U.S. line of confrontation varied throughout the game. That’s always going to be the case, of course – Andonovski’s press is situational. But he felt it often could have been higher than it was on Thursday.
Lloyd on the intricacies of the press, which will take time to learn: “I think it requires more smarts on my end – when to release to trigger [the press], how to trigger, not just running out at the player but trying to cut off some passing channels to other players. And just making sure that the team is coming behind me.”
Jill Ellis’ chief reason for leaving Casey Short off her 2019 World Cup roster was Short’s lack of attacking ability. But the Chicago Red Stars fullback has made the attacking side of her game a priority, and on Thursday her improvements showed. She unlocked Sweden’s defense to create the first goal, and won a penalty that could have given the U.S. a fourth. She’s a better player today than she was six months ago, and very well could be in contention for a spot on the Olympic roster.
Most players who spoke with media after the game raved about Andonovski. They said they’ve already learned a lot. That they love his attention to detail. That he’s “awesome,” and “very intelligent.” And so on.
Some of it was cliché, and gave off standard first-game-under-a-new-coach vibes. But a few players seemed genuinely enthusiastic about the new boss. One of those players was Lloyd. “He wants to get us playing good football,” Lloyd said. “He wants the backs playing into the midfield, even up into the 9 position. Connecting, layoffs, combinations, fluid movement amongst players. It’s really good. I’m enjoying it. We’re all smiling. We’re all enjoying it.”
She later continued, expanding on Vlatko’s methods: “His training sessions are short, concise, to-the-point. You know the message. He stops to point out some coaching pointers every now and again. It’s the belief in players, and the confidence he has in players, that you feel, and you feed off of. I’ve heard so many good things about him, from so many different players, and now I know why.”
Andonovski rolled out a starting 11 that might as well have come from Ellis. It was a bit more 4-1-4-1 than 4-3-3, but it was a variation on a theme rather than an overhaul. Lavelle confirmed after the game that it’s a shape the team had used under Ellis.
From back to front, and right to left (with subs in parentheses), here was the U.S. XI:
Alyssa Naeher; Emily Sonnett, Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn, Casey Short; Julie Ertz (Andi Sullivan substitute); Tobin Heath (Mal Pugh), Rose Lavelle (Sam Mewis), Lindsey Horan, Christen Press (Lynn Williams); Carli Lloyd.
Up next for the USWNT
The USWNT will head to Jacksonville to play – and likely beat, handily – Costa Rica on Sunday. Then the transition will really get underway.
In December, Andonovski will hold a “discovery camp,” or “identification camp,” for players on the outside looking in at the current squad, but players who could break into it in the near or medium-term future.
It’s unlikely many, if any, invitees break into his 18-woman Olympic roster. It will give him a jumpstart on expanding and re-defining the player pool thereafter. But on Thursday’s evidence, not much about the current group needs to change anytime soon.
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