It’s January of the World Cup year, and the US women’s team is about to kick off the first of a series of friendlies that will lead the Americans to the start of the four-year tournament.

Ahead of the 2019 and 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cups, it was trips to France for the US that resulted in a loss Blues, while in 2011 it was a flight to China, where that year began with a loss to Sweden. This time, however, the Americans are heading to the Southern Hemisphere to double head against New Zealand, where they will play the two group stage venues they will compete in this summer’s World Championships.

- Advertisement -

Indeed, the USWNT tends to break out of its usual routine of playing domestically and heading overseas to kick off the World Cup year, but there is one big difference for the US now compared to previous cycles: perhaps more than ever before, endless signs question around the US team. A couple of games in New Zealand on Tuesday and Friday will provide two opportunities to find answers.

- Advertisement -

– Stream on Sportzshala+: La Liga, Bundesliga and more (USA)
– Read on Sportzshala+: January signings won’t help Arsenal

- Advertisement -

While there is always some degree of fan anxiety around the USWNT as a new tournament year arrives, the team’s pedigree remains palpably strong, as does the tacit understanding that the team will always be one of the strongest in the tournament. Despite a lot of questions in the era of previous coach Jill Ellis, the team has usually been able to get results at key moments and win back-to-back world championships. However, under the current coach Vlatko Andonovski, there were no such assurances.

When Ellis brought the players together for the 2015 and 2019 European World Cup friendly matches, it was to test them, identify the team’s shortcomings and fix them before the long summer. a pretty clear picture of who has done enough to earn a spot at the World Championships. This time around, however, that particular clarity is missing, with players competing for a variety of locations that seem ready to be taken over.

Can anyone replace Julie Ertz in midfield?

Working in the US for more than three years, Andonowski almost always used a 4-3-3 formation, which rarely failed with defensive midfielder Julie Ertz playing at the base of the midfield diamond, but without a suitable Ertz to turn to. things often fell apart.

Instead, the coach chose Lindsey Horan or Andy Sullivan, and neither of them coped with this role the way Ertz did. Indeed, there may not be anyone else in the American player pool who could fulfill the role – not even Ertz herself, who was on vacation after having her first child in August.

While it’s likely that Horan will be on a plane this summer, the role she plays for the US is still open to interpretation as a linebacker is someone you’d ideally want to see higher up on the pitch, creating rather than bringing down no – or trying to nullify. — opposition.

With just four caps to her name, Sam Coffey can assert her authority as a defensive midfielder in this camp as she is far more suited to a bullish defensive midfield role than Sullivan. Returning from injury, Emily Sonnett, who has usually played as a right or center back in the US, could perhaps throw her hat into the ring as she has the ability as well as all-round experience for the role.

All of this suggests Andonowski will continue his favored 4-3-3 formation, with the caveat that during the USWNT’s second game against Germany late last year, the coach tweaked his system to allow more forward flow and take the pressure off. his defenseless defense.

If the manager continues with this approach, fans can expect more pressure on both his attack and defense as the team continues to play more hastily rather than allowing the vast talents of the available players to shine.

Veterans or newbies in the rear?

With Sofia Huerta taking over at right-back as veteran Kelly O’Hara dealt with injuries last year, left-back remains an area of ​​uncertainty for Andonowski.

Crystal Dunn, Emily Fox, and Hayley Mays are all capable of playing the part, though Fox is the only one of the trio to play the part for her Racing Louisville club team. While all three are also capable of moving forward and assisting offensively, they all have different abilities when it comes to defensive duties that will be tested in the latter stages of the World Cup. In this regard, facing a young New Zealand team ranked 24th in the world, who are likely to show a lot of offensive inexperience, may not be the best test of the USWNT’s defensive strength.

While both centre-backs Alana Cook and Becky Sauerbrunn are almost certain they will make the team that will go to the World Cup, given the strong performances at the end of last year, the question remains who will start at the start. protection. Naomi Girma, who will start her second season as a professional at the San Diego Wave this year, looks to be one of two starting center back spots.

Even earlier, Casey Murphy could have been the team’s number one goaltender, as the coach has been oscillating between her and regular starter Alyssa Naher over the past year or so. Likewise, if she is given the nod, Adrianna Franch can bring herself back into consideration as she was selected by the coach during the 2021 Olympics when Najer was forced to leave due to injury in their penultimate game in Japan, but she clearly fell out of favor. since then. then.

As players come back from injury, the attack gets tighter.

With all the depth of talent available to Andonowski or any other coach who has ever led the US team, there is no area where the Americans are more spoiled than in attack.

Injured since March 2022, Lynn Williams is a highly anticipated return to the team and has established herself as her coach’s favourite, with her dedicated off-the-ball work and sharp runs a notable highlight during the Andonowski years. But Williams finds himself on a team in which Mallory Swanson (née Pugh), Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith (not included in this list due to a foot injury) have become regular members.

With Smith and veteran Megan Rapinoe out, Williams has every chance to show her worth and attention to her coach. But after such a long break, perhaps her work on the training field during the camp will be more important.

The broader question is not whether Andonowski will take Williams or Smith to the World Cup, but which players make up his best attacking team, and who can benefit more from the creativity coming from midfield, which could include any Rose Lavelle mix. , Horana, Ashley Sanchez, Taylor Cornick, Christy Muis, Sullivan and Coffey.

In fact, there are very few players who seem to be firmly committed to Andonowski’s plans for this summer, and with the potential return of Katarina Macario continuing to recover from her cruciate ligament injury, places in the roster are high and strong. performance of the national team before the World Cup can be a decisive factor for many called up.

In past cycles, World Championship final lineups have often seemed inevitable, even as coaches fumbled and vetted players right up to the tournament itself, but Andonowski has some genuine questions that don’t have clear answers – and only six months to sort them out before start of the World Cup.