With USWNT in the CONCACAF W final, a more nuanced version emerges under Vlatko Andonovski


With USWNT in the CONCACAF W final, a more nuanced version emerges under Vlatko Andonovski

MONTERREY, Mexico — Thursday brought another methodical performance from the United States women’s national team in their 3-0 win over Costa Rica at the Estadio Universitario. The result secured the Americans a spot in Monday’s CONCACAF W Championship final, a match they, and almost everyone, believed they would win from the start.

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Getting there has been arduous rather than dominant for Vlatko Andonovski’s side, but it was enough to qualify for the 2023 World Cup – where USA will look to win an unprecedented third straight title – and USA just one win removed from having a spot at the 2024 Olympics.

“I think we need to be sharper overall,” said Emily Sonnett, who scored the USWNT’s first goal on Thursday. “I don’t think our team is very happy with that. There’s a lot we need to focus on. But overall I think we competed and I think we stuck to game plans for every single game. How to the?” have we got everything together now?”

Two of Thursday’s goals were products of USA putting pressure on the field at the right time. Sonnett’s 34th-minute opener – the first of her career in 69 appearances – was, like Kristie Mewis’ winner in Monday’s 1-0 win over Mexico, another spasmodic corner kick.

Key to the creation of this opportunity is something that doesn’t show up on the stat sheet: an individual defense performance from Mallory Pugh high up the field. A minute after Pugh almost snatched the ball from Costa Rica goalkeeper Noelia Bermudez in her own penalty area, the US winger put pressure on the Costa Rica defense deep in her own third of the defence, captured the ball and went straight on target for a corner kick. Sonnett scored in the following game.

Ten minutes later Pugh was dead. Sophia Smith captured the ball just outside the Costa Rica box and Rose Lavelle reacted quickly, heeling it into the path of Pugh, who ran after it. Lavelle’s technical prowess made the play but Smith’s pressure to regain the ball in a high area was the catalyst.

“I think pressing is a great opportunity to switch and attack,” said Pugh after the game. “Well, I think if you look at it like defense is offense, I think that’s just part of who we are. We want to create those offensive transitional moments to be able to create ads that just keep going. We want teams to feel that pressure just like that, so I think it’s just part of who we are.”

Since Andonovski’s first game in charge in November 2019, the US press has been more diverse than the previous iteration under Jill Ellis. The 2019 world-champion team played with a relentless, energetic pressing that demanded significant defensive efforts from their attacking line, as well as a midfield that needed to cover large areas in wide areas. The continued absence of Julie Ertz (pregnant) and Sam Mewis (recovering from injury), two of the three midfielders in the starting XI at the 2019 World Cup, is part of the reason the team’s area is in flux.

Andonovski took on the job with a determination to add nuance to the team’s defensive pressure. His goal, he said at the time, was not to completely recalibrate a system that had brought great success to the team, but to refine the process. Sometimes that means Americans drop their confrontation line slightly to challenge their opponent to play through it. A lot of opponents – especially in CONCACAF – can’t do that.

On Thursday, circumstances dictated that the US was picky about when to press anyway. The game started at 18:00 local time under the unrelenting sun as Monterrey’s prolonged drought dragged on. The temperature at kick-off was 96 degrees Fahrenheit, with a felt temperature of over 100. Thursday also marked the fourth game in 11 days for each team (10 for their opponents), and with the final against Canada on Monday, the US had to staff allow yourself to look ahead.

“It comes down to reading the moments and when we want to press and when we want to bear away a little and allow them to connect a couple of passes,” Andonovski said of managing the Heat.

The forthcoming clash between the USA and Canada is a repeat of last year’s Olympic semifinals, which Canada won on their way to the gold medal and forced the USA to settle for the bronze medal. Canada will be the toughest and toughest opponent USA has faced in all tournaments. It’s also a team that likes to find transitional moments and hit counterattacks, similar to the semifinals in Tokyo. The USA dominated most of the game but conceded a penalty when Canada counterattacked and lost 1-0.

Much of that momentum will be back in play on Monday, although the USA roster has undergone a significant makeover in the 11 months since that game. Canada, who beat Jamaica 3-0 in Thursday’s late game, will be strong defensively and will look to take advantage of the United States in wide areas while America’s full-backs push forward. This likely means that the US will timely pressure its rivals and limit their exposure to counterattacks.

“I feel like the way Vlatko wants to play us is different in every game, isn’t it?” said Alex Morgan. “It depends if it’s a four or a five [for the opposition], the way they push – whether inside or outside, the spaces they give, or the high line or a low line. I think we faced different challenges in every game.”

Morgan added that USA could have been 3-0 up at half-time but missed chances, including hers. She hit the post soon after the game started and USA missed several opportunities from close range, which was an issue at the tournament. The sharpness isn’t there yet for this US version, but it should be on Monday. The loser of the final will have to wait a year to confirm his place at the 2024 Olympics via a playoff.

“I thought we made too many technical mistakes, too many for the players on the field,” Andonovski said.

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