Most coaches would love that problem, and U.S. women’s coach Vlatko Andonovski surely doesn’t mind, even though it complicates his lineup choices and could even result in the omission of a national team star on the short Olympic roster.
The four players are:
• Julie Ertz, the 2019 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year and the highest-ranked U.S. player (ninth) in The Guardian’s Top 100 of 2020.
• Sam Mewis, the 2020 U.S. Soccer Female Player of the Year who’s vying with Tobin Heath to be the most impactful U.S. player in England this season and is 15th in the The Guardian’s rankings.
• Lindsey Horan, who has a strong argument to be higher than 18th in The Guardian’s rankings given her dominant national team play and Best XI selection for the NWSL Challenge Cup.
• Rose Lavelle, who ranked seventh in the 2019 Guardian rankings and also made the Challenge Cup Best XI. Like Christian Pulisic, she is the best attacking force of the WNT but is consistently hindered by injuries. The unimaginative lineups of Manchester City coach Gareth Taylor haven’t helped. But she is surely in the top 20 when such impediments are removed.
Fortunately for Andonovski, they don’t all play exactly the same position. Ertz is the template for a defensive midfielder, destroying attacks and deftly passing to start the attack. Mewis is a pitch-perfect box-to-box midfielder. Horan wins duels, as detailed in depth in Joey Jenkins’ scouting report, and she has been a potent scorer whenever she has been in that role. Lavelle is a creative force.
Jill Ellis rarely managed to find room for all four players in her 4-3-3. Any combination with three of the four midfielders works well in the center. The lack of wing play among this group isn’t a problem because the outside backs overlap with gusto, and the three forwards also spread the field wide.
But should this fearsome foursome play at the same in 2021? The options are:
1. Move Ertz backward. She burst onto the international scene as a center back, and she can still go there in case of need. But as long as Abby Dahlkemper (53rd on The Guardian’s list) and Becky Sauerbrunn (one of the best ever) are healthy, Ertz isn’t needed there, and she can’t use her full skill set when she’s tethered to the back. Emily Sonnett or Tierna Davidson can fill the backup center back role as well.
2. Move Lavelle to left or right forward. Taylor is trying her up front for Manchester City, to much consternation. But that position doesn’t take advantage of her ability to move the ball up through the center of the field. Also, Heath is in the best form of any U.S. front-liner right now, and right forward is her spot.
3. Move Horan to center forward. She played forward through her late teens and early 20s at PSG and scored goals by the dozen. She also scored 13 goals for Portland in her 2018 MVP season.
4. Change the formation. Could Andonovski deploy a diamond in the middle of a 4-4-2? The difficulty with that formation is getting wide play, but Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara are as perfectly suited as any outside backs in the world to deal with the pressure of overlapping while still getting back on defense. Also, the two forwards can drift wide and let Horan or Lavelle go marauding in the center.
The difference between 3 and 4 is slight. They can play Horan as the tip of the central spear, and calling her a forward or a midfielder would just be a matter of semantics.
Here’s the scary part: Assuming Heath has the right forward slot nailed down, this formation leaves Alex Morgan, Christen Press, Lynn Williams, Carli Lloyd, Mallory Pugh and Megan Rapinoe competing for one spot.
And this is where we see the inherent tension in a cantankerous WNT fan base that spans from a small but growing number of knowledgeable supporters to a larger group of fans and media pundits who are prone to caterwaul at any perceived slight of the most famous players.
The most famous player in this group is Rapinoe, who won but didn’t really deserve the World Cup Golden Ball and Ballon d’Or in 2019. The least famous forward is the one in the best form this year -- Lynn Williams.
Fame in women’s soccer comes with age. Awards tend to lag behind a player’s peak. Rapinoe deserved more consideration for awards in past years but was named to the shortlist of 55 players contending for the FIFA/FIFPro World 11 for 2019-20, when she has hardly played. Same goes for defender Ali Krieger and Carli Lloyd, future Hall of Famers who have barely seen the field in 2020.
Look past the glitz, though, and you’ll find a national team whose only forwards under age 30 with significant experience are Pugh, who is a long shot for the Olympic roster, and Williams. You’ll also see players who’ve missed a lot of time in 2020 for various reasons.
• Rapinoe has been idle for months and already did the least running of the team’s field players in the 2019 World Cup, and sitting idle through much of 2020 raises concerns about her fitness when she takes the field in Tokyo at age 36.
• Press recently missed time with some sort of nasty illness but tied with Horan for the most WNT goals in 2020 and should be fine.
• Morgan is back from pregnancy. Most of her national team goals in recent years have come against inferior opposition. She has a couple of goals for Tottenham in a short time since her return, though both were from the penalty spot.
So if Horan or Lavelle is bumped forward, the competition for the abysmally small 18-player roster gets that much more intense and should be picked on form, not fame. Andonovski’s glowing talk on Lloyd’s prospects is discouraging -- it’s difficult to see her justifiably playing any role beyond a supersub unless she turns the clock back to 2015.
If Andonovski takes six defenders -- as he should, especially given the fact that he could always call on Dunn or O’Hara to move forward if needed -- that leaves 10 spots. The midfield quartet takes four, and they may need a backup like Andi Sullivan or Kristie Mewis -- or perhaps the highly touted 21-year-old Catarina Macario. We’re down to five. Assume Heath, Press and Williams are locks. That leaves two spots for Morgan, Lloyd and Rapinoe. (Or just one if the uncapped Macario proves too good to keep out.)
And that means the knock-on effect from reconfiguring the lineup to get the WNT’s four best players on the field at once could be leaving a fan favorite and hero of recent World Cups off the roster. Andonovski could even opt to take both Sullivan and Kristie Mewis, leaving two legends home.
Would Andonovski dare?
If it’s a choice between taking an out-of-form forward and unleashing the full power of his outstanding midfield, he should.