With Sam Mewis out and ‘time running out’ for Julie Ertz, USWNT enters World Cup year with big question marks

United States' Julie Ertz, right, and United States' Samantha Mewis warm up before the women's international friendly soccer match between the Netherlands and the United States at the Rat Verlegh stadium in Breda, southern Netherlands, Friday, November 27, 2020. ( Piroschka van de Wouw/Pool via AP)

Samantha Mewis, left, and Julie Ertz, right, were one half of a potent midfield unit for the 2019 USWNT World Cup Champion team. (Piroschka van de Wouw/Pool via AP)

The engine that propelled the 2019 US women’s team to a second consecutive world title he was a well-balanced, four-pointed midfield collectively coming into his prime. They were Rose Lavelle, Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan and Sam Mewis, all 27 and under, all positioned to run the sport for the foreseeable future.

But four years later, entering another World Cup This year, with the USWNT set to embark on another title defense, the strength of the longtime team has become its biggest question mark.

Neither Ertz nor Mewis have played soccer since 2021, and head coach Vlatko Andonovski indicated Wednesday, more definitely than ever, that he doesn’t expect either to be available this summer.

Mewis has been battling a maddening knee injury which required a second surgery last month. She revealed earlier this week that there is no timetable for his return, and Andonovski confirmed that Mewis “will not be able to play in the World Cup due to injury”.

Ertz, meanwhile, gave birth to son Matthew in August, and is without a club as preseason for the Women’s National Soccer League begins. Andonovski said “time is running out” for the 30-year-old Ertz. “She’s someone we probably won’t be able to count on at the World Cup,” she said.

And here we are, five and a half months from the tournament, with more worries than answers.

“These are two big names that can or will be absent from the World Cup,” Andonovski acknowledged. “And this is something that we’ve planned for, and that’s why we’ve tried different names, different players at these positions.” His problem is that, so far, none of these solutions has been viable.

He spent most of 2022 pairing Horan and Lavelle with Andi Sullivan, a useful defensive midfielder but certainly not an Ertz replacement. That midfield three lacked bite and was exposed in three straight fall losses.

In January, Andonovski managed Taylor Kornieck in the defensive midfielder role, and in a scoreless first half against New Zealand, outplayed by the others, the USWNT’s lack of pace and structure was alarming.

And now that?

“We’re going to keep trying in this camp until we solidify the players that we think will give us the best chance to succeed,” Andonovski said.

One potential solution that seemed worth trying was Sam Coffey, who, as a 23-year-old NWSL rookie, became a key cog for the Portland Thorns, championship winner. In four USWNT appearances last year, she shone on the upside. It seemed to be the most complete and pure “No. 6” the US had.

So she didn’t play in January. On Wednesday, she was completely left out of the February SheBelieves Cup roster.

“There was something else we wanted to see in this camp, in these games,” Andonovski said when asked about Coffey’s surprising omission.

Fortunately, there is still time to work out that “something else.” There are three games this month, against Canada (February 16), Japan (February 19) and Brazil (February 22), then more in April and beyond.

But there is no longer any hope that ready reinforcements will appear when necessary. For months, perhaps for over a year, any USWNT fighting was tempered by the assumption that Ertz and Mewis would eventually return, but that assumption gradually gave way to the realization that they won’t.

Both had been mainstays in the American midfield for half a decade. Ertz was a reliable destroyer, a defensive midfielder unparalleled in the USWNT player pool. And Mewis had risen to the top. She was the US Soccer Women’s Player of the Year in 2020. She had become one of the best players in the world, galloping from box to box at will.

They have left enormous shoes to fill, proverbial shoes that, in all likelihood, no player is capable of stepping into.

The solution will have to be partly schematic. His absences will change the way the USWNT plays and what it is capable of. Those changes certainly don’t disqualify the USWNT as a World Cup contender. There is still time to evolve, there is still time to emerge as a reformed force. And there are still other injured players who should return: Catarina Macario, the team’s brightest star, is expected to return in April.

But they have become Andonovski’s biggest challenge in mid-July and near the start of the World Cup.

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