Never in modern times has the United States women’s national team entered a World Cup surrounded by so many questions. The scrutiny that follows the team is constant, but endless injuries and constant player turnover recently created uncertainty.
United States coach Vlatko Andonovski’s starting lineup on Saturday against Vietnam for the team’s opener exemplified as much. In most scenarios, the number of surprises would have been seen as a risk too many to start a major tournament, but the United States won as expected, 3-0 over an overmatched but dogged Vietnam side making their tournament debut.
Forward Sophia Smith led the way with a first-half brace. Her first goal, in the 14th minute, came as midfielder Lindsey Horan found forward Alex Morgan for a flick-on. It was the type coordinated movement Andonovski alluded to wanting to see from his team in the opener to break down Vietnam’s hyper defensive setup, a five-back formation that would become a line of six defenders at times.
Smith scored again in first-half stoppage time from a short corner kick. She also assisted Horan’s goal in the second half.
Trinity Rodman started on the right wing, answering the question of who would fill the void left by the injured Mallory Swanson.
But the biggest surprise of the night for the USA came in the No 10 position. Savannah DeMelo filled in for Rose Lavelle, who is being eased into the tournament following a months-long absence due to a knee injury. Ashley Sanchez had previously assumed those backup duties.
Saturday was DeMelo’s first start in a USA jersey. She is only the third player to have made a USA World Cup roster without having previously been capped and the first since midfielder Shannon Boxx in 2003.
Julie Ertz, whose amazing comeback was supposed to solve the team’s midfield problems, started at center-back in a surprise that had been foreshadowed by Andonovski in previous weeks following the loss of captain Becky Sauerbrunn to a foot injury.
Four years ago, Ertz was one of the best players in the world – as a defensive midfielder. She has not consistently played at center-back in six years. She also hasn’t played much lately, period. Ertz was away from the team for 18 months, during which she gave birth to her son in August 2022, before returning in March.
Since then, Ertz has battled minor setbacks and played far fewer minutes than initially planned in her pre-World Cup comeback. On Saturday, she lined up alongside rising star Naomi Girma. It was the first time the two played the position together in an official match.
The pair had little to do, however, allowing them to familiarize themselves with each other. Vietnam failed to register a shot in the match.
Lavelle and Megan Rapinoe, who is playing in her fourth and final World Cup, aren’t fully fit and need to build their minutes as the tournament progresses, Andonovski said on Friday. The pair entered the match together just past the hour mark as the USA comfortably led 2-0. It was the first appearance in a competitive match for Lavelle in three months. The pair nearly combined for a goal two minutes later, but Rapinoe hit her attempt high and wide. Lavelle rattled the crossbar in the 85th minute.
Morgan had a poor penalty attempt saved just before halftime in a rare moment that went wrong for the USA on the day, but apart from some expected rustiness in passing moments, it was a professional performance that sets up the Americans for Thursday’s defining group game: a 2019 World Cup final rematch with the Netherlands.