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Replacing the irreplaceable: How USWNT could go about filling Ertz void

12:00 PM EDT 6/13/21
Horan Ertz Sonnett USWNT GFX
The team's linchpin defensive midfielder is racing back to fitness after a knee injury, and could be in danger of missing the Olympics in Tokyo

Rose Lavelle often plays in the midfield with Julie Ertz with the U.S. women’s national team, so she knows better than most what her teammate means to the squad.

“Obviously [Julie] is amazing and I think what she brings defensively, nobody else can,” Lavelle said this week. “But I do think we have some very good players who can fill that role.”

USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski will hope against hope that he does not need to find a replacement for Ertz, his team’s linchpin at the holding midfield role.

But he might. 

Ertz is recovering from a knee injury suffered in NWSL play last month, and her status for the upcoming Olympics is up in the air. Should Ertz not be fit, Andonovski has several options to replace her.

“We have Andi Sullivan as a midfielder,” Andonovski said, “We have Lindsey Horan who can play as a six, Sam Mewis can play as a six, but we're also looking at some of the defenders playing the six.

“You have a player like Julie who can play on both sides of the game, but we're also going to test players who can play the six with a more offensive role. At the same time, we're going to test sixes that will have a slightly more defensive role, just so we're prepared for whatever we need.”

Here, Goal breaks down Andonovski’s main three options, should he be forced to replace one of the team’s most irreplaceable players in Tokyo:

Move Mewis or Horan back

Over the past couple years the U.S. coach – whether it is Andonovski or Jill Ellis – has faced a conundrum in the midfield.

The USWNT has three spots, and four world-class players to choose from in Ertz, Lavelle, Mewis and Horan. 

With Ertz out, Andonovski would at least have a forced solution to that question. By pushing Mewis or Horan back into a holding role, the USWNT would be utilizing their three most talented remaining central midfield options. 

Horan has played the No.6 for the U.S. in the past, and against Portugal on Thursday night she did so again. Andonovski appeared happy with what he saw.

“I told her that she was a monster on the field,” the coach said of Horan, “aerial challenges, intercepting balls and controlling the game from all areas of the field.”

Horan would seem the preferred option ahead of Mewis for the role but, as Andonovski mentioned, the NC Courage star also has experience playing at the six.

Her emergence as one of the world’s premier box-to-box midfielders, though, may keep her in a No.8 role for the U.S., even if Ertz is out.

Use Sullivan as a like-for-like replacement

Long one of the top holding midfielders in the NWSL, Andi Sullivan could be given a chance to replace Ertz if Andonovski prefers a like-for-like option. 

Sullivan has for some time been one of the more promising midfielders in the U.S. pool, but up to this point, she has yet to establish herself as a regular with the USWNT. 

Where the 25-year-old has an advantage, though, is the lack of a natural holding midfielder on the roster outside of Ertz. If Andonovski is looking for as little lineup disruption as possible, he could turn to the Washington Spirit captain as Ertz’s replacement.

But that scenario may not be likely. Sullivan has not made a USWNT appearance since January 2020 due to injuries and omissions when healthy. It would be hard to envision a player used so sparingly being thrust into such a prominent role. 

But Sullivan should have her shot to impress Andonovski in one or both of the USWNT’s upcoming friendlies against Jamaica and Nigeria. With a strong display or two, she could force her way into her coach’s plans, if Ertz can’t recover in time for Tokyo.

Use Sonnett or Davidson as a defensive option

While Mewis and Horan are more naturally offensive players who could be moved back to the holding role, Sonnett and Davidson are the opposite: natural defenders who could be moved forward.

Both players are in the mix for an Olympic roster spot because of their defensive prowess and their versatility, with the pair able to play center back, outside back and holding midfield. 

Sonnett came up as an attacking player before being switched to defender in college. Though she has mostly played defense in the NWSL, she has played some defensive midfield for the Spirit this season, and has the comfort on the ball and aggression to succeed at the position.

Like Sonnett, Davidson has midfield in her background, but now plays mostly as a defender. Few players in the USWNT pool can match Davidson for her smoothness in possession and range of passing, though.

Of Sonnett and Davidson, Andonovski said: “It's not a secret that those are the two that so far have experience playing as a six at different levels and in different environments, and it’s possible that one or both get some minutes at the six.”

Because they are such a strong side the USWNT will often encounter opponents who sit back, which would seem to reduce the need for a more defensive-minded No.6 like Sonnett or Davidson.

What may be more likely though, is either of the pair coming off the bench in the final 20 minutes if the U.S. is holding a lead against a dangerous attacking opponent.