As Thursday’s pivotal Group E World Cup match between the United States and the Netherlands wore on, there was one burning question pointed at the sideline: Where are the U.S. subs?
A team lauded for its depth made only one change in a match in which it was the second-best side for at least the first half. Rose Lavelle came on for Savannah DeMelo at halftime in the No. 10 role as Lavelle continues to build up her minutes following an extended absence due to a knee injury.
The other 11 subs on the U.S. bench never made the field. After the match, U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski said he did not want to disrupt the momentum the team had built.
“I thought that we had control of the game and I thought that we were knocking on the door of scoring a goal,” Andonovski said. “The players played well, we were around the goal the whole time, and I just didn’t want to disrupt the rhythm at that point. Sometimes, a substitute comes in, it might take a minute or two to get into a rhythm and we just didn’t want to jeopardize anything, because I thought all three of our forwards were very good today. [They were] dangerous, created opportunities, and were a handful.”
Lavelle changed the game instantly and provided the assist to Horan for the 62nd-minute equalizer. The U.S. looked the more likely team to score a winner in that final half-hour, but with the Dutch suddenly on the ropes — especially after the halftime exit of centerback Stefanie van der Gragt, which Netherlands coach Andries Jonker said caused the team to lose its “guts” — eyes were on Andonovski to turn to fresh legs at the forward position and punish the Netherlands’ back three. The wait carried through to the final whistle.
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Megan Rapinoe, who starred in the 2019 World Cup final against the Dutch and was brought to this tournament as a late game-changer, stayed on the bench. Lynn Williams, a longtime favorite of Andonovski’s for her defensive work rate, sat there, too. And Alyssa Thompson, the energetic 18-year-old who started in the team’s sendoff match, stayed put.
Asked specifically about Williams, Andonovski said she was top of mind as an option. Still, his decision not to bring on any further substitutes was a curious one both for in-game management and with an eye toward the rest of the tournament — assuming the U.S. can make a deep run.
Andonovski rolled out the same starting 11 in each of the first two games, a stark contrast from how Jill Ellis managed the 2019 group stage, rotating heavily in the second game. This tournament is not nearly what that was, and the Netherlands being the middle game for the U.S. always meant that any heavy rotation would have to yield to a lineup that would get a result.
Throughout this World Cup thus far, Andonovski has reiterated that his starting group has hardly played together. Their first official match was the opener against Vietnam, although there was a closed-door game against the Philippines in Auckland prior to the tournament, as previously reported by The Equalizer.
Implicit in Andonovski’s answers is that he was happy to finally see his preferred 11 — and the second half, with Lavelle at the No. 10, clearly looks like the team he wants out there — clicking on all cylinders. The idea appeared to be that the 30 minutes of strong play against the Netherlands might galvanize that group. The catch, of course, is that the World Cup is well underway. The U.S. has dealt with an endless string of injuries and setbacks to would-be starters and that will always serve as context, but the World Cup is not a place for trying to figure out some basics of team relationships — not for a team aiming for a title, anyway.
“This team has not had time together,” Andonovski said. “The first time we saw this team together was in game one, and now we see them together in game two. So, in game three we expect to grow from there. The baseline is the second half from this game. Hopefully, when we move forward, we’re going to see [a] better and better U.S. team.”
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