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The USWNT misses Julie Ertz, but the midfield must plan for a World Cup without her. What now?

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The year is now 2023, the World Cup is less than six months away and U.S. women's national team head coach Vlatko Andonovski is still answering the question: When will midfielder Julie Ertz return to the team?

The latest media inquiry came last week, ahead of a pair of U.S. games in New Zealand, and Andonovski provided an updated version of the answer he has repeated for over a year:

"With Julie, we had a conversation, and obviously she needs a little bit more time to prepare before she even starts training with the team. We're just excited to give her a little more space and time until she's fully ready to join."

The question of "when," which was the phrasing posed to Andonovski, presumes the question is not "if." But all available evidence suggests that Andonovski and the U.S. need to -- and are -- preparing for a 2023 World Cup without Ertz, arguably the most irreplaceable player from the 2019 World Cup-winning squad.

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Ertz last played for the U.S. nearly 18 months ago, in the team's bronze medal-winning victory over Australia at the Tokyo Olympics. Eight months after that win, Ertz revealed she was pregnant, and she gave birth to her first child in August.

She has not indicated one way or another whether she plans to return to playing, and she has not been under contract with a professional team since late 2021. Even if she were to return to the U.S. team at the next available opportunity, the SheBelieves Cup in February -- which is not something she or Andonovski have hinted -- returning to the form that made her so important for the U.S. would likely take some time, more time than the U.S. has before the World Cup.

So, Andonovski & Co. plotted a path forward, and the replacement they settled on at defensive midfield in 2022 was Andi Sullivan, the Washington Spirit's captain. Sullivan's task was and remains thankless: fill an integral role while enduring constant comparisons to Ertz, who abruptly left a void that the U.S. struggled to fill. No matter what she does, it is viewed in through the lens of what Ertz used to do.

Sullivan is more of a deep-lying, distributing defensive midfielder than she is destroyer, the latter of which is a defining characteristic of Ertz's game. Ertz's ability to cover every blade of grass in the midfield and put in crunching, precise tackles -- first as a center-back at the 2015 World Cup and then as the defensive midfielder in 2019 -- liberated the Americans' more creative players to do what they pleased. Ertz was the safety valve.

After the 2021 Olympics, Andonovski moved on from several other veterans who were core players on the previous two World Cup-winning rosters. The U.S. struggled at times early last year, but in expected ways given the influx of new talent. Less-challenging opponents also made it difficult to judge how well things really were working. Then came October and November, when games against England, Spain and Germany brought the U.S. team's first three-game losing streak in three decades at the end of 2022.

Many of the issues against those top-10 world opponents were due to the spine of the team, specifically the midfield. Calls grew louder for the U.S. to shift to a double pivot in midfield, an implicit admission that two players were needed to replace the work that Ertz did by herself.

Viewing the problems through that lens remains counterproductive, however. Ertz is not with the team. What was then cannot be now. Andonovski must find solutions with the players he has.

Those late-2022 struggles brought a renewed search for alternative options, so Andonovski started 2023 by giving Taylor Kornieck her first start at defensive midfield against New Zealand.

What followed was a poor first half from the U.S. in which Kornieck and fellow midfielder Lindsey Horan pulled wide far too often, leaving the U.S. without central options to build its attack. Sullivan replaced Kornieck at halftime, the passes began connecting and four goals followed. Still, the U.S. set its shape the same way: a three-player midfield with a creative playmaking No. 10 (Rose Lavelle), a two-way No. 8 (Horan) and a defensive No. 6 (Kornieck, then Sullivan).

The rematch three days later brought change, but with a twist: Lavelle dropped deep alongside Sullivan to create a double pivot, and Ashley Sanchez took over the No. 10 role. That led to a more fluid, cohesive U.S. performance that was encouraging, regardless of the lower quality of opponent. The 13-pass buildup to Ashley Hatch's opening goal was the type of ball movement the U.S. keeps trying to produce. The sequence also included Sullivan, who had a newfound freedom going forward with a defensive midfield partner.

That Lavelle lined up alongside Sullivan came as a surprise -- seemingly even to Lavelle.

"Definitely something new for me, but I had fun kind of dropping down and being able to get on the ball a little more deeper in the field," she said after the match. "I think we connected a lot of passes and I think it was a really good game for us."

Did Andonovski finally find his solution? Yes and no.

One myth about starting lineups is that a preferred XI never changes. Any good team, however, will tweak something -- whether personnel or tactical approach -- based on the opponent. Lavelle dropping in deep alongside Sullivan and allowing Sanchez to play a creative role as the No. 10 is a great solution to the USA's long-standing issues of breaking down teams that play low blocks. That might work against Vietnam or whichever team emerges from the global playoff to join the USA's group at the World Cup.

It is also easy to see how Catarina Macario could step into the playmaking No. 10 role in that system once she returns from her torn ACL, which should be soon. Macario can play as the attacking midfielder or striker, and playing her as the No. 10 would also keep Alex Morgan -- the team's most proven goal scorer -- on the field as the striker. Lavelle and Macario, the two most audacious players in the U.S. pool, began developing a magnificent partnership early last year before Macario's injury.

Or perhaps the defensive No. 6 role behind Lavelle and Macario could be occupied by Horan, who missed the second match against New Zealand to return to her club, Lyon. Andonovski tried this twice in 2022, deploying Horan behind Lavelle and Sanchez in a June friendly against Colombia and during the CONCACAF W Championship against Jamaica. Each time, Lavelle and Sanchez played as double No. 10s, leaving Horan to clean up behind them.

Such an aggressive lineup could only be used sparingly, and unlikely against a team with a strong, playmaking midfield, as England and a second-choice Spain side showed in friendlies last year.

Defensive midfield is not Horan's strongest position. She filled in there during Ertz's absence because of injury ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, but an embarrassing 3-0 loss to Sweden to open that tournament ended the experiment, and a beat-up Ertz returned to play 90 minutes in each of the remaining games.

Few other options remain to change the midfield. Andonovski said last week that his list of players in consideration for the 23 World Cup roster spots is down to 32, which leaves little room for surprise. Sam Coffey is the one other player on the most recent rosters who plays defensive midfield for her club, but she did not play a minute against New Zealand.

Most concerning for the current iteration of the U.S. midfield might be the continued absence of Sam Mewis, who, like Ertz, has not played for the U.S. since that bronze-medal game 18 months ago. What was thought to be a minor knee injury at the start of 2022 developed into something more for Mewis.

"Sam will take a little bit longer and at this point, I don't want to guess what the time is or if she is going to be back at all," Andonovski ominously said last week in New Zealand.

Many assumed Mewis would be back in time to play a role at the World Cup, but now that appears to be in doubt. Two years ago, Mewis was considered arguably the best midfielder in the world while at Manchester City. She is best as a No. 8, but she has a similar playmaking profile as Sullivan and could have helped in the ongoing quest for a No. 6.

Increasingly, the World Cup reality for the U.S. women's national team looks like the one that has been present for a year now. Whereas in 2022, the team's bevy of injuries brought a wait-and-see attitude, it's now 2023 and not much has changed -- the World Cup begins in less than six months.

The pair of games last week in New Zealand at least provided some further clarity: Sanchez can handle the No. 10 role, Lavelle works in a deeper position and Kornieck is not a No. 6.

More than ever, though, it is clear that the midfield trio of Lavelle, Horan and Sullivan is the one the U.S. will deploy more often than not at the World Cup. Only a handful of friendly matches remain to fine-tune that between now and the July 22 opener against Vietnam.