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7 things to watch for during the USWNT’s World Cup qualifying campaign

The Americans will have to start strong against Mexico on Thursday.

Soccer: International Friendly Women’s Soccer-Mexico at USA Thomas B. Shea-USA TODAY Sports

The United States women’s national team should never fail to qualify for the World Cup. Especially given the tournament’s recent expansion, which allows the third-placed team from CONCACAF to qualify directly. But U.S. Soccer has experienced some stunning embarrassments before, so the team won’t be taking anything for granted.

First up, Mexico, the biggest test of the group stage. The USWNT takes on El Tri on Thursday night in Cary, North Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, FS2). The last two group stage games against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago should be comfortable wins, even if the team isn’t playing well.

Sunday, October 14 will feature the big test — a semifinal game to qualify for the World Cup. If the USWNT wins, it’ll get to play a final for bragging rights, probably against Canada. If the USWNT loses that semifinal, it’ll get a second chance to make the World Cup in a third place game.

So yes, third place will do just fine in the long run. But it’s a bad sign for the USWNT’s future prospects if it doesn’t win the CONCACAF Women’s Championship, and the team won’t be content with limping into qualifying.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for as the USWNT fine-tunes its squad ahead of next summer’s World Cup.

Crystal Dunn is the starting left back now... ughhhhhh

OK, I’ll get over this soon enough since it’s settled and there’s no use yelling about it anymore. USWNT head coach Jill Ellis has decided on the North Carolina Courage’s MVP-quality attacking dynamo as her left back.

Close to the goal. I really hate Dunn playing left back. It makes sense that Ellis wants to find any way she can to get all of Dunn, Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath, Alex Morgan and Lindsey Horan onto the field at the same time, but I still think that Dunn is such a good attacker, you drop one of them to get her into an attacking role if you have to.

What to do with Julie Ertz?

Julie Ertz was the breakout star of the 2015 World Cup, and she was arguably the USWNT’s best player during 2016 and 2017 too. But 2018 has been less kind to Ertz, who has battled some injuries.

She’s healthy now, but playing a different role for the Chicago Red Stars than she does for the USWNT. Ertz has played her last seven games for the Red Stars, and 10 of her last 11, at center back. She’s been much better in that role this year than she has in midfield. In her last two starts in the middle, she looked well off the pace and was bypassed repeatedly — a 4-1 loss to the North Carolina Courage and a 5-2 loss to the Orlando Pride. The latter was probably her worst performance in a Red Stars shirt.

But Ertz has been back on her old form at center back. Additionally, Tierna Davidson is out injured, while Sam Mewis just helped her team to an NWSL title by doing stuff like this.

So what to do with Ertz? Keep her in the same role and pray it works out, move her back to center back, or drop her from the starting XI entirely? All three options are perfectly defensible.

Let’s build some understanding

Here’s a goal that the USWNT conceded against Japan this summer. It didn’t prevent the team from winning that particular game, but it’s the kind of thing that needs to be cleaned up before the World Cup, and preferably before a CONCACAF final showdown with Canada too.

There are several levels to what goes wrong here.

1. Morgan Brian and Lindsey Horan don’t put any pressure on the ball
2. Julie Ertz, realizing this is a problem, steps up.
3. Tierna Davidson, realizing that is also a problem, also steps up
4. This all happens too fast for the back line to adjust, so there’s a big hole between Abby Dahlkemper and Crystal Dunn
5. Mina Tanaka is really good, that is also a problem

It’s OK to set up your midfielders in a low block and concede possession in one area of the field if you don’t think your opponent can do anything with it. It’s OK to aggressively press to unsettle your opponent and create turnovers. It’s not OK to do what the USWNT does on this goal. It would be nice to see a coherent without-the-ball tactic that everyone understands their role in.

Can we get some Hailie Mace minutes?

Casual fans might not recognize one name on the USWNT roster: UCLA star Hailie Mace, the presumed No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NWSL draft. Mace started her career as a defender, but moved to striker last year, scoring 15 goals with some gaudy shooting numbers too. This season, Mace is playing a bit more of a supportive role as a winger or second striker, playing assister more than scorer.

But Ellis, undoubtedly, sees Mace as her future right back. And unlike other conversions that elicit groans (Dunn, Sofia Huerta, Chioma Ubogagu), this one makes sense. Mace has shown superb defensive acumen when asked to play in the back. She’s sharp technically, but doesn’t quite have the bag of tricks that Dunn or Huerta has, and might be found out as a winger or No. 10 at the pro level. She might be an elite pro as a goal-poaching No. 9, but she’s definitely ready to play fullback at a pro level right now.

And what better time to get her some games than against Panama and Trinidad and Tobago? Kelley O’Hara has the starting right back spot locked down, but she’s dealt with tons of injuries this season, playing just 517 minutes in NWSL. Ellis should be giving Mace some minutes immediately both to ease O’Hara back into the rotation, and to find out if Mace is capable of being O’Hara’s backup in big tournaments.

Hey, so both of the strikers are out of form

Not to alarm anyone, but here’s how the USWNT’s two strikers did in NWSL this season.

Alex Morgan: 5 goals, 38 shots

Christen Press: 2 goals, 34 shots

For the uninitiated: Those numbers are bad. NWSL golden boot winner Sam Kerr scored 16 goals on 87 shots. Lynn Williams, who was left off this squad, scored 14 goals from 94 shots. Morgan and Press didn’t just have bad finishing luck/form, they didn’t even get shots off.

Ellis clearly thinks this is an Orlando Pride and Utah Royals problem, not a Morgan and Press problem, and that her strikers will thrive with better teammates. Hopefully she’s right. If she isn’t, Lynn Williams and her club coach Paul Riley are going to feel justifiably aggrieved.

So.. we need more from Lindsey Horan!

While Morgan’s goal-scoring output has dwindled, she has gotten a lot better at holding the ball up and distributing to her teammates over the past year. Maybe she’ll be providing assists for NWSL MVP Lindsey Horan, who is on the verge of becoming the most important player in the USWNT pool.

Horan’s 14 goals from midfield are her big eye-popping stat, but it’s her versatility that makes her really valuable. Horan also led NWSL in duels won and was second in the league in completed passes. She’s a do-everything midfielder that covers up for other players’ flaws or bad form.

But Horan doesn’t score at the same rate for her country as she does for her club at the moment — she has six goals in 56 caps for the USWNT. Look for that to change in this tournament. If Horan starts banging in goals for the national team at the same rate as she does for the Thorns, it doesn’t matter if the strikers are out of form.

A big role for Rose Lavelle?

After a bad hamstring kept her out for almost an entire year, Rose Lavelle was very slowly and very carefully eased back into playing a big role for the USWNT and Washington Spirit. She finally appears to be fully fit, and she could get a big role in this tournament.

This season’s Spirit were arguably the most miserable team in ProWoSo history, so we didn’t get too many chances to see what Lavelle can do. Here’s a refresher:

Lavelle rivals Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath for both touch and sauce. She might be the most creative player in the pool. And her goal against Brazil in August felt like such a triumphant moment for a player that fans were really starting to worry about.

It’s pretty easy to see a lineup with Lavelle, Horan, Morgan, Rapinoe and Heath running over Canada en route to winning a World Cup next summer. The USWNT has been developing nicely since the Olympics, but a healthy Lavelle might be the piece that makes them the best team in the world.