With World Cup now in sight, USWNT face a balancing act to stay healthy after tough Ireland tests

Vlatko Andonovski will be hoping that over the next three months before the World Cup, some of his attacking players find their sharpness, because over two matches with Ireland, the U.S. women's national team looked well short of its best.

Granted, the USWNT won both matches, 1-0 on Tuesday in St. Louis that had followed last Saturday's 2-0 victory in Austin, Texas. But the only goal to come from an attacking player was Lindsey Horan's penalty late in the first encounter. The other two came from defenders -- Emily Fox and Alana Cook -- with the latter goal providing the best possible birthday gift to Cook thanks to a goalkeeping blunder from Ireland's Courtney Brosnan.

The good news was that the U.S. -- as it so often does -- found a way. If it requires defenders getting the goals, so be it. Pre-World Cup friendlies aren't always the best barometer for how a team will fare either. (Does anyone remember the 0-0 tie with South Korea prior to the 2015 tournament?)

But Brosnan's mistake aside, it was Ireland -- not the U.S. -- that improved the most over the course of two matches, and that is enough to give one pause. While the home team's offensive struggles in Saturday's match were largely down to poor finishing, the second game saw the U.S. generate an expected goals figure (xG) of just 0.61. That rivaled the paltry 0.46 the U.S. put up against Spain last October.

- Big questions for every Women's World Cup team
- Women's World Cup bracket and fixtures schedule

On this occasion the opportunities rarely materialized, even as the U.S. spread out its attack and didn't hesitate to go direct when the space was there. The lack of precision was evident.

There were other concerns as well. Set piece defending, while less of a pain point on Tuesday than on Saturday, still looked a bit rickety at times, with Ireland's Louise Quinn a constant menace from such situations. Ireland also continued to find some success down the U.S. left side, even though Andonovski switched up his personnel with Kelley O'Hara starting the match in place of Crystal Dunn.

Andonovski chalked up the team's struggles to his desire to make the first game more about the team concept and solving problems as the game went on, while the second was more about individual performances.

"We wanted to see the players that haven't been in the environment for a long time," he said after Tuesday's match. "It's not that just we wanted to see them, but we also wanted to give them minutes. So if and when some of them make the World Cup, their first minutes are not in the World Cup, but they have a chance to complete before they go there."

Andonovski also had a few explanations for why the attack sputtered. One of the biggest is that Ireland is a vastly improved side under manager Vera Pauw, which stuck to their game plan of being compact in defense, and being dangerous on set pieces and in transition.

The U.S. was also rotating heavily in terms of personnel as Andonovski attempted to give his charges every opportunity to impress before he names his final roster later this spring.

"The things that were missing is not something that worries me," he said. "Cohesion, that's what was missing. It was missing understanding between the players and we're not surprised by that because we knew that miscommunication will happen, or a missed pass will happen, or player makes a run, doesn't get the ball. Or makes a run to the left, gets the ball to the right.

"It's something that we expect to happen. And it did make the game go a little bit wild at times because we gave up the ball too quick after we won it."

That doesn't mean more shouldn't be demanded, and for the most part, the players with the most to prove, such as Trinity Rodman, Ashley Sanchez, Ashley Hatch and Alyssa Thompson -- who made her first international start -- only did so in flashes.

With the time winding down until Andonovski announces his roster, the pressure will only increase. The U.S. manager estimated that there are 10-12 players competing for around six to seven spots.

One player who did plenty to help her cause was midfielder Julie Ertz. Granted, destruction is easier to accomplish than creation, but even as Ertz's skills tend towards the former, she is proving her value. It might have been just her second game since the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, but the impact she had in both games was noticeable.

As has been the case over the course of her international career, Ertz brings an edge to the field that the U.S. badly needs. If a game ever turns into a slugfest, the U.S. team's odds of surviving improve with her on the field. One can only hope that Ertz's game improves even more when she finds a club, which Andonovski said could happen by the end of this week.

"Julie has this mentality. When she's on the field, she imposes herself on in the game," said Andonovski. "And the players rub off of that. I think that we could see that coming out a little bit more in this game. We're hoping to see that more and more as she gets more games with her club team."

Better health would help the U.S. both physically and mentally. The team is already reeling from forward Mallory Swanson's torn patellar tendon, for which she underwent surgery on Tuesday. That has left Andonovski to wonder how much he should alter his approach after building the side around Swanson and Sophia Smith. Rose Lavelle was kept out of Tuesday's game after picking up a knock on Saturday. The sight of Lindsey Horan leaving Tuesday's match with what appeared to be a lower leg injury conjured up images of Andonovski covering each of his players in bubble wrap for the next three months.

Therein lies the balancing act the players will have to manage over the next three months. Stay healthy, but play with an intensity. Andonovski will be watching the NWSL games with interest, and hoping that his players -- and his team -- reach their peak at the right time.