Ashley Sanchez steps up as USWNT learns to win without Catarina Macario

Catarina Macario was to be at the center of generational change in the United States. However, that plan had to be put on hold after the 22-year-old tore a cruciate ligament in the last game of the season at Lyon in May.

On Saturday, ahead of next month’s World Cup qualifiers, Americans got their first glimpse of life without Macario – and a preview of what much of qualifying against lower-tier opponents will be like.

The USA struggled through a scoreless first half against Colombia at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colorado, before scoring three times in the much better second 45 minutes and winning 3-0.

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Washington Spirit forward Ashley Hatch started Saturday at No. 9 ahead of Alex Morgan, who leads the National Women’s Soccer League with 11 goals in 10 regular-season games (17 goals in 17 games in all competitions). Hatch is a veteran poacher who won the NWSL Golden Boot last season and is America’s most traditional centre-forward. She made her first start of 2022 on Saturday and there seemed to be a lack of familiarity with wingers Sophia Smith and Mallory Pugh as USA struggled through the first half. Movement from the front three was too stagnant, and execution in the last third was often sloppy.

Colombia are setting themselves up in a low defensive block, much like the USA have come to expect from some opponents in World Cup qualifiers that begin July 4. Overwhelmed opponents have been played this way by the Americans for years with varying degrees of success, although Colombia using a sweeper behind his back four is unlike anything the US has seen in a long time.

“It’s no secret that they were very focused on not getting hit,” said USA coach Vlatko Andonovski. “So, the main focus will be for us [the] last third, different combinations, create space and implement the possibilities that we create.”

Morgan – on her return to the team after a nine-month hiatus – replaced Hatch early in the second half and that substitution, along with the insertion of Ashley Sanchez in place of Lindsey Horan, immediately changed the tone of the game for the Americans.

Sanchez joined Rose Lavelle to build an aggressive system with two attacking central midfielders. Lavelle and Sanchez are exceptional dribblers in close quarters and their combined movement to find the ball and subsequent technical mastery dragged out Colombia, forcing the visitors to lose their form. Lavelle tumbled on that occasion and played two great through balls to help Smith score in the 54th and 60th minutes.

These are the games where Lavelle is needed the most. Lavelle was included in the senior team in early 2017 in response to USA’s elimination in the quarterfinals of the 2016 Olympics when Sweden sat in a low block and challenged USA to be creative. The Americans weren’t, and then-head coach Jill Ellis went in search of a playmaker like Lavelle, who could dribble through defenses and play a grueling last ball to the floor. Lavelle played a pivotal role in USA’s 2019 World Cup win, winning the Bronze Ball at that tournament.

Now Sanchez presents a similar profile at a similar point in the cycle. Like Lavelle, Sanchez is unpredictable, attempting bold moves ranging from back-heel nutmegs when caught in a 2-on-1 on the sidelines to a scorpion kick-assist. She played a role in setting up Saturday’s first goal and was fouled while dribbling to set up the free-kick that led to USA’s third.

“I think Ashley Sanchez was one of the main reasons we got a little more refined in the second half,” said Andonovski.

“Because she was good at eliminating players while dribbling and connecting well with the players around her. She also asked the defense attorneys various questions. You had to adapt on different occasions, which every time you try to figure out how to adapt, the opponent can use this timeline. I thought we were very good here, using the adaptation phase that the opponent had.”

Together, Sanchez and Lavelle bring USA to an unprecedented level of ball control and creativity in the middle of the park. Andonovski will need that throughout qualifying when the risk of exploiting the back four is lower. They could come in handy at the 2023 World Cup in Australia and New Zealand either in tandem or alternately.

Here, as with Scroll #9, Macario’s absence is felt. Macario, who has been one of the best players in Europe this season for Champions League winners Lyon, established herself as a false nine this spring, whose replacement with Lavelle created a flowing, dangerous attack that could confuse opponents. Andonovski was amazed at how Macario’s players had adjusted to her.

With Macario out for the foreseeable future, role #9 is up for grabs and there is a gap to fill the Creativity and Breakthrough Skills departments. To attach such importance to the absence of a player who has only 17 caps may seem like an exaggeration, but USA has done over the past nine months exactly what USA has been doing at the moment and for the 2023 World Cup.

Now it’s up to Morgan and Hatch to fill that role as No.9. Hatch isn’t done with say – and Andonovski praised her postgame when asked – but Morgan reminded the world (and Andonovski) on Saturday why she’s been the US team’s dominant forward for the past decade, 115 goals scored and a pair won the World Cup over 190 internationals.

Morgan has evolved her game over the years to be more multidimensional than she’s typically given credit for, but she’s still a very different player to Macario, and that means the approach developed this spring is in a crucial phase will require some retooling.

Sanchez will also be part of this process. She, too, is relatively inexperienced at international level, but that’s exactly where the USA find themselves now on the eve of World Cup qualifiers: looking back at Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, who also returned to the team and assisted that third goal, and at new players like Sanchez and Taylor Kornieck, who scored that last goal in her first international match.

The World Cup qualifier in Mexico will show whether Andonovski has the right mix of experienced players and youngsters. With four spots up for grabs, there’s little chance of missing out on the tournament, but with only the winner of the CONCACAF W Championship automatically qualifying for the 2024 Olympics, getting those decisions right now is imperative. Ashley Sanchez steps up as USWNT learns to win without Catarina Macario

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