For U.S. Coach Vlatko Andonovski, his midfield at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo poses a fortunate dilemma: four elite athletes, three starting slots.
“It’s competitive, but it’s also so full of respect,” Mewis said. “I understand that these other women who I’m fighting for minutes with, they work just as hard as me and they want this just as bad as me. … I get up and I do it because I know they’re doing it. But also I’m doing it for [them]. And I think that just makes the midfield a really unified and strong part of the team.”
Being stacked with stars is nothing new to a U.S. program that boasts four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals. When the Americans open their Olympic campaign against Sweden on Wednesday, Andonovski will be choosing from world-class options at every position.
That said, for a U.S. team featuring the oldest roster in Japan, the in-their-prime midfield contingent of Ertz (29 years old), Mewis (28), Horan (27) and Lavelle (26) — plus talented backups Catarina Macario and Kristie Mewis, Samantha’s older sister — will be particularly pivotal as the Americans aim to navigate the six games in 17 days required to win gold.
“Whatever role you’re given, you embrace,” Lavelle said earlier this year. “Whether that’s starting or coming off the bench or not playing at all, once it’s game time you kind of just have to be 100 percent committed to the role you’re given.”
Two years ago, the U.S. midfield was something of an unknown quantity entering the World Cup in France; Horan, Lavelle and Samantha Mewis were appearing in their first World Cup, and Ertz was playing a new position after starting at center back in the 2015 tournament.
After the United States bulldozed its way to another title, going 7-0-0 while never trailing, that group has traveled to Japan imbued with confidence and chemistry. The post-World Cup coaching change, in which Jill Ellis’s direct attacking style gave way to Andonovski’s more possession-oriented approach, further hinged the team’s tactical identity on its midfield.
“A lot of what we’ve been trying to do with this team under Vlatko is utilize our midfield to the best of our ability,” Horan said. “I think we’ve transformed a little bit. The U.S. women’s national team has been incredible on transition, but we’re also getting better and better in possession as well.”
This U.S. squad will not ease into the Olympics. It will start in the group stage with Sweden, the team that eliminated the Americans in the quarterfinals of the Rio de Janeiro Olympics in 2016. It will be the U.S. team’s ninth meeting with Sweden in a major tournament, its most against any opponent.
“Starting with Sweden does make it feel more intense, more real, right off the bat,” said defender Kelley O’Hara, an Olympian for the third time. “It’s kind of par for the course. It might not feel like a major tournament if we weren’t playing against Sweden at some point.”
In April, Sweden ended the U.S. team’s 16-game winning streak when it played the Americans to a 1-1 draw in Stockholm, with only Megan Rapinoe’s penalty kick in the 87th minute keeping the Americans from their first loss since January 2019.
If Ertz completes her comeback from a right medial collateral ligament sprain she suffered in May, Andonovski will have the luxury of rotating his midfield during the compressed Olympic schedule and tailoring his lineup to each opponent.
“They’re all starting player material,” Andonovski said of his midfielders. “What I may contemplate the most is obviously the form that they’re in and the performance but also the opponent that is ahead of us — whether the opponent is more aggressive, sits low, defends higher, high-presses, the formation that they play. . . . Everything that they do, we try to analyze and match with the abilities of the midfielders that we have.”
Varied skill sets give Andonovski flexibility. Ertz has reinvented herself as a rangy defensive midfielder with ball-winning bite. As the prototypical playmaker, Lavelle throws the defense off balance with on-the-ball pace and creative flair, which she showcased on the goal that iced the World Cup final. Horan smoothly circulates possession, picks out the final pass and offers the versatility to fill any midfield role. Samantha Mewis, a 6-footer nicknamed the “Tower of Power,” is a matchup nightmare as a box-to-box midfielder with a high soccer IQ and an eye for the goal.
Among them, the quartet boasts 341 international appearances and 79 goals.
“I constantly feel like I’m learning from the others,” Samantha Mewis said. “I think when I play with Julie, I’m like: ‘Okay, defensively, I’ve got to be good. I’ve got to try to keep up with Julie.’ When I play with Rose, I’m like, ‘Okay, let’s exploit the space and dribble when I have space.’ And when I play with Lindsey, maybe it’s passing. So I think in that way, we all kind of bring out the best in each other.”
In the World Cup knockout round, Horan was the odd woman out as Ellis opted for Samantha Mewis, Ertz and Lavelle in the midfield. After Horan gamely bided her time, she got the nod for the semifinal and helped the United States outlast England.
Repeatedly, the midfielders emphasized mutual rapport and respect — built over battles on the field, film-session deep dives and off-the-field shenanigans — that mitigate any frustration over playing time.
“I’m so thankful that I have the midfielders in the team that I have because they make me better every single day, and they make me push, they make me compete,” Horan said. “I know I have to be at my absolute best if I want to be on the field.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report from Tokyo.