Thursday night was shaping up to be a frustrating night for the U.S. women’s national team, which entered the final 15 minutes of its friendly against Portugal in a 0-0 deadlock.

Despite dominating possession, the U.S. had created precious few quality chances throughout most of the friendly in Houston. But Sam Mewis unexpectedly found herself unmarked inside the six-yard box on a corner in the 76th minute and made no mistake with her header to give the USWNT a 1-0 win.

Head coach Vlatko Andonovski fielded his strongest possible starting lineup against the Portuguese, but his star-studded group didn’t cause quite as many problems as expected against an unheralded opponent.

Horan gets the first shot at replacing Ertz

For the USWNT, Julie Ertz is someone who can’t be completely replaced. Unfortunately for Andonovski, he may have to do his best to find a fill-in.

Ertz suffered a right knee MCL sprain last month in NWSL play, and her status for the Olympics is up in the air. As the USWNT’s do-everything No.6, Ertz shields the back line, wins balls with her tenacious work rate and kick-starts attacks. There’s not another player in the pool who can do what she does. 

On Thursday, Andonovski gave a glimpse of what an Ertz-free USWNT setup could look like – and the experiment didn’t go terribly. Lindsey Horan, who normally plays as a box-to-box midfielder, dropped back into the holding position, where she performed an admirable Ertz impersonation in a role she’s played for the U.S in the past. 

“I told her that she was a monster on the field,” Andonovski said after the game, “aerial challenges, intercepting balls and controlling the game from all areas of the field.”

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Horan’s comfort on the ball is unmatched, but she also showed some of the ball-winning grit that Ertz so frequently contributes. It will be interesting to see if Andonovski opts for a more natural No.6 like Andi Sullivan in the team’s next two games against Jamaica and Nigeria, or gives another player who normally plays somewhere else, like Emily Sonnett or Tierna Davidson, a shot at the position. 

USWNT struggles to break down Portugal

The USWNT is more than used to breaking down teams who sit back and normally, the squad has has enough quality to do so.

Against a disciplined and resolute Portugal back line on Thursday, though, Andonovski’s side struggled.

Though it had the lion’s share of possession in the first half, the U.S. failed to create any gilt-edged chances, with Christen Press’s volley that drew a kick-save from Ines Pereira the best of the bunch. 

Things got better in the second half in terms of chance creation but Alex Morgan was then guilty of missing two excellent opportunities before Carli Lloyd’s late goal was pulled back after an offside flag was raised.

Though they may have been frustrated, the U.S. also got a useful exercise ahead of an Olympic tournament that will see plenty of opponents set up the way Portugal did.

“That was my post-match huddle speech,” Andonovski said, “that this is what we’re going to see several times at the Olympics.”

Press added: “I think it’s hugely valuable. We face all different types of opponents in preparation for this Olympics and I think the style of play we went up against tonight is something we absolutely could see.”

USWNT starts with strongest possible squad

Andonovski will have some tough decisions to make following his team’s three friendlies, as he will name his 18-player Olympic roster at the end of the team’s camp. 

When it comes to his final picks though, the coach won’t have much to go on from Thursday’s game film. 

Andonovski opted for possibly his strongest lineup against Portugal, and didn’t introduce any subs until the 73rd minute. 

The coach could have been attempting to replicate the Olympic group stage, where he’s likely to start with his strongest side in his team’s opener against Sweden before rotating his squad in subsequent games against New Zealand and Australia. 

Expect plenty of bubble players to get their shot on Sunday against Jamaica and Wednesday against Nigeria.

“We will see rotation,” Andonovski said. “We have to be careful from the management standpoint but also there are some things that we want to see in the next couple games that will be another reason we’re going to rotate players.”