For USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski, the NWSL Challenge Cup is part yearning, part goldmine

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USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski can't work with his players during the coronavirus pandemic. He can, however, watch all of them play in one location at the NWSL Challenge Cup. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)
USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski can't work with his players during the coronavirus pandemic. He can, however, watch all of them play in one location at the NWSL Challenge Cup. (Photo by Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images)

The schedule for the U.S. women’s national team is empty.

If not for the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced the world into lockdown, the United States women’s national team would be in Japan right now getting ready for the Olympics to start next week.

Instead, most USWNT players are in Utah playing for the National Women’s Soccer League in a one-off, month-long bubble tournament. They have to get tested for COVID-19 every few days — an unpleasant experience — but it’s worth it because it may be the only soccer they play all year.

That’s where you can find Vlatko Andonovski, the head coach of the USWNT. Without any games or camps to prepare for, Andonovski’s focus is the NWSL Challenge Cup, where he can only observe games and training sessions from a distance. What he loves most about his job, working with the players on the pitch, is just out of reach.

“I was watching one of the training sessions with staff and I turned around and told them: ‘You know what? I miss this. I want to be down there on the field,’” he recalls to Yahoo Sports in a phone interview from Utah.

“I want to prepare for a game,” he adds. “The ability to help the players get better, the feeling of getting ready for the game — it's hard to explain. I do miss that.”

But the NWSL Challenge Cup is a goldmine of information for the USWNT coach. Sure, he can’t exactly do his job as planned and nothing will make up for a lack of USWNT camps, but this condensed tournament has made it much easier for him to catch up.

Under normal circumstances, Andonovski would have to fly around the country to see his USWNT players in their club environments, and he could only ever see a fraction of NWSL games in person. But in Utah, he attends every single game in the Challenge Cup and, between him and three assistants, most of the training sessions are covered too.

“We didn’t think that we were going to be able to see as much as we are seeing,” he says. “It's very, very interesting because we’re able to see a different side of the players: their work ethic and their mentality, their approach to training, how coachable they are, how they deal with their teammates, how they implement the coaches’ ideas from training to games. There’s so many segments that we’ve found very valuable.”

Expanding the USWNT player pool

As soon as Yahoo Sports mentions the black notebook that Andonovski carries to NWSL Challenge Cup games, he begins to laugh.

He is not on social media so he hasn’t seen all the fan memes firsthand, but plenty of people have texted him and sent him screenshots, he says.

“When I go out to analyze players, I’m gonna have to put notes somewhere so I don’t forget everything,” he laughs.

The notebook has become a subject of fascination for those following the Challenge Cup. It’s been mentioned multiple times by the broadcast team calling the games for CBS All Access, and fan-created Twitter accounts have popped up with musings about the diary entries Andonovski might be writing.

But it’s actually part of a more rigorous evaluation process.

Vlatko Andonovski has gotten a good look at Lynn Williams (center), Becky Sauerbrunn (left) and other USWNT players or prospects this month. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Vlatko Andonovski has gotten a good look at Lynn Williams (center), Becky Sauerbrunn (left) and other USWNT players or prospects this month. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

U.S. Soccer has a player evaluation platform that is shared across the organization, with the likes of USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf and USWNT under-20 coach Laura Harvey using it.

Based on the metrics in that program, Andonovski and his staff in Utah aren't just watching games, they are sharply focused on individual player performances. Joining him to evaluate players in Utah are assistant USWNT coach Milan Ivanovic, USWNT U-23 coach Matt Potter and goalkeeper coach Philip Poole.

“We are all part of this program and, based on the platform we’re using, we’re taking notes,” Andonovski says. “After every game, we have a meeting where we share our notes for the individual players — every coach is assigned a different player and we rotate players between the coaches so we aren’t seeing the same thing over and over.”

Andonovski views the players at the NWSL Challenge Cup as fitting into one of three groups:

1. The players already on the USWNT he can help improve.

2. Non-USWNT players on his radar as potential short- or long-term options.

3. Other players who might stand out and warrant further evaluation.

As a former NWSL coach himself — the NWSL was where he coached women’s soccer for the first time — Andonovski has a deep understanding of the talent throughout the league. That means, he says, that he hasn’t been surprised by anyone, but there have certainly been players who warrant a closer look.

“We pride ourselves on the fact that we come from the league,” Andonovski says of himself and Ivanovic. “I wouldn't say there's anything that could surprise us or somebody that we didn’t have on the list at all that should be very high up. But there’s always going to be players that have a good performance or two that we’ll add on the list for further evaluation.”

Andonovski isn’t inside the NWSL bubble, so there are limitations to his interactions with players and coaches. But he has been able to talk to some USWNT players from a distance, and he talks to others over text and Zoom calls, or he sends them video clips with feedback on how to improve.

Some USWNT players are not at the Challenge Cup. Megan Rapinoe, Tobin Heath and Christen Press all opted out over concerns about the safety protocols surrounding the coronavirus. Others, like Carli Lloyd and Mallory Pugh, are injured.

The players who skipped the tournament called Andonovski to discuss what training they planned to do in the meantime, but he didn’t sway them either way.

“We left it all up to the players and totally respect their decision,” he says.

What’s next for the USWNT?

Once Andonovski identifies the right national team talent, it’s still unclear when he’ll be able to work with the players again.

The Olympics have officially been postponed and not canceled. Without new scientific breakthroughs in treating or curing the coronavirus, however, the possibility lingers that the Tokyo Olympics could be scrapped altogether.

But for Andonovski, the Olympic Games are still the next tournament on the USWNT schedule and what he has to prepare for, even amid all the uncertainty.

“Until we hear otherwise, in our minds we’re getting ready for the Olympics in the best possible manner and using the resources that we’re allowed to use at this time,” he says. “At this particular moment, we’re able to watch live games at the Challenge Cup and we’re all here maximizing that opportunity.”

The NWSL tournament ends in just two weeks though — the final is on July 26 — and then the soccer calendar will be desolate again.

The USWNT is still preparing primarily for the Tokyo Olympics, which are now scheduled for next summer. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)
The USWNT is still preparing primarily for the Tokyo Olympics, which are now scheduled for next summer. (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko, File)

Scheduling friendlies seems unlikely in large part because the United States has become the new epicenter of COVID-19. Other national teams wouldn’t want to come to the U.S., where new infection records continue to be set, and most Americans are banned from entering many countries now.

Andonovski still holds out hope that the USWNT will play games again in 2020, as long as U.S. Soccer can find a way to safely do so. But even without games, he hopes the USWNT can still get together for camp.

“Any time that we can spend together and train together, even playing in intra-squad scrimmages, is very valuable,” he says. “If it's safe for players and the staff, I'm pretty sure we’re gonna do that.”

It’s still unclear whether those dates would look like typical USWNT camps or more like the extended residency program the team used to use in the 1990s, back when players didn’t have club teams. It’s also too soon to know much, given the uncertain circumstances around the virus and a lack of firm calendar guidance from CONCACAF and FIFA.

For some USWNT players, the longer the national team goes without games, the more their careers could be in jeopardy. The USWNT had the oldest team at last year’s World Cup by average age, and some of the team’s core players skew toward the older end of the roster.

While there was no evidence that players like 38-year-old Carli Lloyd and 35-year-old Megan Rapinoe couldn’t dominate at a 2020 Olympics, a delay could change things. It’s not just that they may have to wait another year — there’s a real possibility the USWNT’s schedule could be pushed back even further.

But Andonovski won’t indulge hypotheticals. Asked whether he is concerned the long layoff could be difficult for some players to come back from, he says he is only concerned with what he sees on the pitch.

“Until I see them on the field, I can’t be worried about that,” he tells Yahoo Sports. “You can argue that it’s going to be harder for them to get back, but at the same time, you could say that because they’ve been through the preparation process so many times it may be easier for them to get back on track.

“You can argue both ways. Until I see everyone on the field where I can evaluate them with other players, it’s hard to predict what anyone is going to look like.”

Unpredictability sums up the COVID-19 pandemic for everyone, and for the USWNT coach, everything is just as uncertain. But still, during every NWSL Challenge Cup game, the CBS All Access broadcast feed will cut to Andonovski — mask on, notebook in hand — and he’ll be doing his job all the same.

Caitlin Murray is a contributor to Yahoo Sports and her book about the U.S. women’s national team, The National Team: The Inside Story of the Women Who Changed Soccer, is out now. Follow her on Twitter @caitlinmurr.

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