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Kate Markgraf admits that she was a bit of “an outside choice” for the brand-new executive role at the top of the women’s program at U.S. Soccer.
As the 11th-most capped player in U.S. women’s national team history, Markgraf didn’t stay inside the sport when she retired in 2010. She served as a soccer analyst for ESPN, critiquing and sometimes criticizing from the outside, and earned two master’s degrees in kinesiology and educational psychology.
She had never been a high-level coach — a career path that hadn’t interested her, and which the USWNT general manager job description initially called for — but she was persuaded to interview anyway.
“All of us, we were all kind of rebels a little bit,” Markgraf says of herself and her former teammates, with whom she won a World Cup in 1999. “We all pushed the envelope.”
That driven, competitive attitude, along with the transferrable solution-oriented skills to tackle the administrative side of running a national team program that includes both a World Cup-winning senior team and a slate of youth teams in need of improvement, convinced her to take the job last year.
Her role is not so much about taking charge but providing support, which is how she designed it after looking at how other GMs in the English Premier League and Major League Baseball operate. That means working closely with the USWNT coach she hired, Vlatko Andonovski, not to tell him how to coach the team but to let him focus entirely on coaching the team.
“I had the opportunity to bring my skillset in because the role had never been done before and I could carve it out,” Markgraf tells Yahoo Sports by phone. “I’ll set up goals for camp that I’ll send to Vlatko and he’ll send me his daily metrics they are going to hit, but if he’s going to ask if they should do rondos, I’m not going know that answer. That’s OK because he has his assistant coaches. How he and I work is, I say, ‘What do you need to be successful? What can I do to take off all stress other than the stress of coaching the team?’”
“I’ve seen coaches thrive and I’ve seen coaches struggle,” she adds. “So, can I bring that experience, along with my experience in the locker room with players, and knowing what that looks like as an insider and outsider, that dynamic between players and coaches?”
Markgraf brings a fresh perspective to U.S. Soccer
While the USWNT has been a dominant force since the team won the first-ever Women’s World Cup in 1991, the behind-the-scenes power dynamics have been a bit more complicated.
Markgraf is certainly familiar.
She was part of the 1999 team that got into a bitter legal dispute with the U.S. Soccer Federation over a post-World Cup victory tour, the first big conflict of many to come. Ten years later, then-coach Pia Sundhage cut Markgraf from the team after Markgraf gave birth to twins, a controversy that changed all future USWNT collective bargaining agreements.
That defiant, envelope-pushing culture of the USWNT may never change; as former U.S. Soccer president Robert Contiguglia once opined, it may be part of what makes them so competitive on the field. But the 44-year-old Markgraf, more than any other executive who has ever worked at U.S. Soccer, is equipped to understand it.
For critics that have labeled the federation as insular and clubby — more interested in hiring from within than rocking the boat — Markgraf’s hiring either pushes against that narrative or is a breath of fresh air. Since Markgraf retired from the USWNT, she has been an outsider, and part of her new job is asking questions and challenging the status quo.
Now that she’s back on the inside, but on the other side in her new role as a GM at the federation, it’s not so much that she views the conflicts she experienced as a player differently. She just understands them better than she could have back then.
“I have an understanding of everyone’s different perspectives now,” she says. “I only had my own and, as a player you are very self-absorbed because you have to be to get on the team, to be so focused on yourself, and then focused on your teammates once you get accepted into the team to help create the team environment.”
“When you’re a leader, you have to make decisions on behalf of the team from a contractual standpoint, so I was involved in CBA stuff a lot when I played. I knew it from that perspective. Now that I’m on the inside, I see that there were a lot of gains made.”
In the day-to-day of overseeing the USWNT, Markgraf can sense when a player might not understand why the federation is doing things a certain way. From where a game is scheduled to how many players can make the roster, a lot of deliberation goes into such decisions and she wants to make sure players understand the reasons.
“If you understand where people are coming from, you have a better chance of getting to a collaborative decision and positioning it differently,” she says. “I think understanding why is the biggest issue for both sides.”
How to evolve the USWNT and youth teams amid uncertainty
If the year had gone as planned, the USWNT would’ve competed at the Olympics in Japan and they might be in the midst of wrapping up a victory tour in American stadiums before the holidays.
Instead, Markgraf is in the Netherlands, squeezing in a late phone call with Yahoo Sports to talk about a year that has forced her to adapt and a USWNT program that is trying to evolve in the middle of it.
The USWNT will play its first game in eight months Friday when it faces the Netherlands, the team the Americans beat in the 2019 World Cup final, at Rat Verlegh Stadion in Breda.
Just getting that game on the schedule was a microcosm of what 2020 has been like. The game had to be moved on short notice due to issues with the original field, and USWNT administrator Ryan Dell had to quickly find new training grounds, book new accommodations, and set up COVID-19 protocols at the new sites.
It wasn’t easy to schedule, but for the USWNT, which has played fewer games than their counterparts in countries that have handled COVID-19 better, this game is important.
“Any time we have the opportunity to face world-class opponents, it's really hard to go another direction,” Markgraf says. “If we needed to do that because of COVID, then we would have, but we had in place enough of a decision-making tree to feel comfortable going to the Netherlands.”
The team is in a contained bubble-like environment to avoid exposure to the virus, and everyone is being tested every couple days. It’s a lot of hassle for one friendly, but with the Olympics on the schedule for next summer, every international window becomes all the more important.
After all, the timelines have shifted for Markgraf and the women’s program, but not the goals.
One of those goals — and arguably the most difficult and most important challenge for Markgraf — has been in making the youth women’s national teams more competitive and building a stronger pipeline to the senior team.
U.S. Soccer announced early in the pandemic it would suspend the youth teams until at least 2021, but Markgraf had long planned to tweak how youth teams evaluate and scout players so they can all be aligned with each other and with the senior team in a single style of play and identity.
Those granular conversations with the various youth coaches and Andonovski actually became easier once no one had any games, Markgraf says.
“We’re able to build the guard rails, principles and infrastructure for scouting, roster selection and best practices,” she says. “That's what this time has allowed us to do because they're not all jetting off the camp in different directions.”
Between the NWSL Challenge Cup, where Andonovski scouted players in person and took copious notes, and the USWNT’s camp last month in Colorado, the protocols they’ve been revising are coming together. They’ve streamlined the platforms they use and drilled down on the kind of data they should collect on every player.
Markgraf’s goal, she says, is to build a framework that ensures players don’t “fall through the cracks” and that avoids bias.
“For me, it's like, we can talk about players every camp, but what’s going to happen if someone has an injury?” she says. “You're going to forget about the quality that they showed two camps ago when they weren’t injured.”
If anything, this unusual 2020 may only reinforce the necessity of taking a long view of player evaluation.
Players have been out of sight but they can’t be out of mind. Lindsey Horan, for instance, will miss the Netherlands game after testing positive for COVID-19 before traveling abroad. By the time she plays for the USWNT again, it could be almost a year since her previous cap.
For now, Markgraf and her colleagues at U.S. Soccer are working with what they have. Friday’s game against the Netherlands won’t be easy — most of the Netherlands roster has been playing regular games while most the USWNT roster has not — but it’ll be a step forward.
“Let’s just get through this game learning a lot about ourselves,” Markgraf says. “That’s our goal.”
“2020 has been all sorts of weird but, every single opportunity we’ve had to take advantage of and get better, we’ve used. That to me is as successful as we could be in this crazy time.”
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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