The U.S. women's national team has a new coach.
Vlatko Andonovski, who has coached in the National Women's Soccer League for the past seven years, was announced Monday as the eighth coach in USWNT history.
“It's a huge honor and I'm very excited to get started with this group of players and staff as we work towards continued success for this program,” Andonovski said in a statement. “All of the talented coaches and players that have come before have built a legendary tradition of excellence and I'm committed to working very hard to continue to move this program forward.”
Vlatko Andonovski? Who is this guy?
Anyone who has been watching the NWSL since its inception in 2013 will know Andonovski well, especially since he has coached his way to two NWSL titles – but everyone else will probably have no clue who he is.
Andonovski left his native Macedonia in 2000 to play professional indoor soccer, and he ended up at the Kansas City Comets, which competed in the Major Arena Soccer League. When the owners of the Comets started a women's team to launch with the NWSL named FC Kansas City, they asked Andonovski to be the coach.
Although he had experience as a youth coach on the girls side, no one in the upper echelons of women's soccer had ever heard of him, and some USWNT players listed FC Kansas City as their one allocation veto due to concerns over the unknown coach.
But he quickly earned a reputation for the attractive possession-style soccer his team played, and he led FC Kansas City to back-to-back league titles in 2014 and 2015.
He was poached by Seattle-based Reign FC last year and led the team to two straight playoffs, including this year despite the team being ravaged by injuries, as he employed a pragmatic approach that required fielding more than 30 different players over the course of the year. For that, he was named the 2019 NWSL Coach of the Year.
Why did Andonovski get the USWNT job?
Aside from his success in the NWSL, it seems to boil down to his work with the USWNT player pool.
On one hand, U.S. Soccer is getting a manager who is already deeply familiar with the players on the USWNT and on the bubble. He has coached the likes of Megan Rapinoe, Allie Long and Becky Sauerbrunn, who were all on the USWNT's recent World Cup-winning squad, and he has coached against most of the rest of the USWNT pool.
That's important because the clock is ticking down to the 2020 Olympics, which begin in nine months, and Andonovski won't have much time to get his team ready.
But USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf also emphasized that player input would be part of the coach selection process, and Andonovski has reportedly been the most popular choice amongst the USWNT core.
That also matters because it wasn't long ago that a group of veterans on the USWNT tried to stage an unsuccessful coup to get coach Jill Ellis fired. Ellis had the last laugh, sticking around and winning another World Cup, but even after that, the relationship between Ellis and the players seemed surprisingly cold for a team that had enjoyed so much success.
When Ellis announced her plan to step down, sources close to the team told Yahoo Sports the decision was probably affected by a dynamic where the veterans didn't seem to like Ellis very much. When Ellis coached her final game at the helm, newer players who Ellis brought into the fold offered kind parting words in videos produced by U.S. Soccer, but veterans were absent, and the players' social media channels offered deafening silence.
Of course, the players don't need to like the coach, as Ellis' World Cup win in France proves. But it'll be better for the federation and the players alike if the team isn't trying to stage mutinies.
It's worth noting that every coach of the USWNT since Tony DiCicco has been the subject of a player revolt. Whether Andonovski will break that streak remains to be seen.
What kind of coach is Andonovski, and will he be a good fit?
Although he arrived in the NWSL as an unknown, he quickly won praise for the style of play he implemented in Kansas City. It was positive, possession soccer that involved knocking the ball around in the way soccer fans say they love.
But he has also proven himself tactically flexible, willing to adapt and pragmatic, which the 2019 season demonstrated in a nutshell. Each week, the Reign FC injury report looked like a page torn from a phone book, but Andonovski kept conjuring up ways to keep his team afloat. He finished the year giving minutes to 34 different players, which is impressive since the maximum roster size in the NWSL is 22.
Andonovski is also known for his intensity and his thorough preparation at the most granular level. Staff at FC Kansas City can tell stories about surreptitiously moving Andonovski's perfectly aligned cones for drills, which the coach always noticed and fixed, frustrated with himself for messing up.
Players rave about playing under him and say he makes them better players. He is also talked about as being a very direct and blunt with players, but a good people manager who is generally well-liked and offers a calming influence.
Are there any concerns about Andonovski?
Perhaps the biggest concern is a lack of experience, which was the primary reason he was left off Yahoo's list of top coaching candidates when Ellis stepped down.
Andonovski has never coached at the international level – not even at the youth level – and he hasn’t played on national team duty either. National teams and club teams are very different, and the transition from club coach to international coach isn't always an easy one.
For a clear example, look no further than Gregg Berhalter, who took over the U.S. men's national team last year. Berhalter was lauded for the complicated possession system of triggers and movement he built with the Columbus Crew, but he is finding it much more difficult to implement something similar with the USMNT.
The USMNT hasn’t shown much progress since Berhalter took over, losing in a shock upset to Canada, and there is growing concern that a system-oriented coach like Berhalter is a bad fit for the USMNT. After all, there is a big difference between training with a club team everyday year-round, and getting together with a national team every couple months for a week or two at a time.
But, keep in mind, the USMNT is not the USWNT.
The USMNT, which lacks talent relative to the rest of the world, probably needs a pragmatist to put the country's best players in their best positions and worry less about finding players for specific tasks. The USWNT, on the other hand, has a glut of talent and the apparent capacity to execute just about anything Andonovski can dream up.
After all, going into the 2019 World Cup, much of the conversation around the USWNT was that the team wasn't playing its best and players weren't being used in their optimum positions. There was a feeling that the team had more potential – and yet they won the whole darn tournament in France. That's the difference.
What should be his first order of business with the USWNT?
How do you take a World Cup-winning team and make it better? That's the seemingly impossible question that Andonovski has signed up to answer.
If Andonovski has any grand notions of expanding the player pool to find the next wave of USWNT stars, or implementing a new system with a different style of play, he'll probably need to wait.
The 2020 Olympics in Tokyo start in July, but the qualification tournament comes much more quickly – that schedule hasn't been announced yet, but usually the CONCACAF qualification tournament is held in January.
For all of Ellis's success in the World Cup, the less-discussed part of her coaching tenure was a disastrous 2016 Olympics where the USWNT suffered its earliest exit in a major tournament in program history. In other words, winning a World Cup is not a guarantee of success at the Olympic stage.
Although Andonovski is already set to host an identification camp in December that will include only players not already in the USWNT fold, he actually needs to shrink his USWNT before he expands it. That's because the Olympic roster has only 18 spots, down from the 23 players that go to the World Cup.
When a team is as good as the USWNT, paring down to just 18 players may be the toughest part, and there's an argument that Ellis's roster selections in 2016 ultimately doomed her, particularly bringing an unfit, recently injured Megan Rapinoe over Heather O'Reilly.
Andonovski has to decide what to do with the likes of Carli Lloyd, who has said she'd rather retire than rot on the bench for the USWNT, or Alex Morgan, who will have recently given birth by the time the Olympics roll around.
There are no easy decisions when it comes to the USWNT roster, and Andonovski doesn't have a lot of time to figure it out.
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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