Which USWNT coach handled the challenge best, and what can Vlatko Andonovski learn from them?

Caitlin Murray
Vlatko Andonovski is the 10th USWNT manager in history, and he can learn plenty from his predecessors. (Getty Images)
Vlatko Andonovski is the 10th USWNT manager in history, and he can learn plenty from his predecessors. (Getty Images)

Managing the U.S. women's national team isn't an easy job, which new coach Vlatko Andonovski will soon learn firsthand.

Sure, on paper it looks like a cushy gig. After all, the USWNT is arguably the most talented team player-for-player in the world, and it is backed by a federation that, for all the criticism it faces, is probably one of the world's most supportive of its women's program.

But there are a lot of landmines along the way that any coach must avoid, like of high expectations, severe scrutiny and strong personalities. All the previous USWNT coaches faced these challenges, and in some cases it cost them their jobs.

To understand the task ahead for Andonovski, who will coach his first-ever USWNT game on Thursday, it's worth looking at the obstacles his predecessors faced, and Yahoo Sports has ranked how well each coach handled the pitfalls of coaching the USWNT.

Excluded from this list is Mike Ryan, the first-ever coach of the USWNT, because he was a temporary coach who only oversaw one short tournament. Also excluded is Lauren Gregg, who served as the interim coach after Tony DiCicco's surprising departure from the USWNT.

Here is the ranking of how each coach handled the challenges of coaching the USWNT:

7. Greg Ryan

The college coach-turned-national team manager had an incredibly successful run with the USWNT – right up until he didn't. He first capped several players that went on to have influential careers, such as Carli Lloyd, and he lost just one game in his entire time at the helm. But what a doozy that one loss was.

It’s a now-famous story: In the semifinal of the 2007 World Cup, Ryan decided to bench starting goalkeeper Hope Solo, who was healthy and playing well, and replaced her with Briana Scurry, who had not started a game in nearly three months. Predictably, it didn't go well and the USWNT suffered its worst loss in a major tournament.

It remains the worst single decision a USWNT coach has ever made – at least publicly. Ryan's reason at the time was that Scurry matched up well against Brazil, but the pitfall he stumbled into was being too easily swayed by his own players.

Ryan later told reporters that he was acting on advice from his captains, Abby Wambach and Kristine Lilly. Whether Ryan really believed Scurry would be a better choice against Brazil (which frankly makes little sense), he should've also realized that Solo wasn't exactly popular with the veterans on the team and there is a reason players don't coach themselves.

Players on the USWNT attempting hostile takeovers will be something of a running theme on this list, but this was the worst of it. We can only wonder how the history of the USWNT would've changed had Solo started against Brazil at the Women's World Cup in China.

Lesson: Don't let the players boss you around.

6. April Heinrichs

A former captain of the USWNT, Heinrichs was named head coach at a time when many of her old teammates were still on the team. It was a weird dynamic to begin with, and Heinrichs’ business-like approach especially irked veterans on the team who were used to being treated more like family members under the previous coach, Tony DiCicco.

But Heinrichs made a lasting stamp on the program.

She used the WUSA to recruit talent that wasn't firmly on the USWNT radar, like Shannon Boxx, and she brought in young players like Heather O'Reilly and Abby Wambach, who became stars for the USWNT. She also introduced an especially rigorous training regime to ensure the USWNT would be the fittest in the world.

With a strict coaching style, however, she was unpopular with the veterans, leading to persistent tension. At one point, a group of players confronted Heinrichs, asking her to ease off the intense conditioning sessions that the players felt were running them into the ground. Heinrichs acquiesced somewhat – although not enough to the players' liking – and the team won an Olympic gold medal in 2004 after falling short at the 2000 Olympics and the 2003 World Cup.

After winning gold, players banded together to ask U.S. Soccer president Robert Contiguglia to fire her. When he refused, they told Heinrichs they wouldn't play for her and she resigned, even though Contiguglia wanted her to stay.

Lesson: Don't let the players boss you around, but also be flexible enough to get the most out of them and make them feel heard.

5. Tom Sermanni

When U.S. Soccer's top brass hired Sermanni, they were impressed by his work with the Australian women's national team. He helped the Matildas become a top-10 team in the world, cultivated a dynamic style of play and had a knack for developing young talent.

Early on in his tenure, it seemed like Sermanni would do something similar with the USWNT.

He brought Morgan Brian, then a young college student, into the fold, gave Christen Press her first cap, and handed Sydney Leroux her first start after she had already amassed 29 caps and 15 goals, all off the bench. He also saw Crystal Dunn as an outside back, a role she wouldn't reprise until the 2019 World Cup.

More broadly, he moved the team away from its direct and aggressive style of play, and tinkered endlessly with different lineups and approaches.

Things might have been different for Tom Sermanni if he brought his own staff with him to the USWNT. (AP)
Things might have been different for Tom Sermanni if he brought his own staff with him to the USWNT. (AP)

But it all fell apart at the 2014 Algarve Cup. The U.S. lost to a Sweden team coached by Pia Sundhage, which was the USWNT's first loss in 43 games, a streak his predecessor, Sundhage, started. In the next game, a 5-3 loss to Denmark, the USWNT set its record for most goals conceded in a single game.

Sermanni never got his chance to show what he could do in a World Cup or an Olympics. Players dropped hints in the media of concerns about the direction of the team, and they privately pushed U.S. Soccer more vocally until he was fired.

Sermanni later said he wasn't insistent enough in managing the way he wanted, and he didn't bring his own staff with him when he joined the USWNT. That might've changed how things went for Sermanni, who by all accounts was well-liked and got along well with everyone.

Lesson: Surround yourself with your own people.

(Andonovski has already addressed this somewhat. On Monday he named an assistant to his coaching staff: Milan Ivanovic, his former assistant coach in the NWSL and a former teammate from their time playing professional indoor soccer.)

4. Pia Sundhage

We're getting to the point in this list where all the coaches will go down in history as having very successful runs with the USWNT, and Sundhage is no exception.

She had to pick up the pieces scattered by Greg Ryan's tenure and bring Hope Solo back into the USWNT fold, and once she did, the USWNT returned to powerhouse status. But success didn't come easy.

Right before the 2008 Olympics, Abby Wambach broke her leg, and Sundhage had to largely change the way the USWNT played, which focused on feeding the ball to Wambach. Her plan, which included using Angela Hucles as a glue player up top to feed speedy wingers around her, worked well enough to win gold.

While Sundhage was sometimes criticized for her slow integration of new players – including a resistance to Alex Morgan's hopeful requests to start – she did build a team full of cohesion and chemistry.

Though the 2011 Women's World Cup ended in disappointment, the USWNT reached the final and only lost to Japan via penalty kicks in a performance that led to a surge of popularity that the USWNT has been riding ever since. Sundhage followed that up by leading the USWNT to an utterly dominant 2012 Olympics for a second gold medal.

Sundhage's strong record with the USWNT did not make her immune to player revolt, however. Officials at U.S. Soccer were surprised that some players were angling to get her fired and were initially unsure of what to do about Sundhage's contract. But Sundhage knew better than to stick around and let the situation play out: She accepted a job to take over the Swedish women's national team instead.

In a twist of irony, it was Sundhage at the helm of the Swedes when they knocked the U.S. out of the 2016 Olympics for the most embarrassing tournament exit in USWNT history. That loss essentially also forced Solo out of the USWNT, ending an era for the team.

Lesson: Keep your options open, because you never know when you'll need them.

3. Tony DiCicco

It would be difficult to find a coach more universally beloved by players than DiCicco, and his biggest achievement, winning the Women's World Cup in 1999, may be the single most important moment in USWNT history.

DiCicco's coaching style exuded a fondness for his players, and his enthusiasm was contagious.

He would start training sessions by shouting to the sky, “I love my job!” and the players would echo his call. Sometimes, he and his wife would have the players over for big family dinners. Before every game, he would tell the players: “Play hard, play to win, have fun!”

At the time he coached the team, however, the dynamic between the players and U.S. Soccer was changing. The team had hired an attorney and started stepping up demands for better treatment from U.S. Soccer, including multiple boycotts. DiCicco passed away in 2017, but players say they had a hunch the federation wanted him to insert himself in the ongoing contract battles, which he eventually declined to do.

Shortly after winning the 1999 World Cup, DiCicco resigned, but only because U.S. Soccer, under Contiguglia at the time, showed little interest in keeping him around long-term. The reasons still aren't entirely clear – the federation seemed to want the USWNT to play a different style of soccer – but the players wanted him to stick around, making him a rarity among USWNT coaches.

Lesson: Stay out of any disputes between the players and the federation, and set that expectation early.

2. Anson Dorrance

Other coaches have had it tough with the USWNT, but Dorrance may have had the most challenging tenure. When he took over the USWNT in 1986, the team didn't really exist in any meaningful way yet, and it certainly didn't resemble the USWNT we know today.

Early on, players had to be convinced to join the team because representing the U.S. on the national team didn't mean anything to them. The USWNT operated on a shoestring budget and wore hand-me-down clothes from the men's team. There were no tournaments for the team to play in either, so they had to find games wherever they could.

But Dorrance believed that one day, there would be a Women's World Cup, and whenever that happened, he wanted the USWNT to be ready. He borrowed soccer ideas from more developed women's soccer countries and worked on making the USWNT as fit as possible, but perhaps the most important thing he introduced was a winning culture.

Although the U.S. won the first-ever Women's World Cup in 1991, players say now that the U.S. wasn't actually the best team there when it came to the technical aspects of the game.

“If you would’ve compared us player for player, we might’ve been a bit more athletic, but it was really our mentality,” Shannon Higgins-Cirovski, who first joined the U.S. team in 1987, says in the book The National Team: The Inside Story Of The Women Who Changed Soccer. “All of us, we had to fight for what we got. We had a mentality that we weren't going to lose and we were going to fight.”

That mentality is still synonymous with the USWNT to this day.

Dorrance, who was also the coach of the University of North Carolina, left the USWNT to continue his collegiate coaching job. But he goes down in USWNT history as setting the team on a path of success that has continued for decades.

Lesson: Team culture matters.

Vlatko Andonovski is taking over the USWNT from Jill Ellis (pictured), who laid down some benchmarks of successful management. (AP)
Vlatko Andonovski is taking over the USWNT from Jill Ellis (pictured), who laid down some benchmarks of successful management. (AP)

1. Jill Ellis

As one of only two coaches in the history of the World Cup (men’s and women’s) to win the tournament twice, Ellis has rightfully earned the top spot on this list.

It wasn't an easy road for her. After Tom Sermanni was fired, she had to quickly get the USWNT ready for the 2015 World Cup. She did that, and the USWNT won it all, but still she was criticized widely for the uninspiring soccer the USWNT played.

After a disastrous 2016 Olympics, where the USWNT suffered its earliest exit in a major tournament ever, Ellis faced even more scrutiny. Some of it came from within the locker room, and in 2017 a group of veteran players tried to get her ousted. U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati declined to cave to the players' demands, and Ellis kept her job, but the players’ frustration persisted.

Among their complaints was that Ellis experimented far too much with ideas that seemed of little practical use, and Ellis had a tendency to spring these ideas on players abruptly with little time to adapt. She also used new roster freedom granted to her in the team's CBA to call in players that didn't seem ready for the USWNT level.

Even heading into the 2019 World Cup, some players were frustrated with Ellis – but it didn't matter. All the incessant tinkering and squad rotation made for a more robust, more adaptable, and all-around better USWNT.

The Americans cruised to their fourth World Cup victory, and while it's possible the roster Ellis had at her disposal was the strongest the USWNT had ever had, it also wasn't an accident. Ellis built that roster by thoroughly testing and vetting every player on it.

Ellis had a clear philosophy and she stuck to it, regardless of whether her players liked it or not. For that, she was rewarded.

Lesson: Make a plan and then stick to it.

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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