Vlatko Andonovski purposeful and thoughtful with early USWNT tweaks
Standing in the cold outside the United States locker room in Columbus, Ohio, Lindsey Horan had plenty of reasons beyond the wind chill to wish she were elsewhere. She picked up a yellow card in the game that ended minutes earlier for a hard foul against Sweden. She already felt the effect of a minor injury that would keep her off the field against Costa Rica three days later. And she felt the toll of a year that was both glorious and grueling.
But other than the temperature, Horan sounded decidedly excited to be exactly where she was after new U.S. coach Vlatko Andonovski's first game.
"I think a lot of the play is now going through the midfield," Horan said of the early days with Andonovski. "Trying to trust us a little bit more and play through us a little bit more, which I think we obviously love. But [also] just to see how much more you can get us in the game to help others get in the game. It's a cool change and an exciting challenge."
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She wasn't the only one who gave off that energy.
Officially announced as the new coach on Oct. 28, Andonovski spent only seven days working with the team before the final two friendlies of 2019. Except for brief cameos at the start of camp, Tierna Davidson, Crystal Dunn, Ali Krieger, Kelley O'Hara and Megan Rapinoe were absent because of injuries. Expecting her first child, Alex Morgan missed the camp altogether. So this was no more than a beginning.
Everyone from general manager Kate Markgraf to goalkeeper Ashlyn Harris says the USWNT's goal should be to become the first team to win Women's World Cup and Olympic titles in successive years, So if January's training camp that precedes qualifying is to be about preparations, this was the time for introductions.
"I think he's done a good job of treading lightly and thoughtfully and purposefully in a few days," forward Tobin Heath said of the new coach as the week came to a close.
So let's look at where things stand for the U.S. after the team's first week with Andonovski.
What we learned about how he will coach
"Tweak" was the word of the week for the friendlies in Ohio and Florida.
Again and again Andonovski offered some variation on the same theme. Taking over the best team in the world, he has no desire to come in and change everything. With a little more than two months until Olympic qualifying and little of that time to be spent on the field, the coach repeated that his intent is to tweak what already works rather than start anew.
The notable differences probably will come on a game-by-game basis. Even with only a handful of days before the Sweden game, the U.S. spent a considerable amount of time studying video of a previous game against its long-time nemesis. Defending out of a 4-1-4-1 in that game was in large part about countering Sweden for 90 minutes, not a grand vision for the future. Expect more of that.
"From what I can tell, he's very tactically flexible," Heath said. "There's obviously certain positions on the field he wants occupied, and who occupies those spaces at what time are parts of his philosophy. I think those answers will change based on the opponent."
But more than tactics, the week suggested that while the U.S. might not look all that different collectively, there is a great deal of faith being put in Andonovski's ability to fine-tune the individual components. Trying to explain their experiences, player after player brought up the coach's habit of stopping drills to make some small point or shift a player a few feet one way or the other -- less in any sense of nitpicking or micromanaging than providing context.
"It's a lot about positioning right now," U.S. midfielder Andi Sullivan said. "Starting positioning and how the position of one person influences the position of other people. But also not being rigid in that. So it's a very cool combination.
"A fun fact about him is he said he likes to play chess, and the way I see his coaching, it makes sense. ... It almost makes me think of 'prisoner's dilemma,' almost, game-theory-type stuff, where he's influencing the thought of the other team."
Even someone as experienced as Carli Lloyd described an "aura" Andonovski has on the training field. It probably didn't hurt that she had the run of the No. 9 position in both games and produced three goals. But those who have worked with him far longer talk about his ability to bring the best out in everyone from reserves to stars. And whether it's a player previously on the fringe like Lynn Williams, a stalled star in Mallory Pugh or a Ballon d'Or nominee like Rose Lavelle, individual development might be where he has the greatest chance to effect change in the next eight months.
"He believed in me more than I believed in myself, and so I think that brought me to new levels that I didn't even know that I had," said defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who played her first five NWSL seasons for Andonovski. "To have a coach that I know is capable of doing something like that, and what he can do for the players around me now to get them to all these different levels, I'm just really excited for the players that get to be coached by him."
What we learned about whom he will coach
With Davidson, Dunn, Krieger and O'Hara out, it's hardly surprising that there was a defensive emphasis among the new faces in camp. Along with goalkeeper Aubrey Bledsoe, Alana Cook and Imani Dorsey were first-time call-ups on the back line. Fellow defenders Margaret Purce and Casey Short returned after time out of the picture, in Short's case as one of the last omissions from the World Cup roster. Always comfortable in the midfield pocket in front of the back line, Sullivan also returned after missing out on the World Cup roster.
But those enforced changes might be a preview of what is coming anyway. Positions will be precious as the roster tightens to 20 players for Olympic qualifying and 18 for the Summer Games. Even World Cup winners are going to be left out. But if there is an area where one or more players have an opportunity to break into the mix, it's on defense.
Much of that revolves around Dunn, who was indispensable for the U.S. as a left back for the past year but is always honest that she prefers playing higher up the field as she does to acclaim for the NWSL's North Carolina Courage.
Andonovski said he had a good conversation with Dunn at the start of camp, and that she reiterated her willingness to play wherever needed.
"Going forward we'll see where she fits best," Andonovski said. "It's hard for me to say right now. But that's one of the qualities that Crystal has, is her versatility and ability. She can adapt and adjust to a game, to a system and formation in a split second. Besides being a great player from a technical, tactical standpoint, she's also very adaptable."
She becomes in some ways the key to the entire roster. Purce and Short each had their moments this past week, especially getting into the attack. If one or both win over Andonovski in a way they didn't Jill Ellis, it frees Andonovski to move Dunn up the field. If Cook, who also has interest from England, chooses the U.S. and continues to look as composed in the middle of the back line as she did against Costa Rica, perhaps it provides the depth behind Sauerbrunn and Abby Dahlkemper to shift Davidson out wide and push Dunn forward.
"In our system, it may be a little different than the role of fullbacks in some other systems," Andonovski said. "They have to be creative, they have to have a good understanding of defending. They have to be savvy in possession and attacking-wise understand the principles, understand what it takes to get involved and be involved in the game."
In bits and pieces, the week offered clues as to what this team will look like under a new coach. How it will play and with whom. And unlike four years ago, a World Cup year ends with a first impression of the future.
"I think having a new head coach adds this element, just naturally, of urgency and intensity," forward Christen Press said. "I think that's actually a blessing for us because for Vlatko there is no looking back."