USWNT players revved and ready for new era with Vlatko Andonovski at the helm
This has been a long year for United States women's national soccer team. It has been a joyous and momentous year, a year spent beating the world on the field and fighting to change it for the better off the field. But as winter approaches, it has also been an undeniably exhausting year.
So while it isn't the résumé line that matters most, maybe the simple reality that many of those involved seem genuinely excited to work with Vlatko Andonovski should tell us something about the new U.S. coach who was officially, if anticlimactically, introduced Monday in New York.
The job that Andonovski accepted is about as difficult as there is in soccer. He must first qualify for and then win a major tournament in about nine months -- a tournament in the Olympics that the U.S. failed to win the year after any of its previous three World Cup triumphs. He will then be charged with setting up a team for the next World Cup cycle, managing the delicate balance between what will be an aging core of two-time World Cup winners and the next generation.
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He must do it all with a team whose fame and social advocacy are going to bring attention unlike anything he or any other coach in the National Women's Soccer League encounters.
It is a daunting challenge for anyone, let alone someone working at the international level for the first time. And yet there is a sense of optimism about the hire rooted in the two sides of the new coach. There is reason to believe the U.S. has a coach who will push it tactically, whose instincts for the game are buttressed by an obsession with scouting and preparation that costs him many a night of sleep. But just as important, there is reason to believe the U.S. has a coach who communicates all of that in a way that makes players believe.
The U.S. needs a fresh voice, as even Jill Ellis noted. Andonovski is a fresh voice.
"I obviously know a lot of players who have had him, and they all say great things about him," two-time World Cup winner Morgan Brian said this past weekend. "He's a great tactical mind and soccer genius, is what I've heard. So I think it would be a great fit.
"Everyone has said great things about him on and off the field."
In describing an interview process heavy on tactical talk, up to and including a video pop quiz for the finalists, U.S. women's national team general manager Kate Markgraf certainly made it sound as though Andonovski's soccer savvy won the day. And it was Megan Rapinoe who said recently that even the NWSL wasn't a big enough canvas for him in that regard. That was shortly before the Reign FC team on which she plays and he coached went out and nearly stole a semifinal from the North Carolina Courage that the understaffed underdog had no business winning.
"Especially when some of his teams were without some of his key players due to injuries or World Cup call-ups, you [still] always saw a very consistent team," Markgraf said. "They liked to have the ball, they're very sound defensively and they attack creatively."
Consistent but not dogmatic. Andonovski isn't going to fit the U.S. pegs into a particular set of holes. He isn't wedded to a particular formation. His teams generally play aesthetically pleasing, possession-oriented, attacking soccer because that is also often the best way to control the game and win. But not always. And he's good with that.
"One of the great things with him, when people say what kind of style did you play, well, yeah, we liked to keep the ball," said Leigh Ann Brown, who played on both his title-winning teams with FC Kansas City. "But he was smart enough to know if we win the ball in transition and they have a high line, absolutely we're going direct. That's how we're going to put the ball in the back of the net. Because he had such knowledge for the game and so much prep work was done, no matter who we played, he had almost figured it out already."
To that end, it wouldn't be a shock if Andonovski watched film of Sweden on his flight to New York. He might not go full bore on scouting the opponent for next week's mostly meaningless friendly, but everything about his background suggests he is already compiling dossiers on Sweden, England, the Netherlands and the rest of the teams that have already qualified for next summer's Olympics. He will do the same for the teams the U.S. will face in qualifying in January and February. It is his nature.
He didn't know the NWSL when the league launched with a team in Kansas City. He did by the time he was hired. He certainly did by the time FCKC reached the playoffs that first season.
"I gather lots of data and lots of information," Andonovski told ESPN recently. "And I try to simplify it as much as possible for the receivers, whether it's players or coaches or someone in the organization. I think the more information you have, the more power you have, in terms of the decisions you're going to make. That's why I'm trying to get all of that.
"At the same time, I can't give all the information to the players. They need specifics, they need the most important information."
And therein lies the other half of Andonovski's skill set. He can impress a conference room of U.S. Soccer technical gurus with how he thinks about the game. He can get players to see it, too.
There have been eight head coaches in national team history. Heather O'Reilly, who completed her illustrious career Sunday with an NWSL championship, played for six of them en route to winning NCAA, Olympic and World Cup titles. She also played for Andonovski in Kansas City.
"More than anything, I think he understands the human element of a team and a player," O'Reilly said last weekend. "He creates a family environment. He knows that all that kind of stuff, your outside life, is actually really influential to how you perform on the field. He's very respectful of including family and events and making people feel like he has an interest in them besides just their performance on the field. He cares about his players holistically.
"That's his foundation. That's his platform for how he communicates because you know that he cares."
As she prepared for the NWSL championship game, Crystal Dunn recalled Andonovski approaching her before a league game shortly after she returned from the World Cup. They didn't have a history, and neither of them knew then that she would soon play for a team he coached. But she remembered him seeking her out and congratulating her. He didn't have to do it before a big game, but it registered enough that she remembered it.
Dunn admitted her weariness going into that same NWSL title game. She has played a lot of soccer since the U.S. opened the year with a January training camp in Portugal. She is ready for a break. Sooner rather than later. But there is also a spark of interest as to what comes next.
"That's the vibe everyone gets, he's a caring man," Dunn said this past weekend. "He wants the best for his players. If he should be announced, I'm excited to work with him."
A lot of people are excited to see what comes next.
After the year that was 2019, that's saying something.