How do you take the reins from a manager who has won consecutive World Cups? That’s the unenviable position Vlatko Andonovski finds himself in.
Andonovski was named Monday as the new coach of US women’s national team, taking over for Jill Ellis, who stepped down last month – and he arrives at a time when the two-time reigning World Cup champions seem due for regression. After all, what goes up must come down – but it may be the addition of Andonovski, who leaves a coaching gig in the National Women’s Soccer League, that can help the USWNT defy physics for a little while longer.
First, it’s important to understand why the job opened up for Andonovski. Ellis stepped down after leading the US to two Women’s World Cup titles, but the less-discussed aspect of her tenure is a disastrous run through the 2016 Olympics, where the US suffered its earliest exit in a major tournament in the history of the team. Ellis’s reasoning for stepping away hasn’t been terribly specific, but surely going out on top and avoiding the tarnish of another Olympic setback played a factor.
Now, the short turnaround to the 2020 Olympics, only nine months away, becomes Andonovski’s problem.
But if there’s a coach who could step in under such circumstances, it’s probably Andonovski, who has spent the past six years working with the USWNT player pool via the NWSL. He won two NWSL championships with FC Kansas City, and last week was named this season’s NWSL coach of the year for his impressive work with an injury-riddled Reign in Seattle, where he had to field more than 30 players and the team still made playoffs.
But for anyone who hasn’t been watching the NWSL on a regular basis, Andonovski is a name that may feel like it’s arrived out of nowhere. After all, he has no international management experience – not even at the youth level – and it’s been a meteoric rise for the 43-year-old Macedonian who no one outside of Kansas City had heard of until a few years ago.
In 2000, he arrived in the United States speaking little English to play professional indoor soccer, and he ended up at the Kansas City Comets, where he’d finish his playing career. In 2012, when the Comets ownership group launched a team in the new National Women’s Soccer League called FC Kansas City, they asked Andonovski to coach it. Some USWNT players actively opposed being allocated there because they hadn’t heard of Andonovski and weren’t sure what kind of coach he’d be.
But he quickly established himself as a tactically smart coach who pushed his teams to play aesthetically attractive possession football while managing the personalities in the locker room.
His players rave about how he made them better. Megan Rapinoe, the reigning best player in the world, has said he’s something of a tactical mastermind, quick to adapt when necessary, but that he excels at helping players understand what he wants and convincing them to buy in.
After veterans on the US women’s national team tried unsuccessfully to get Ellis fired before the World Cup in France, and none of them offered any kind parting words for Ellis in her final days on otherwise active social media accounts, it appears the players are getting what they want with Andonovski. The coach search was led by general manager Kate Markgraf but player input was weighed heavily, and Andonovski was the top pick amongst the USWNT core.
Andonovski can be intense as a coach. His former staff at FC Kansas City tell stories about secretly moving Andonovski’s perfectly placed cones for drills to drive him mad – something Andonovski always noticed and fixed, frustrated with himself for his errors. When he interviewed for the job, he overwhelmed the owners with how much research he had prepared.
But his approach as a people manager is softer – he can be blunt, but his players regard him as a calming influence. When the Reign lost a playoff game last year in Portland, Andonovski took responsibility for the result and told his players he had not prepared them well enough for how physical the match got. He also shook the hand of each reporter in the mixed zone and thanked them for covering the NWSL.
Of course, being nice isn’t necessarily an asset for the USWNT manager job. Every coach since Tony DiCicco has been pushed out due to a player revolt, or the players have at least tried.
Andonovski, however, has a leg up due to his work in the NWSL. He is the first USWNT coach that takes the helm directly from coaching USWNT pool players in a domestic league. His transition to the national team figures to be seamless with his knowledge of the American player landscape.
It remains to be seen how happy the players stay with their pick, though. Andonovski reportedly already has a list of players who have been plying their trade in Europe that he’d like to give a look at an identification camp in December. The competition for roster spots will only get tougher as Andonovski, who is so thorough in his research, leaves no stone unturned.
He may not check every box some fans or players may have wanted from a coach. He has no national team experience as a coach or player, and international soccer follows a very different rhythm that club soccer. The transition from the club game is not always smooth. He’s also not a woman, something Markgraf said would be preferable.
But when the job at hand is taking the best team in the world and ensuring it stays the best, Andonovski’s temperament, ability to manage personalities, and passion for development seem like just what the USWNT needs.
For all the doom and gloom predictions every cycle about the world surpassing the athletic Americans, it hasn’t happened yet – and a tactically astute pragmatist who can continue Ellis’s obsession with identifying and adding new talent to the player pool ought to be enough to keep the Americans on track.
More information: THE GUARDIAN.