Vlatko Andonovski has resigned from his post as United States women’s national team manager. He was, in many ways, extremely unlucky, but his downfall was also very much of his own making.
Andonovski was a popular hire whose tenure started spectacularly before poor performances at the Tokyo Olympics led to his competence being called into question. What followed felt like a slow but steady two-year decline of the former best team in the world, culminating in an early World Cup exit. He couldn’t handle the team’s numerous injury issues, and eventually, his decisions stopped making sense entirely.
U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker is now tasked with finding Andonovski’s replacement. His timeline for that is short, with the 2024 Paris Olympics less than a year away. But before he starts interviewing candidates, it’s important that he reaches some sound conclusions about why Andonovski’s tenure went sour.
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Andonovski was supposed to be a slam-dunk hire
The USWNT players asked for Vlatko Andonovski. During the hiring process, general manager Kate Markgraf consulted several players about who they thought should take over from Jill Ellis, and Grant Wahl reported that “Andonovski was by far the preferred choice.”
In 2016 and 2017, several FC Kansas City players told me that having the opportunity to play for Andonovski was the only thing keeping them from retiring from NWSL or pursuing a move overseas.
The manager Andonovski replaced was a two-time World Cup winner, but still a relatively unpopular coach. Jill Ellis faced a player revolt in 2017, requiring then-U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati to hold a meeting where he informed the squad she wouldn’t be fired. Following Ellis’s departure, Ali Krieger, Sydney Leroux, Megan Rapinoe and Carli Lloyd all shared public criticism of their former coach.
It’s notable that Ellis had not been an international or professional club head coach before starting the USWNT job. She was a successful college coach, as well as a long-time assistant and youth team coach for the USWNT program. But by current standards, she would be considered underqualified for the post.
USWNT’s World Cup loss carries far-reaching implications
Andonovski, by contrast, entered the position with an impressive NWSL resume. Two championships with FC Kansas City. Two playoff appearances with an OL Reign team that had failed to make the playoffs in the season before he took over. The latter top-four finish was achieved while he was forced to utilize a league record 33 different players due to injuries and international call-ups. The players and federation had every reason to believe he would be an upgrade over Ellis.
Early returns were good. Between Andonovski’s appointment and the 2021 Olympics, the USWNT had a record of 22 wins, 1 draw, 0 losses. That run included an Olympic qualifying tournament where the team won by at least 3 goals in every match and did not concede once. It also included shutout wins over England, Spain, the Netherlands, Brazil, and France.
In the sendoff friendlies before the team headed to Tokyo, the USWNT recorded a pair of 4-0 wins over Mexico while playing the most stylish soccer the team has ever played. The second game featured the famous Christen Press Phantom Goal, disallowed for an erroneous early whistle for an offside call that shouldn’t have happened.
There was no reason to lack optimism about the USWNT’s chances of competing for the Olympic gold medal.
And then the Sweden game happened.
The Olympics were a warning sign
It was obvious something was wrong from the first second of the USWNT’s opening group stage game at the Olympics. The team looked completely disjointed. They couldn’t string three passes together. When Sweden finally scored in the 25th minute, it had felt like it was coming for a very long time.
Starting slow and having to mount a comeback wasn’t new territory for this U.S. squad. Sweden was also a good team that regularly gave the USWNT problems — they handed Andonovski his only draw before the tournament. What was shocking, though, was the complete lack of a response. The Americans didn’t battle to get back into the game. They just continued to get comprehensively outplayed for the rest of the match, a 3-0 victory for the Swedes.
The USWNT bounced back with a 6-1 trouncing of New Zealand, but its remaining 4 games were less than impressive: A staring contest 0-0 draw with Australia, a 2-2 draw with the Netherlands where they advanced on penalties, a 1-0 loss to Canada where their attack was stagnant, and a 4-3 win in a clown fiesta of a rematch with the Australians to salvage a bronze medal.
To this day, I fail to understand how a team that looked so impressive in the build-up to the Olympics simply forgot how to play soccer. I’m sure Andonovski felt similarly. I’ve been waiting for the story about player infighting, or a food poisoning incident, or anything that would cause the extreme downturn to make sense, and it just hasn’t come.
Markgraf clearly put more stock in the 23 games that came before the Olympics than the 5 poorly played ones at the tournament, and Andonovski kept his job for the next two years. The situation was reminiscent of 2007, when Greg Ryan’s first and only regular-time defeat as USWNT manager was a 4-0 loss to Brazil in the World Cup semifinals. The main difference, of course, is that Ryan was fired.
The wrong solutions for large problems
Andonovski has, in many ways, been dealt a bad hand. Eight players he’s clearly indicated he’d like to have as part of his main rotation, if not as first-choice starters — Christen Press, Tobin Heath, Becky Sauerbrunn, Sam Mewis, Mallory Swanson, Catarina Macario, Abby Dahlkemper and Tierna Davidson — were unavailable for selection in this World Cup squad or nowhere near full speed due to recent injuries. One could reasonably argue he needed to have succession plans for the former 3 due to their age, but he was certainly counting on having the latter 5. With all of these players available, who knows if coaching mistakes are even noticeable?
But Andonovski still had plenty of talent at his disposal without those players. His tactical ideas in the 0-0 draw with Portugal were nonsensical. His roster and rotation decisions were poor.
Savannah DeMelo went from being unable to get a camp invite to the starting lineup in the blink of an eye. Alana Cook went from clearly first-choice to withdrawn from consideration just as quickly. Sophia Smith — ostensibly the team’s most talented attacking player — was shifted from right wing, to left wing, to center forward, without any clear consideration for opposition matchups or how best to get her the ball in dangerous positions. Emily Sonnett’s surprise start in defensive midfield actually worked out very well, but it came out of nowhere. It was another action in a pattern that screamed “A coach who’s not sure what to do is making stuff up.”
It’s a stunning downfall for the coach who figured out that NAIA goal machine Bethany Balcer would make a better second striker than out-and-out No.9, or that dribbly winger Christina Gibbons would make an even better box-to-box midfielder, or that Allie Long had the ability to resurrect her career as a holding midfield general in the mold of Sergio Busquets. At NWSL level, Andonovski was a master of solving roster issues by correctly identifying which underutilized skills his bench players possessed and repurposing them into new roles. At the international level, he couldn’t make it work.
Variance can be cruel
Andonovski didn’t do a great job, and the USWNT players are ultimately responsible for not putting the ball in the back of the net. But it wouldn’t have taken much positive random variance for the World Cup to have gone a different way for the Americans.
Like facing Sweden goalkeeper Zećira Mušović on the average form she showed against Japan and Spain, rather than the white-hot form she had against the USWNT. Or Alex Morgan, scorer of 121 international goals, converting one of her 17 shots for 3 xG. Or Megan Rapinoe, Ballon d’Or winner, converting a penalty. If any of those things happen, we might be talking about Andonovski doing a respectable job rather than calling him one of the most unsuccessful coaches in the program’s history.
As Andonovski departs USWNT, many questions remain for USSF
We don’t have to look far to know this is true. Speculation is rampant about the USWNT trying to poach England manager Sarina Wiegman, to the point where the FA felt compelled to shoot down the rumors. If England prevails in the World Cup final, she’ll be able to stake a claim as one of the great international managers of all time. Her team was inches from suffering the same fate as the USWNT did in their round of 16 match against Nigeria, turning in the exact same level of performance, but edging the penalty shootout to advance.
Bev Priestman guided Canada to an Olympic gold medal, then exited the World Cup in the group stage 2 years later. Pia Sundhage has earned praise for Brazil’s improvement over the last 4 years, and her team went out in the group stage. Futoshi Ikeda presided over a Japan team that played the most impressive soccer at this tournament, then was defeated by Sweden more decisively than the United States was.
Andonovski did not do a good job, but the margins are paper thin in international soccer tournaments. The alternate reality where his team wins the World Cup is not that difficult to imagine, especially given that Spain has made the final while their players openly despise their coach and claim he is incompetent.
Where does U.S. Soccer go from here?
An opinion I was stewing on before I started writing this article, but wasn’t totally set on, is that the next USWNT manager should be someone who has experience in international management. I became more convinced of that when I started reminiscing about how good Andonovski was at adjusting to injury and squad construction problems when he was a club manager, and conversely, how bad he was at doing the same thing as USWNT manager.
The way you replace outgoing or unavailable talent is different in club vs. international soccer. If you’re asking a player to convert to a new position as the USWNT manager, you don’t get to work with them every single day for nine months at a time as you do as their club coach. Andonovski’s USWNT was great when he had all his preferred pieces available, but when he started losing them, he was unable to problem-solve as he did with FC Kansas City and OL Reign.
It was reasonable to hypothesize that, based on his club record, Andonovski would be an excellent USWNT manager. Unfortunately, his skillset didn’t translate well. I fear that the likes of Laura Harvey and Emma Hayes would run into similar problems, and end up lamenting how little of their job was actually working on the grass with players. International management is probably closer to being a CEO than a soccer coach, hence Jill Ellis’s current position with the San Diego Wave.
Andonovski’s hiring was based on a lot of good ideas, but it’s also clear why it didn’t work out. There’s no shame in the mistake U.S. Soccer made, as long as they learn from it.
(Top photo: WILLIAM WEST/AFP via Getty Images)