By Nancy Armour |
Congratulations, Vlatko Andonovski. Don’t screw it up.
The longtime National Women’s Soccer League coach now has what is arguably the toughest job in sports – at least until Bill Belichick retires. Introduced Monday as the new head coach of the U.S. women’s team, all Andonovski has to do is follow Jill Ellis, who won two World Cup titles and more games than anyone else in the program’s history.
Before Ellis, Pia Sundhage led the Americans to Olympic gold medals in 2008 and 2012, and a spot in the 2011 World Cup final. Tony DiCicco won World Cup and Olympic titles. Getting the picture?
“What this team has done, and what Jill has done, I think is absolutely amazing,” Andonovski said Monday at a news conference in New York. “Jill was hired to win one World Cup and she won two. It just pushes the standards even higher and made the whole job even more stressful.
“But for me, I was very well aware of it.”
The U.S. players often talk about the culture of their team, and how it’s impressed upon them from their first youth team call-up. This is a program that has produced Michelle Akers, Mia Hamm, Abby Wambach, Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe, and has set the standard for the game globally for almost four decades now.
While the players are responsible for maintaining the culture, the coach has a role, too. It will be Andonovski who will have to manage the egos and minutes of his players, all of whom would be both starters and stars on any other team in the world. It will be Andonovski who will have to find a style of play that best suits and maximizes the talent of his players.
And it will be Andonovski who will have to figure out how to keep the rest of the world at bay.
If there was anything to be taken from the World Cup, it was that the level of play around the world has improved faster than possibly anyone expected. Other countries are pumping resources into their women’s program and/or domestic leagues, and the gap between the Americans and everyone else will continue to narrow.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say change, I would say evolve. The game is evolving from World Cup to World Cup, but also from year to year,” Andonovski said. “If we don’t follow those trends, all the other national teams are going to catch up to us.
“Also, I don’t want to follow some of the trends … we want to be leaders in some of the trends.”
Unlike most of the previous U.S. coaches, Andonovski doesn’t have international coaching experience. But the NWSL has made that less of a factor.
Born in North Macedonia, he played in Europe before coming to the United States in 2000 to play indoor soccer. He has coached in the NWSL since its inception, leading FC Kansas City to titles in 2014 and 2015. He has coached Seattle’s Reign FC the past two seasons, and this year was named NWSL’s coach of the year.
“(His teams) liked to have the ball, they’re very sound defensively and they like to attack creatively,” said Kate Markgraf, the general manager of the U.S. women’s team who headed up the coaching search.
More importantly, Andonovski knows the players he will be coaching as well as those his teams will be facing. Asked how he will handle the tough decisions, particularly those that will have to be made as some of the U.S. team’s biggest stars get older, Andonovski said his management style has always been to be honest, direct and concise.
Current members of the national team reportedly lobbied for his hiring, and it was telling that in the moments after he was hired, U.S. Soccer posted quotes praising him from Rapinoe and Allie Long, who played for him in Seattle, as well as Becky Sauerbrunn, who played for Andonovski in Kansas City. His hiring was approved unanimously.
“He is everything you’d want in a head coach,” U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro said. “I can’t imagine a more perfect match for this team, at this time.”
Andonovski will have to be. The Tokyo Olympics begin in nine months, and there is no grace period given to new coaches.
“I knew coming into it, it is extremely important to win all of the tournaments,” he said.
In any other job, that would be hyperbole. In Andonovski’s new job, it’s the standard.
This article was republished with permission from the original author and 2015 Ronald Reagan Media Award recipient, Nancy Armour, and the original publisher, USA Today. Follow columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.