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What Vlatko Andonovski's Hiring Means for the USWNT

Andonovski emerged as the clear top choice to become Jill Ellis's successor. So what will he bring to the table?

NEW YORK — If there were two main concerns about Vlatko Andonovski, who was presented as the ninth head coach in U.S. women’s national team history on Monday, they were these: That the two-time NWSL champion hasn’t coached at the international level before, and that he hasn’t dealt with the searing media glare that comes with the most storied women’s sports team in the world.

Well, Andonovski dealt with the spotlight of the world’s media capital just fine in his presentation press conference on Monday, deftly explaining who he is and what he’s about. Meanwhile, the universal praise that his appointment has brought from U.S. players whom he has coached at the club level—including Megan Rapinoe and Allie Long at Reign FC and Becky Sauerbrunn from his FC Kansas City days—suggests that they think he can handle the international game just as impressively as he has handled being a decorated NWSL coach since the start of the league in 2013.

Coaching the USWNT isn’t just about pleasing the players, of course. But it doesn’t hurt for Andonovski to have their support considering the last two U.S. coaches both had to deal with uprisings by veteran players to get the coaches fired. (They succeeded in removing Tom Sermanni but didn’t with Jill Ellis, who went on to win a second World Cup title.)

It’s important to note, though, exactly why the U.S. stars who’ve played under Andonovski like him so much. He has made them better at their jobs. 

“They do like to be coached,” he said on Monday when asked about the national team players he has coached in the NWSL. “They want to be better. They want to improve. They want to develop. They do accept information very well as long as it’s honest, clear and concise.”

Vlatko Andonovski is the new USWNT coach

Kate Markgraf, the WNT general manager who led the search process for the new coach, nodded her head next to him. With more than 200 caps for the national team, she knows as much as anyone what an elite player is looking for in a coach.

“The best coaches are the honest ones who will tell it to you right to your face,” Markgraf said. “The team culture has always been full of interesting and engaged and competitive women who are looking to kill each other for a starting spot. That won’t change. You just need to be honest with them about how to get better, and that’s something that stood out with Vlatko and why he’s been so successful in shaping good teams around great players that buy into his system.”

It’s a system, Markgraf added, that is “very sound defensively and attacks creatively by trying to create overloads and positional advantages and opportunities from various pockets of space he’s identified.”

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Andonovski clearly has the federation’s support—his long-term contract includes World Cup 2023—and the process led by Markgraf appears to have been a significant upgrade from the one U.S. Soccer used to hire MNT coach Gregg Berhalter. In that one, the federation took way too long and interviewed only two candidates in what everyone saw as a Berhalter coronation for months.

This time, Markgraf said she interviewed several candidates and spoke to dozens of stakeholders (including current and former U.S. players) before settling on two finalists, Andonovski and Utah Royals coach Laura Harvey. Markgraf then involved a group that included sporting director Earnie Stewart and federation vice president Cindy Cone to grill the finalists in Chicago. Andonovski won their approval, which led to Monday’s announcement.

His expectations, of course, couldn’t be higher. The U.S. has won the last two Women's World Cups. There’s nowhere to go upward except to keep on winning, whether it’s next summer’s Olympics or the following World Cup three years later.

On Monday, Andonovski had the right answers to the questions he was asked. 

- How does he feel about Alex Morgan’s pregnancy (the baby is due in April) and her desire to try to make it back for summer’s Olympics? He said he told Morgan to focus entirely on having a healthy baby, and when she’s ready they’ll put all of U.S. Soccer’s performance resources toward her comeback. 

- How will he balance the short-term needs to win an Olympic title with adding new and younger players? He said he’ll try and do both, realizing he has the veterans to continue winning.

- How will Andonovski deal with the rest of the world getting better? Not just by following the changing trends in the game, he said, but by leading those trends. 

- How will his players focus on the Olympics when their gender-discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer is set to head to court next spring? He’ll make sure with the players that their focus is on the game when it matters, he said.

It was a good start, all told. But it was clear that Andonovski himself realizes that talk only matters so much. Now the time is here to get to work. The players report for his first national team camp next week.