Vlatko Andonovski has hardly had a chance to settle in as U.S. women's national team coach, yet his first set of matches has already arrived.
The new era for the two-time defending Women's World Cup champions begins on Thursday in Columbus, Ohio, where they'll welcome World Cup semifinalist Sweden. Three days later, it's off to Jacksonville, Fla., to face Costa Rica in the final tune-up before Olympic qualifying commences in the winter.
The details of the eight-team Olympic qualifying tournament will be sorted on Thursday, with the draw, schedule and locations being revealed–just hours before first kick at Mapfre Stadium, actually–but what is known is that it'll be on U.S. soil and that the Americans will undoubtedly be favored to win Concacaf's tournament and secure one of the region's two places in Tokyo next summer.
Before then, Andonovski will have a brief chance to familiarize himself even further with his player pool. He doesn't have the full complement of players available, with Megan Rapinoe, Kelley O'Hara, Crystal Dunn, Tierna Davidson and Ali Krieger all out injured and Alex Morgan out for the foreseeable future while pregnant.
Here's what to look for in the first matches of the new regime:
A tough first opponent
There's some symmetry in Sweden being Andonovski's first test given that the first challenge is reclaiming Olympic gold. It was Sweden that dealt the U.S. women their worst Olympic finish ever in 2016, after all. They've met since, most recently a 2-0 U.S. win in group play in the World Cup, where Sweden went on to secure a third-place finish.
Sweden is bringing 15 of the 23 players who performed in France, notably omitting veteran defensive force Nilla Fischer. The likes of Kosovari Asllani, Caroline Seger, Hedvig Lindahl, Sofia Jakobsson, Linda Sembrant and Stina Blackstenius are making the trip, giving the U.S. its toughest challenge since the summer.
There will be pressure on Andonovski to earn a victory off the bat, for optics if nothing else. Sweden, given its history with the U.S. and talent level, is not the side to roll over, even in a friendly such as this, though.
New faces vs. incumbents
There are a number of new players being incorporated into the U.S. squad, with NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year Aubrey Bledsoe and PSG's English-American defender Alana Cook chief among them.
Will Andonovski give the newer players the chance to perform in game situations immediately? Or will he rely on a more familiar lineup to transition into things? Every coach wants to leave his or her stamp on a team and make it his or her own, but there also should be caution against fixing something that isn't particularly broken. Andonovski will want to help the U.S. team evolve to stay atop the women's game, and he's even said as much, but doing too much too fast could undo plenty of what's been working for quite some time.
A more full-strength lineup (Alyssa Naeher; Emily Sonnett, Abby Dahlkemper, Becky Sauerbrunn, Casey Short; Julie Ertz, Lindsey Horan, Rose Lavelle; Tobin Heath, Carli Lloyd, Christen Press), for instance, may give the U.S. its best shot at easing into the new coach's tenure with a victory vs. Sweden, with the more significant lineup tweaks to come down the line.
The potential changes
Expanding more on Andonovski's stamp on the team, perhaps there will be some minor hints at what is to come, though the totality of it won't be known for months, when the omitted veterans are brought back and the coach has had more time to work with his team. Some things to watch down the line include: Will Julie Ertz remain in the midfield? Or will she perhaps be reverted into a center back role? Becky Sauerbrunn is still firing at a high level, but at 34, she's not going to be around forever. Ertz, Cook and Davidson are among the candidates to appear in tandem with Dahlkemper over the course of the next cycle.
If Short, who was superb in NWSL this season, can become the top left back of the next cycle, what does that mean for Crystal Dunn's outlook? She's made it no secret that her preference is to play in her more natural attacking role, and Short making an impression could have a knock-on effect for future lineup construction, when Dunn is back in the fold.
Then there's the void at center forward, with Morgan out of action. That's a massive role on this team, with great responsibility outside of just scoring goals. Morgan's hold-up and link-up play at the World Cup went a long way toward determining the USA's fortunes. Lloyd will believe she's the top candidate in the pool until she chooses to walk away, but with Andonovski looking to the future, that's a positional battle to monitor closely over the coming months.