Christen Press Has Arrived for USWNT With Vlatko Andonovski at the Helm

Christen Press has shown her skill for years with the U.S. women's national team, but she's become a consistent force under its new manager.
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HARRISON, N.J. — Of all the developments in the U.S. women’s national team so far in 2020, none is more striking than the arrival of Christen Press as a regular game-changer in the attacking end of the field. Press has been a force for the U.S. in victories over England and Spain in the SheBelieves Cup—scoring one blinder of a game-winner and assisting on another—and building even more on her MVP performance during the Olympic qualifying tournament.

If coach Vlatko Andonovski had to pick his first-choice starting lineup tomorrow for a gold-medal game, it’s likely that Press would be in it on the left wing in place of reigning world player of the year Megan Rapinoe (who has dealt with nagging injuries for much of the time since the World Cup).

Press, 31, has shown flashes of her talent for years with the national team, but she never seemed to fully gain the trust of coach Jill Ellis, especially in big games. There were exceptions, of course—Press started and scored in the World Cup semifinal against England—but Ellis usually used Press as a sub when it counted most.

That’s changing under Andonovski. Press has been a freewheeling daredevil unleashed this year, beating defenders one-on-one, setting up her teammates and scoring outrageous bending goals from distance. To hear Press explain things after Sunday’s 1–0 win over Spain, her liberation under Andonovski is not a coincidence.

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“I think that he definitely has more gray area in his tactics of decision-making where it's like, you get the ball and you might want to do this and you might want to do that,” Press said. “With Tony [Gustavsson, the former U.S. assistant coach] and Jill we were in a very regimented system, which provided a lot of clarity for players but then didn't necessarily allow everyone's individual talents to shine. Some people absolutely, others less.

“So I feel there's a bit of a freedom now with less thinking about what you should be doing and just kind of doing what you want.”

Andonovski, for his part, has brought the same granular attention to on-field tactical detail in his press conferences that he has to the team in training and video sessions. Fans eat that stuff up; he even went into detail after Sunday’s game on how Spain’s technical ability off second balls made it difficult for the U.S. to push its line of confrontation higher up the field and move from a mid- to a high-block.

Andonovski said the introduction of Press and Tobin Heath as subs—they had both started against England—allowed the U.S. to move into that high-block more easily as the team pushed for the go-ahead goal that came in the 86th minute. After the U.S. won a free kick deep in Spain’s end, Press hit a gorgeous ball onto the forehead of Julie Ertz, who nodded home yet another set-piece goal in her long history of them.

Julie Ertz and Crystal Dunn celebrate vs. Spain.

Andonovski didn’t mince words about Press afterward.

“In Christen I see a great player, a world-class player,” he said. “And we've seen it so far that in the last seven, eight games, she scored goals and assisted on goals. The goals that she's scored, I mean, they're top-notch, some of the best goals that I've seen in a long time. She has the quality to eliminate players in a one-v-one situation and penetrate on the dribble, and it just gives this team a little different look, a little different flair, and helps us be more unpredictable.”

For Ertz, arguably the U.S.’s most indispensable player, being the top target on set pieces in the box is made easier by the serving ability of not just Press but her other teammates, too.

“Christen and Tobin and [Rapinoe] are probably the top three in the world, and they’re all on one team. It’s pretty unreal,” Ertz said Sunday. “[Press] never stops working on it, so that’s a credit to her. I mean, all I have to do is put my head on that, so she makes it easy for me.”

Press has made a difference against Spain more than once for the Americans—she scored the game-winner in a 2019 away friendly on a remarkable half-field run—and she has special talents that can help unlock a Spanish team that is fast becoming one of the U.S.’s most formidable rivals. As Spain showed on Sunday, it not only out-possessed the U.S. 60% to 40%, but it also was dangerous on the counter.

But beyond those talents, Press is representative of an attitude that the USWNT brings to every game as a team. It has been more than a year since the U.S.’s last defeat, and the Americans weren’t about to accept a tie with Spain as the score remained 0–0 into the final minutes on Sunday.

“To be honest, I think that this whole group never thinks it's going to be a tie,” Press said. “It's 85th minute, 0–0, and we're thinking we're going to win. And it's just about when and how. I think we all carry that. We play with that. I never thought for a second we were going to tie the game.”