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Interview: U.S. Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski

“We have to evolve as a team and follow the trends and not just follow the trends, at certain times we have to be the trend setters. We want to be the ones that are going to lead those trends and have everyone else follow us.” - Vlatko Andonovski

Thad Bell

Vlatko Andonovski has been named the new U.S. Women’s National Team Head Coach. The former Reign FC, FC Kansas City and Kansas City Comets coach will take over the current World Cup Champions.

“I am very excited for this opportunity,” Andonovski told The Blue Testament. “It is one of the greatest opportunities a soccer coach can have, coaching the best women’s soccer team in the world. I know that it is going to be challenging, I know that it is going to be difficult at times, but it’s going to be fun and it’s going to be a great journey.”

Andonovski, 43, has coached some of the best players in the NWSL, many of them also U.S. Women’s National Team stars. Coaching the full USWNT can often be as much about managing the different personalities and styles of some of the best and most famous players in the world.

The new coach does not see that as a problem. “When I say challenging, the players and personalities is the last thing to come to mind because I know those players and they are true professionals, “ Andonovski stated. “They are great players, they’re great people and for me that is the exciting part, working with players like that. The challenging thing is playing at the world stage at the highest level. The challenging part is going to be playing at World Cups and Olympics. Everything else I see as exciting and fun.”

Whirlwind of a coaching career

It’s been less than a decade since Andonovski started his first job coaching professionals as an assistant coach with the Kansas City Comets indoor soccer team in 2010 to one of the most high-profile jobs in soccer. It has been a meteoric rise in the coaching ranks, surprising many that did not know him. Andonovski acknowledges the whirlwind path of his career but also admits it is where he wanted to be all along.

“Now when I look back it has been an incredible journey. It was always something I’ve dreamed of and something that I wanted to do but it never felt like it was going to happen or that it was time until now when I feel comfortable saying this is something I want to do,” Andonovski admitted. “This is something that I believe I can do and that I will enjoy doing.”

Developing players

One of Andonovski’s many strengths as a coach has been developing players at all levels. From when he coached ODP and ECNL girls teams to indoor soccer players to the NWSL, he has helped players become better. For some it was positioning, for some making runs but they all improved. Normally it was steady, incremental, day by day improvement in his players and his teams as a whole.

The U.S. Women’s National Team gets together as often if not more than any other national team in the world but Andonovski will still only have the group intermittently. It may be more of a challenge to help each player individually in camps versus regular everyday practices.

“That is something that I have been thinking about a lot because that is true, I do love working on a day by day basis,” Andonovski acknowledged. “All of this time I have been thinking about how I can make it day by day work, not just in terms of preparation but in terms of what I can do on a daily basis to help players become better players. Whether it is sending workouts or sending videos or breaking down videos to make them better so whatever it is, I feel I can make it work.”

Players’ support

There were a number of good candidates to replace Jill Ellis: several NWSL coaches, college coaches and coaches from around the world were interested. Some may deny that interest now but the top spot on the top team in the world is attractive, nevertheless.

The interesting thing is many of the current and some former U.S. players were not only pulling for Andonovski, but in some cases they were actively campaigning for him. None of the players that have spoken publicly or privately were in favor of any other candidate. That must feel good for the new coach to know the best players in the world wanted him.

“I’m flattered by the fact that players of their caliber are happy to have someone like me being their coach,” Andonovski confessed. “I’ve worked with several of them and it makes me happy to say I’ve had a little part in their careers but at the same time I have to say that I’ve learned a lot from them. Every session, every game I use it as a learning opportunity. Every time I interact with the players, as much as I want to teach them, I analyze and see what I can learn from them.”

Hard act to follow

Replacing Jill Ellis will not be easy. Consecutive World Cups, the most wins in U.S. Soccer history and enough smaller tournament wins to fill a small house with trophies and medals. This can’t be an easy transition without at least a little bit of nerves in taking up the challenge.

“What Jill did I think is incredible, winning two World Cups and in the fashion that she did is absolutely amazing. I just wish that I can do what she did. She set the standard so high that anything less than winning the big tournaments now is a disappointment. Those are the standards that were set years ago and now the standards are even higher but that is what comes with the territory. If you want to coach the best team in the world, you have to continue to be the best and you have to keep evolving as a team and you have to continue getting better as the game is evolving,” Andonovski said.

NWSL gave Andonovski the opportunity to grow

Andonovski was one of the inaugural head coaches in the NWSL. In addition to his ability to develop players, he is also renowned for finding gems that others have overlooked. Will coaching in the league prior to stepping up to the big job help the new coach in finding players?

“The NWSL first and foremost was an incredible experience for me and it was a great platform for me to grow as a coach,” Andonovski explained. “I am very thankful for everything the league did, that the organizations did, the teams, the players and everyone. Being in the NWSL will not only help me with scouting players but also recognizing talent.”

“The NWSL in one of the best, actually the best league in the world, so I have a pretty good understanding of what it takes to play at the next level,” Andonovski continued. “Another thing that helped me with the league is scouting the younger players coming out of college in the NWSL draft. I will continue to do that and not slow down and will not stop doing that. Players coming out of college are going to be and have always been a big part of the national team.”

Refreshing the player pool

One of the strengths of the U.S. Women’s National Team is the amount of experience on the team but after each major tournament the question of how to refresh the regular players always arises. This year will be no different coming off of the World Cup and heading into the Olympics next year. Will Andonovski keep the same core for a while longer or will he use that NWSL and college draft experience to look at some new players? It is already rumored that he is calling in PSG’s Alana Cook, a 22-year-old, American-English dual national center back.

Andonovski did not go into any details yet but replied, “It’s a natural process. Some players will retire, some players will probably be ready to move on and there will be new players, young players coming in. When the time is right all of that will happen. It is a natural process that older players will be stepping down and younger players stepping up.”

An embarrassment of riches?

During Andonovski’s time with FC Kansas City, finances were always a struggle, especially the last couple years as a different set of owners took over and tried to run the team on the cheap. With the Reign Andonovski had more resources but was still constrained with roster rules, national team call ups and injuries. This resulted in having to find players to step up a level. While he may not always have a Megan Rapinoe or Becky Sauerbrunn to call upon, he can just call another name from a deep pool of very talented players that aspire to wear the U.S. crest.

When he asked if this was almost an embarrassment of riches after his previous experiences, Andonovski started laughing. “To some extent yes, but at the same time just because we have some of the best players does not mean that the job is going to be easy because all of those players are so similar (ability) and so close to each other. Small details, little things will make big differences for instance in terms of who is going to be the next one called up.”

“It’s not going to be any easier just because we have all those luxuries,” he added.

Will it be a fun problem to have?

“I think so, I don’t know. Standing here and looking ahead I think it is a fun problem to have but let’s talk after the first camp and I will let you know,” he replied.

What will change about the USWNT?

One of the criticisms of the U.S. at times has been that they have not been as tactically smart as other countries. Andonovski is adept at devising strategies to maximize his team’s strengths and minimize their weaknesses. His teams have always been very sound defensively, organized and prepared for each match. With a team as talented and physically capable as the USWNT, has Andonovski given thought on how he wants the team to play? What style or formation he will use?

Well of course he has, in his own words. “Every coach has an idea. I think this team is already in a good place, a good spot. They are playing well, winning games, winning World Cups. Going in and changing a lot of things is not going to work regardless of what my ideas are but I feel as a coach I have to put my fingerprint and change a couple things that I believe will help us win the games coming up.”

“I don’t believe that what they did was wrong, absolutely not,” Andonovski continued. “It’s because the game is evolving so much. I’m not talking from World Cup to World Cup, I’m talking from year to year this game is evolving so much. We have to evolve as a team and follow the trends and not just follow the trends, at certain times we have to be the trend setters. We want to be the ones that are going to lead those trends and have everyone else follow us.”

More women’s soccer teams around the world are getting better. There are more teams and more countries are taking the women’s game seriously.

“All of that is making the job of the team harder,” the new coach agreed. “It’s making my job harder and we are very well aware of it and that is why we have to continue evolving as a team and that is why those changes are going to come. Not because I don’t agree with what has been happening in the past. What happened in the past is great and it worked but it doesn’t mean it’s going to work in the future because of the changes that are happening around the world.”

Anything to add?

“I am thankful for the opportunities I’ve had as a coach in my career so far. I want to thank the Reign FC organization and I want to thank ‎Bill and Teresa Predmore for allowing me to strive as a coach. I want to thank the players on Reign FC for being such an amazing group and helping me become a better coach in these two years. Last but not least, the fans that were supporting me and the team in any situation regardless of how we played or what the score was on the scoreboard.”