The worst-kept secret in US Soccer has finally been made public: Vlatko Andonovski will be taking over the reins of the reigning World Cup winners, as reported by Grant Wahl for SI. The first big test on the horizon is Olympic qualifying in the winter, to be followed by the Olympics itself next summer, although he’ll have some lead-in time with two friendlies in November against Sweden and Costa Rica.
Taking over for the best team in the world brings a lot of advantages, but also some potential pitfalls. This article identifies four key themes that Andonovski should try to manage as he settles into the job.
1. Experiment, but carefully
The US just won the World Cup, and virtually every player from that roster will also be in the mix for the Olympics next summer. The new coach will need to put their own mark on the team, and the following points will develop some areas where I think that they should focus their attention. But ultimately this team ain’t broke and there’s no need to fix it.
If the next big tournament were two years away, things might be different. But with only nine months until the Olympics kick off, there simply isn’t enough time for any kind of serious overhaul. Too much experimentation risks a fallout if anything goes wrong, and there simply isn’t enough time to count on weathering that kind of storm. Over the long term, the US needs to get more comfortable with losing unimportant games, but early 2020 is not the time to focus on learning that lesson.
With that in mind, take all the rest of these points with a grain of salt. Change is necessary in some areas, but overall the state of the team remains very strong.
2. Expand the team’s tactical range
The 433 the US has used almost exclusively over the past two years is good. They won a World Cup with it, after all. But it’s also limited. The US has too many talented players to pigeonhole themselves into a singular brand of run-and-gun wide attacks. Give these players even a bit more guidance and they should be able to play in a more controlled, possession-oriented style. At a bare minimum they should develop the ability to blend the 433 (attacking, aggressive, open) with a 4231 (restrained, enhanced protection). This wouldn’t even require a change in personnel, just a shift in emphasis.
But they should also move beyond the confines of this approach. We’ve seen how effective these players can be in a 4222 ‘box’ midfield at North Carolina. There’s no reason the national team couldn’t bring this into their repertoire.
We also saw them experiment (to no good results) with a back three under Ellis. But while the execution was a failure, there’s nothing wrong with the idea in principle. In fact, this system makes even more sense now that Tierna Davidson has joined the ranks of elite defenders, giving them plenty to work with if they want to organize a possession-heavy 3421. Consider a back three of Davidson, Ertz, and Sauerbrunn, with Crystal Dunn and Kelley O’Hara slotted in as wingbacks.
Again, the 433 certainly isn’t broken. But any system is exploitable. We saw some evidence of this in 2019, with France ripping the US to pieces back in a January friendly, and with teams like Spain working hard to neutralize the US in wide areas in the octofinals of the World Cup.
During his tenure in the NWSL—as coach of FC Kansas City and then Reign FC—Andonovski has shown himself to be a flexible thinker, capable of adapting his team to suit the circumstances. He shouldn’t be afraid to continue playing to those strengths in his new job. Even if the status quo is generally stable, it’s important to cultivate options for when Plan A isn’t working.
3. Embrace rotation
Along with a commitment to expanding tactical range, Andonovski should also commit more enthusiastically to squad rotation. These points actually blend together into a larger argument in favor adaptation.
After all, the US has the deepest roster in the world, by a decent margin. As Ali Krieger famously claimed this summer, the US has “We are the best team and we have the second best team in the world as well.” That’s not quite true, but it’s also not that far off. The next coach should be more willing to engage with that depth.
Rotation is useful for two key reasons.
First, it keeps players fresh. The spate of injuries and ailments that have plagued the national team squad on their return from France are evidence of just how hard they’ve been worked. Consider this recent piece from Claire Watkins at Equalizer on the incredible number of minutes Julie Ertz has played this year, and then multiply that out by 11. It can put a real toll on your players to ask this much. Jill Ellis survived leaning heavily on players managing injuries this summer, but it could easily have blown up in her face. It will be important to reduce that tail risk going forward, especially in the midst of a compressed tournament schedule.
Second, rotation bolsters the tactical range of the team. As good as Julie Ertz is, she is not world-class at every feature of the game. The same is true of Alex Morgan, Becky Sauerbrunn, Rose Lavelle, and every other player. They each have strengths and relative weaknesses, which make them better-suited to certain types of games than others.
If the US is playing a weak team that will be relatively open, Ertz could be a critical piece. By physically dominating the center of the pitch, she opens up room for the rest of the team to attack with some security. But against a team committed to a bunker, Ertz offers a bit less. In that case, it might make sense to let her rest and play a more technical and passing-oriented midfielder like Morgan Brian.
Megan Rapinoe is one of the best creative players in the world, and is occasionally an effective high-presser. But she doesn’t do much tracking back, and isn’t especially good in her defensive positioning. In some games, a player like Crystal Dunn or Christen Press might offer more in that position.
Given the wealth of options available, Andonovski can do a lot to put players in a position to succeed, and keep everyone from getting burned out in the process.
4. Communication is essential
As my colleague Stephanie Yang has written recently, this is set up to be the most seamless USWNT coach transition ever. By all accounts, Andonovski is highly respected. His players love him, and everyone on the team seems excited about his imminent arrival.
But transitions are always hard, even if everyone is on the same page and excited about the change. People grow accustomed to the old way of doing things, and frustrated with any disruption of their habits. That is particularly true in a national team environment where pressure levels are sky-high and where some players have thrived for a decade or more. These dangers only grow larger with every piece of experimentation you engage.
The Olympics create a particular landmine on this front, given the 18 player roster limit. By definition, at least five of the players who defended their title in France will not be on the squad in Tokyo. And it could be more if Andonovski decides to bring in some players who didn’t make the cut for France—you could make a credible case for players like Andi Sullivan, Casey Short, Lynn Williams, Megan Oyster to at least be in the mix.
All of the US players are familiar with the process and presumably understand that tough choices will need to get made. But there’s a difference between understanding and accepting.
There is no reason to doubt Andovski’s abilities in this area, but there really isn’t any way to prepare for this sort of job. Given the personalities involved, the incredibly-high expectations, and the media circus that surrounds them, managing this team is always going to be a bit of a highwire act.
5. Get used to the downtime and the politics
For a hands-on coach like Andonovski, it will tough to adapt to the requirements and limitations of coaching a national team. He is used to having his players on hand full-time, but the national team meets irregularly at best. In this new role, he will suddenly be far away from his players, and be forced to make plans never knowing exactly how healthy or how crisp they are in terms of form. After all, there’s a world of difference between seeing a player every day in training and trying to stay in touch from 3000 miles away.
There’s also a lot more politics involved. The coach of a club is the captain of the ship, but the coach of a national team is more like an admiral—trying to manage everyone beneath them while also sticking to the plans imposed by the leadership from above. It takes a special kind of personality to impose their will where possible, while bending like a tree in the wind where necessary.
No one will expect him to adapt to the new role immediately, and anyone can be forgiven for a rough patch or two. But probably not more than that. When it comes to the US Women’s National Team, there’s very little room for error.
By consensus, Andonovski is an excellent pick for the job. But there’s always a risk with taking on a new position, especially one where the stakes and expectations are this high. It will take a lot of work, and maybe a bit of luck, to keep everything in line.