How do you maintain when the bare minimum is the maximum? Vlatko Andonovski is one of the few coaches in the world who has a bar set higher than anyone can possibly leap. Stepping into the role as head coach of the United States Men’s National Team in October 2019, Andonovski was given one main benchmark: win everything.
For a USWNT program that has won 2 Women’s World Cups in a row and 4 overall, along with 4 Olympic gold medals, the only way to stand out is to add to the success. Entering his first Women’s World Cup as head coach, he merely has to win the whole thing just to meet the bare minimum requirements of the program. And that’s a challenge most people on the planet may not fully appreciate.
Of the 8 Women’s World Cups that have been contested to this point, the USWNT have won half of them. Since FIFA created the women’s world rankings back in 2003, the USWNT have been no lower than 2nd in those rankings. 20 years of being at or right near the top of the pile, literally the gold standard of women’s international soccer. Vlatko Andonovski has the immense pressure of adding to the program’s legacy.
Along the way, Andonovski has had to deal with a ton of adversity. First, with his team on a roll, they were ready to attempt to become the first team to ever win the Women’s World Cup and the Olympics in consecutive years. Then, in the middle of winning his first SheBelieves Cup, the COVID pandemic takes off and the team has to hit the pause button.
Andonovski uses the time to try and bring in some of the players that could form the future core of the team. Holding a camp in October 2020, he’s able to take a look at some of the players that would factor into an already competitive player pool: (insert some key players). However, the break in the schedule causes some of the players who initially had plans to walk off into the sunset as a two-time defending champion decide to stick around, making the most competitive player pool in the world even more crowded.
We finally reach the Olympics in 2021, where the USWNT had some injuries and a smaller group of players that they could take to Tokyo. While the Olympic Committee decided late to add alternates and then give teams the chance to officially add those alternates to the full roster, the USWNT weren’t prepared. They weren’t sharp. And, some of the other great teams in the tournament punched them in the mouth. The objective was gold, but the reality was bronze, as the USWNT lost in the semifinals to rivals Canada and then had to hold on against Australia in the 3rd place match.
He then had to deal with the injury bug, as since the Olympics, he’s had so many players fall injured that he could have had a top 3 squad in the training room. His team had to deal with the outside pressures of the equal pay lawsuit, facing human rights issues, and trying to fight to make the game safer and equitable for all women. In late 2022, the team lost 3 matches in a row for the first time since 1993.
That pressure for Andonovski?? It rose several levels, as the talk around the world increased. The rest of the world has caught up with the United States, the United States are no longer the favorites, they’re relying on the old guard and the new talent isn’t ready for prime time. Vlatko Andonovski isn’t built to coach these stars, and he’s holding this team back from being the best. It’s a guarantee that Andonovski heard the naysayers, because they were loud and all over…even here in the United States.
However, who else could stand in his shoes? He has a .867 win percentage as USWNT head coach, which is only good enough for 5th all-time, and the coaches above him on the list have all won at least one World Cup or Olympic gold medal. Selecting 23 players from the player pool he has to represent the United States at the Women’s World Cup is one of the world’s toughest tasks. And, in the process, the bare minimum for this team is to do something that no team - men or women - has ever done: reach a 4th straight World Cup final and win a 3rd straight World Cup title.
It’s an unfair challenge for a coach, but that’s what’s placed on Vlatko Andonovski’s shoulders. But, he recognizes the challenges and, at least to the outside untrained eye, he seems to embrace it. He’s been able to get some of his veterans back into the fold while also bringing along some of the younger players who have demonstrated that they’re ready for the bright lights. And it’s his job to coach them into uncharted territory. And, as the World Cup begins, he knows that what some may call his legacy is really the bare minimum.
If the United States Women’s National Team is to win its 5th star, it will be in part because Vlatko Andonovski turns in his best coaching job. It will be because he put his talent in the best positions possible to be successful, and it will be because he stared his coaching competition in the face and decided that he would not be outcoached on the day. And if he does all that and the USWNT win it all, Vlatko Andonovski will get to breathe a sigh of relief, he’ll celebrate reaching his benchmark…and then turn his attention to the next unprecedented challenge.