The United States women’s national team confirmed Jill Ellis’ successor Monday, announcing the hire of Reign FC head coach Vlatko Andonovski. He’ll take charge of the team for the first time on November 7, when the USWNT takes on Sweden in Columbus.
Andonovski has coached in every NWSL season, winning the NWSL Championship twice. In 2019, he guided Reign FC to the playoffs despite injuries and international call-ups forcing him to field a league record 33 different players.
Even before the search for Ellis’ successor got underway, Andonovski was clearly a leading candidate. He was named by USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf as one of the people she would interview for the job while she was still working for ESPN, after she’d agreed to become the USWNT’s general manager but before her hire was announced.
Like Ellis, Andonovski has a reputation for building positive cultures and keeping players happy. He also usually favors a 4-3-3 formation and attack-minded (though not hyper-aggressive) soccer, which should make the transition to a new coach comfortable for the players.
But unlike Ellis, Andonovski has extensive professional experience and has won championships at the highest level of club soccer. He won’t be reinventing the wheel, but he could implement a new level of tactical sophistication that pushes the USWNT forward in an era when its challengers are rapidly improving.
So, who is Vlatko Andonovski?
Andonovski was born in what was then Yugoslavia, and is now North Macedonia. He came to the United States in 2000 to play professional indoor soccer, never left, and settled into coaching after his playing career ended.
Before he was hired as FC Kansas City’s first head coach, Andonovski made a name for himself in that region’s girls’ youth soccer scene, as well as men’s indoor soccer. He guided FCKC to the playoffs in his first season in charge, then won the NWSL Championship in 2014 and 2015.
Unfortunately for Andonovski and his squad, problems with FCKC ownership made it difficult to attract a replacement for Lauren Holiday following her retirement. He moved on to Reign FC in late 2017, shortly before FCKC folded and the rights of its players were transferred to Utah. The Reign finished in the top four in both of his seasons in charge, after missing the playoffs in the two seasons prior.
He’s gotten the most out of USWNT stars
Some USWNT stars have enjoyed the best years of their careers under Andonovski.
Holiday’s position on the national team changed constantly throughout her career, but Andonovski was the only coach to play her in arguably her best position, as a central attacking midfielder just behind a striker. She won the 2013 NWSL MVP award, leading the league in both goals and assists, as well as the 2014 NWSL championship game MVP.
Becky Sauerbrunn was usually the third or fourth center back on the USWNT before NWSL started, fighting for minutes even as Pia Sundhage and Tom Sermanni struggled to find a consistent central defense pairing. But under Andonovski, Sauerbrunn won three consecutive NWSL defender of the year awards, and has since gone on to make the league’s best XI in every season she has played in the league. Under Ellis, Sauerbrunn became a locked-in starter and the leader of the USWNT defense in two World Cup-winning campaigns.
Andonovski was also instrumental in reviving the career of Amy Rodriguez, who had fallen out of favor with the USWNT by the time the NWSL started in 2012. While other coaches primarily valued Rodriguez for her speed, Andonovski identified her skill at dropping deep, holding up the ball, and combining with teammates. He played Rodriguez in a new role, and she enabled Holiday and other stars to succeed. Rodriguez continues to play the role Andonovski first put her in for other coaches.
Allie Long also had her career turned around under Andonovski. She was benched during the end of her stint with Portland, who couldn’t find the right role for her in their midfield. Andonovski slotted Long into defensive midfield, where she had struggled for the USWNT, and she improved rapidly at that position. Her performances under Andonovski got her back on the national team for the World Cup.
He’s popular among players
On Thursday, Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl reported that Andonovski was the hire that USWNT players wanted:
“Multiple sources said Andonovski was by far the preferred choice of the current USWNT players, some of whom have said they were consulted by WNT GM Kate Markgraf as she went through her search process.”
This is consistent with everything I’ve ever heard about Andonovski. When FCKC’s ownership troubles started in 2016, multiple players told me that the opportunity to play for Andonovski was the only reason that they had not requested a trade or retired from NWSL. He drew significant praise from his goalkeeper Casey Murphy after the Reign’s playoff semifinal loss. Andonovski isn’t going to have trouble getting players to like him.
Tactical adaptability is a big plus
While Andonovski has preferred a 4-3-3 system with relatively aggressive pressing and a pure holding midfielder for defensive solidity, he has shown that he can adapt to available personnel.
In early seasons with Kansas City, Andonovski favored a 4-2-3-1 formation to get the most out of his best player, Holiday. He recognized that he had a special talent, worthy of building an entire system around, and it brought him two championships.
In the latter part of his tenure with Kansas City, Andonovski attempted to build a 4-4-2 system around Rodriguez as his primary link between midfield and new goal-poaching striker Sydney Leroux, but Rodriguez tore her ACL in the first game of the 2017 season. His team struggled without Rodriguez, but improved late in the season when Christina Gibbons — who primarily played winger in college, and had been playing left back for FCKC — was moved into midfield. Without a linking player like Rodriguez or a midfielder who could consistently complete long passes, Andonovski put on his problem-solving hat and found a player who could dribble through midfield instead.
Expect Andonovski to start out with a system that looks familiar to both you and the players, but know that he has the capacity to adjust if he has a good reason to do so.
Can he turn youngsters into top pros?
While Andonovski has historically given plenty of minutes to young American players directly out of college, his track record with developing draftees into stars isn’t good. Kristie Mewis and Kassey Kallman, his first two first round selections, were shipped out of Kansas City after disappointing rookie campaigns. Gibbons looked like she was on a better track before Andonovski joined the Reign, but she is now out of pro soccer. He did not have any first round selections as Reign FC manager.
This is relevant given the age of many USWNT players. A whopping 12 members of the World Cup squad were 30 or older. One of them, Alex Morgan, will miss at least the next six months due to pregnancy.
There are a handful of USWNT hopefuls who have started their pro careers, but most of the players from the 2016 and 2017 NWSL drafts — who should be entering their primes — have disappointed. Rookies from this past season and college stars like Emily Fox, Jaelin Howell and Catarina Macario appear to have much more upside.
Andonovski is going to need to get some inexperienced talents up to USWNT speed very quickly, and there’s no body of evidence that points to his ability to do so. If you’re looking for a reason to be concerned about Andonovski’s hire, this is it, though it’s a very mild concern. He never got the opportunity to draft a player like No. 1 overall picks Tierna Davidson and Andi Sullivan, so we have no idea how obvious USWNT-caliber players would have performed under him.
Who’s in and out?
We’re not going to have a lot of information about who Andonovski rates and who he doesn’t until next spring. The two games he takes charge of in November will include mostly players who participated in the World Cup. Then in December, a camp will be held explicitly for players who are not current USWNT regulars. From a combination of those two pools, Andonovski will put together a first team squad that’s to his liking in early 2020.
But wild guesses are fun, so let’s take some wild guesses:
- With Alex Morgan out, Christen Press will get the first chance to prove she should be the starting center forward.
- Andonovski isn’t as dogmatic as Ellis about his fullbacks needing to be great attackers, so Casey Short will get the opportunity to compete for a starting fullback role. Same goes for Davidson, who looks just as capable at left back as she does at center back.
- That will move Crystal Dunn back into the rotation in more attacking spots, where she plays for the North Carolina Courage.
- Julie Ertz will become a full-time center back to save her legs and extend her career.
- Lynn Williams, who didn’t mesh with Ellis, will become a squad regular again.
- Alyssa Naeher will have a fair shot to keep the No. 1 shirt, but other goalkeepers will be given a chance to win the job.
We’ll learn a bit about what Andonovski is thinking in November games against Sweden and Costa Rica, and a bit more during the B-team games in December. But it won’t be until next year that we really start to get a grasp on the direction he wants to take the team.
Fans who mostly liked the direction of the USWNT should be very happy with Andonovski, though. He’s not going to blow up the program, but he is going to freshen up the squad and bring a higher level of pro experience than the team’s previous two managers. He’s as common sense a hire as U.S. Soccer could have made.