Ten months ago, Jill Ellis walked onto a podium in Manhattan and stared into a sea of cameras and media, ready for the waves to crash.
She didn’t have to wait long. The headlines rolled toward her from across the nation and around the world, many resembling The Inquirer’s that day: The pressure is on USWNT coach Jill Ellis as leader of the reigning World Cup champions.
On Saturday, Ellis’ successor will walk to a podium a few miles away from that last one, at Red Bull Arena in Harrison, N.J. The lights won’t be as hot, but there will still be pressure.
This summer, Vlatko Andonovski aims to do the only thing Ellis did not: coach a reigning World Cup champion to Olympic gold. And as the trip to Tokyo draws near, that headline now applies to him.
But the pressure Andonovski faces is different from the kind Ellis faced. He will be judged just as much on what he does after the Olympics as what he does at them.
The U.S. team needs to get younger. It needs those new players to be as skilled as the ones they’ll succeed. It needs to keep raising its level as other nations raise theirs in unprecedented ways.
Spain, the team the U.S. will face Sunday in the SheBelieves Cup at Red Bull Arena (5 p.m., ESPN and TUDN), is a perfect example.
After reaching the World Cup for the first time in 2015, La Roja advanced to the round of 16 last year and gave the Americans their biggest scare of the tournament. Star forward Jennifer Hermoso and midfielder Alexia Putellas have become household names on the European women’s soccer scene.
Right now, Andonovski has by far the best arsenal of attacking talent anywhere in the sport. But 10 of the 23 players on the SheBelieves Cup squad are 30 or older. So is Alex Morgan, who’s currently pregnant but might be back for the Olympics.
It’s no surprise, then, that Andonovski is already planning for the future. A month after he took the U.S. job, he held a scouting camp with top NWSL and college prospects. His first national team roster, announced three days into his tenure, included 22-year-old English-American Alana Cook from French club Paris Saint-Germain.
“It is always harder on the older players … but you always know that,” said former U.S. star Julie Foudy, now ESPN’s lead women’s soccer analyst. “In large part it’s often how it’s done, rather than who is doing it, because they understand it’s going to happen.”
This time, though, the “who” might matter. Andonovski is renowned as a great communicator, and Foudy is not surprised that his players have praised him for that.
“I’ve seen coaches in the past do it well, and coaches do it not so well,” she said. "I have not heard one player say a bad thing about him [Andonovski]. And that is, as we know, so difficult as a coach — when you’re not playing a player, to still have the respect and for them to say, ‘Yeah I get it.’ "
Foudy’s words bring to mind Tom Sermanni’s tenure between the 2012 Olympics and 2015 World Cup. His way of doing things didn’t always go over well with veterans. Ellis also took some gambles, but public backing from her bosses ended any potential player revolt.
“With Jill Ellis, one of the things she said — and I think quite courageously — is, ‘What are we doing if I’m worried about winning in 2017?' " Foudy said. “She had the courage to lose.”
This time, U.S. women’s team general manager Kate Markgraf gave Andonovski a clear mandate when she picked him to replace Ellis last October.
“It’s an educated fan base,” Foudy said. “I think they get it; they get that it’s an aging team that has a gap and will need some fresh blood coming in. And that means there will be growing pains.”
That might lead to something we’ve rarely ever seen with this team. Once the Olympics end, the relentless pressure to win might actually decrease.
Ever since the first women’s World Cup was held in 1991 (and wasn’t formally called a World Cup yet), the Americans have had to win to claim, defend or regain their crown as the world’s powerhouse. Now that status is unquestioned.
The next World Cup isn’t for three years, and it’s likely to be in Australia and New Zealand (bidding jointly) or Japan. Games will be in the middle of the night here, and far fewer Americans will make the trip than went to France last summer.
On top of that, the U.S. is expected to bid to host the 2027 tournament. It should be a slam-dunk choice for FIFA, because it will smash every money record on the books.
If that’s how things play out, 2023 might be the first World Cup the U.S. won’t have to win. The program will be able to set out long-term plans and see them through.
The heat will come back in 2024, when the Americans return to Paris for the Olympics. And if 2027 is here, chasing the fifth star on home soil will be bedlam.
But be ready for this amazing era to end soon. Then be ready to watch Andonovski really get to work.