The U.S. women’s soccer team head coaching job is not just the most glamorous job in global women’s soccer, it’s also one of the toughest. In addition to marshaling an amazingly talented player pool with unrivaled depth, you have to manage personalities and egos that are some of the biggest in international sports.
And anyone who’s ever worked with them will tell you that’s exactly how it should be.
You don’t get to the pinnacle of international soccer without having an inner drive, confidence and, yes, an ego that fuels the rise up.
Vlatko Andonovski knew this well before he was hired Monday as the U.S. women’s soccer team’s 10th head coach in program history. In his years managing the NWSL’s FC Kansas City and Reign FC, he coached eight U.S. players who won a World Cup or Olympic gold medal: Megan Rapinoe, Allie Long, Becky Sauerbrunn, Amy Rodriguez, Sydney Leroux, Heather O’Reilly, Lauren Holiday and Nicole Barnhart. He has coached against all of their title-winning teammates over the years, too.
Because Andonovski has taken the reins between a World Cup and an Olympics, he faces one of the biggest tasks for any U.S. coach: qualifying for the 2020 Summer Games and picking the 18-player roster for the tournament.
It’s hard enough to pick a World Cup squad of 23. The Olympics’ limit of 18 is downright minuscule. At least five players who were in France this summer won’t be in Tokyo next summer. If Andonovski wants to turn the roster over even more — and he gave some big hints Monday that he does — some big names won’t make the cut.
“It is extremely important that we widen the pool of players that we’re looking at or considering for the national team, because we don’t know when some of the senior players are going to decide to retire — or we have a case like Alex Morgan getting pregnant,” he said. “We have to have younger players ready to step into roles instead of waiting for them … I’m very, very much about developing young players at the same time as maintaining and improving the ones that we have on the squad.”
The process might start in just a few days, when Andonovski picks the squad for friendlies Nov. 7 vs. Sweden in Columbus and Nov. 10 vs. Costa Rica in Jacksonville. After that, he said, a training camp in December “will help us identify some of the players that have potential to hopefully play on the national team soon, or at some point.”
As for who might get left out, the discussion has to start with Carli Lloyd. The Delran native is still as clutch a scorer as ever, but she’ll be 38 years old when the Olympics begin. Can Andonovski afford to include her on an 18-player roster?
Lloyd has yet to say anything publicly about Andonovski’s hiring. She hasn’t commented on any of her social media accounts, and wasn’t in U.S. Soccer’s collection of player quotes on the news. But she was never shy about her frustration at being benched by Jill Ellis after the 2016 Olympics.
In an interview with ESPN a few weeks ago, Lloyd said the years between then and this summer’s World Cup were “absolutely the worst time of my life,” and that there was “no denying" she “deserved to be on that field that whole World Cup.”
She hoped the next coach would be someone who “values me, respects me, wants me [as] a part of the Olympic plans … There’s no question my abilities are there."
There will be questions about Morgan, as Andonovski noted. Her first child is due in April, and she hopes to return for the Olympics. It can work, but there won’t be much time to spare.
“The most important thing is to have a healthy pregnancy and deliver a healthy baby,” Andonovski said. “When she does that, we’re going to do everything in our power, and use the resources that the Federation is providing — whether it’s our high performance director, staff, anything that we can do on our side to help her get back quickly.”
U.S. women’s team general manager Kate Markgraf knows the subject firsthand, as she had two kids during her playing days. In 2009, she forced the U.S. Soccer Federation to guarantee that when players who become pregnant return to post-birth fitness, they get their previous contract back and get three months of call-ups. The story is detailed in the recent book The National Team, a history of the U.S. women’s program.
Markgraf said she told Morgan: “Let me know what I can do to help, just stay healthy, don’t worry about anything else other than having a healthy baby, and then we’ll have a conversation.”
As for the politics of cutting players, Markgraf knows plenty about that, too. Almost every head coach in program history has faced a player revolt at some point, usually staged by veterans who don’t want to lose their places in the team.
Markgraf sees two antidotes to that: winning and honesty.
“The best coaches are the honest ones, and the ones that will tell it right to your face,” she said. “The culture has always been, full of interesting, engaged and competitive women that are looking to kill each other for a starting spot. That won’t change. You just need a coach that’s honest with you, to tell you how to get better.”
Andonovski said he’ll do his part.
“I personally have never felt like I have problems managing them,” he said. “They do like to be coached. They want to be better, they want to improve, they want to develop, they do accept information very well as long as it’s direct, honest, clear and concise.”
As for the winning?