When Vlatko Andonovski became the U.S. women’s soccer team’s manager two years ago, he was given a two-part mandate: Win the next Olympics, then launch a generational change to usher out veterans and bring in new players.
Should his failure on the first count cost him a shot at the second?
The rancor on social media since the Americans’ loss to Canada in the Tokyo semifinals on Monday could power the team’s flight home.
Once the noise settles, the shouters might admit that even women’s soccer’s biggest superpower won’t win every tournament under the sun. But this loss had a lot of consequences.
Megan Rapinoe, Carli Lloyd, and other veterans weren’t just taking their last shot at a medal. They had one of the best shots in women’s soccer history to become the first reigning World Cup champion to win the following Olympic gold.
Doing so would have given the U.S. much more leeway to not win the 2023 World Cup. A younger team playing in Australia and New Zealand, with games in the middle of the night here, would be under less pressure.
If the U.S. still wants to host 2027, that would be the perfect stage to put a fifth star on the Americans’ jerseys. The 2024 Olympics in Paris would start the warmup in the city that hosted two of 2019′s famous wins.
Now, if the Americans don’t win a third straight World Cup in 2023, it would be the first time in 20 years that they fall short in two straight major tournaments.
But the fact that the U.S. women haven’t had a drought that bad in that long — and it’s the only such drought in program history — is an astounding feat. Winning a third straight World Cup would be even more so.
Don’t confuse this with settling for lower standards. It’s just to say a little privilege-checking would go a long way for fans of a team that made five finals out of six from 2008-19, and won four of them.
Survey the full history and you’ll see there have been eight World Cups and seven Olympics since major women’s tournaments began in 1991. The U.S. has failed to make the final four a grand total of once.
They made this year’s final four, but not the final. Andonovski gambled that his veterans had one more title in their aging legs, and they did not, especially Rapinoe.
But as Rapinoe reminded the world after the Canada game, it’s not always the manager’s fault when the players don’t execute.
“I think we need to look at ourselves and need to perform better, period,” she said. “We can deep-dive into analyzing, but there’s all the preparation and analyzing you can do and all the tactics, and then there’s everything else. You can’t put a name on everything else, but that’s what we were missing. It’s just the getting it done from players, and the players know that.”
The pandemic’s effect on these Olympics must also be considered, from closed-door atmospheres to the mental health toll on everyone involved.
Would the U.S. have won gold with Margaret Purce, Sophia Smith, and Andi Sullivan instead of Rapinoe, Lloyd, and an injured Julie Ertz? We’ll never know. But Rapinoe and Lloyd earned their places with their play before the tournament. Ertz was as irreplaceable as ever when she returned to the field.
Let’s lay this down, too: Had the U.S. done the World Cup-Olympics double at any time in the past, Andonovski and general manager Kate Markgraf would have had far more leeway to bring a younger squad to a postponed tournament.
Now it’s time for the veterans to give way to a new generation. Smith, Sullivan, Purce, Catarina Macario, Brianna Pinto, Emily Fox, and others are charging over the horizon. They are known to American fans, and they will soon be known to the world.
So, back to the point: Is Andonovski the right coach to bring the new generation in?
Let’s answer with two more questions.
First, were you one of the many U.S. fans who acclaimed his hiring at the time for this very reason? If so, think back.
Second, if you would fire him, whom would you hire? The top global candidates are already committed elsewhere. Portland Thorns manager Mark Parsons is heading to the Netherlands at the end of the year to replace Sarina Wiegman, who’s taking over England. Tony Gustavsson, Jill Ellis’ former top assistant, wouldn’t leave Australia with the World Cup two years away.
The pool of domestic candidates is also dangerously shallow. Though the NWSL has developed many great players, it has developed few great coaches beyond Parsons.
North Carolina’s Paul Riley knows he’s better-suited to running a club (and has been great at it since before the NWSL started).
Laura Harvey was a successful club coach before being Andonovski’s chief competitor for the U.S. job. She ended up as his top assistant, and announced weeks ago that she’s returning to Tacoma, Wash.-based OL Reign.
Most of the rest have spent as much time toward the bottom of the standings than the top.
The best domestic candidates may be in the college ranks — and many of them have stayed there because they make more money than they would in the NWSL.
The top college name is Penn State’s Erica Dambach, a Bordentown native who’s in her second stint as a part-time U.S. assistant. She has also worked with many U.S. youth teams. But she has never coached in the pros.
If Andonovski benefits from a lack of great alternatives, it’s far more important that he benefits from his own resumé: two NWSL titles, a superb soccer intellect, and a desire to make players better.
Will some detractors cheer on the U.S.’s failure, and root for more of it? Sure. Even casual fans are familiar by now with chirpers who claim U.S. players shouldn’t get paid what they’ve earned, or shouldn’t offer certain “political” opinions.
Watch out, too, for any U.S. men’s national team devotees who try to pull the spotlight so far to their side of the stage that it leaves the women in the dark. It would be plainly unfair to women who are just as popular — and profitable — as their male counterparts.
That should be proved again when the new era of players blossoms. And when it comes to their growth on the field, it says here that Andonovski should be allowed to lead it.
Then again, that will be much easier to say if the U.S. wins bronze on Thursday.