Thursday 09 June 2022, 10:00

Andonovski: USA’s future is brighter than ever

  • USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski speaks to FIFA

  • Discusses painful Olympic lessons and the changes he has since made

  • Looks ahead to Women’s World Cup qualifying in the upcoming Concacaf finals

The job of USWNT coach is arguably the most prestigious in women’s football. It is inarguably the most demanding.

When he first took charge in 2019, Vlatko Andonovski understood that only too well. He had seen his predecessor, Jill Ellis, subjected to a steady diet of sniping despite leading the team to glory at back-to-back FIFA Women’s World Cups. He knew, too, that the man Ellis succeeded, Tom Sermanni, had been dismissed after winning 18 and losing just two of his first 24 matches in charge.

Andonovski saw, recognised and accepted these expectations. He also realised that, in taking over a team of two-time world champions – many of whom were the wrong side of 30 – he faced a delicate and difficult challenge in phasing out some of the nation’s most beloved and successful players. In his own words, “I knew what I was getting myself into”.

Even with these problematic ingredients providing a potential recipe for disaster, Andonovski made the perfect start, winning 22 and drawing one of his opening 23 matches. Then came the Olympics.

Heavy favourites to top the podium, USA began Tokyo 2020 with a 3-0 drubbing by Sweden, then saw their hopes of gold go up in smoke with a rare, lacklustre defeat to Canada. Inevitably, the spotlight fell on the boss. And just as before, Andonovski was well aware that - in failing to win - he had committed the cardinal sin for any USWNT coach.

Vlatko Andonovski of the United States talks to his team.

Fast forward eight months though, and the 45-year-old is still in place. He has strengthened his position, too, not only by avoiding defeat in all 12 of his team’s subsequent matches, but by decisively upping the pace of that tricky transition between generations.

Now, having won the SheBelieves Cup with a youthful, new-look line-up, the USWNT coach is preparing his youngsters for their biggest test yet – with Women’s World Cup qualifying on the line. It was with this high-stakes Concacaf W Championship in Mexico firmly in his sights that Andonovski sat down with FIFA to discuss lessons from Tokyo, rivals across the Atlantic and his hopes for the future.

FIFA: I appreciate a lot of the lessons will be for internal discussion only, but what can you tell us about what you learned from the Olympics?

Vlatko Andonovski: That was a tough one for us, especially the way it started. I actually felt that coming out with a medal was a great accomplishment given everything that was going on and the way we started. Ultimately, we took what happened as a learning opportunity and tried to grow from there. We realised we needed to make some changes and that’s why you’ve been seeing the changes in the team happening. It hasn’t just been because we suddenly decided for no reason that we wanted to bring in young players. We knew that we needed players who could sustain consecutive 90-minute games playing at a really high tempo and fulfilling the tasks for the style of play we want to establish. That’s why some of the players you see have come into the team – they fit the profile we’re looking for.

Have you been happy with the support you’ve received since Tokyo, within the group and within the federation, given expectations were for a different colour of medal?

I have to say, the support from the federation first and foremost has been tremendous. When the US plays on the world stage, whether it’s the Olympics or World Cup, we’re always expected to win – and do it in a great fashion. Coming out of the Olympics having not won, you never know where you stand. But I’ve had great support from the general manager, technical director and so on. It’s not just about support for me personally though. I’ve also seen great support for the process going forward and the change of generation ahead of [the] Concacaf [W Championship] and the World Cup. The support from the players coming into camp has been tremendous too. There’s just a little difference in the hunger and desire we’ve seen from these players, and I feel we’ve been able to lift the level of competitiveness because of that. Everything has been going well so far. Now let’s see what the first real test looks like.

How tough is it to manage a transition to younger players when the veterans are two-time World Cup winners and beloved national figures?

It is hard but, at same time, it is not hard at all because it’s a natural process. People also see that we’re not just picking young players because they’re young – we’re picking them because they’re good. Look at Cat Macario – she’s one of the best goalscorers in the Champions League and now on the national team as well. It’s the same with the others – they have proved that they deserve a spot on this team. You’re not talking about players who need something ‘given’ to them. They have earned every minute so far and I have no doubt they’re going to continue earning even more.

Are you conscious that some of your rivals might ‘smell blood’ with the US after what happened in Tokyo? And are you hopeful that your team will respond to that like other USWNTs before them?

You know, I’ve heard this before about other countries smelling blood or getting closer to the US. And for me most countries have been close to us for a long time. If you look at it, between 1999 and 2015 the US didn’t win a World Cup, so other teams must have been at a pretty high level during that time. But it’s true the US found a way to get on top in 2015 and again in 2019, and that’s what’s good about this team: they find a way. When we feel that pressure from the outside and sense that our backs are against the wall, that’s when we show our true face.

What did you make of the recent UEFA Women’s Champions League final, which ended in a great win for a Lyon team featuring two of your players, Catarina Macario and Lindsey Horan?

It was so great for those two. Unfortunately I couldn’t be there for the final – one of our other coaches went along to it – but I was there for the semi-final in Paris, and that was another great occasion. It’s great to see from the point of view Cat and Lindsey being successful, winning a big championship – I really like seeing my players enjoy big moments like that. But it was also such a great experience for me personally to be in Paris for that semi-final and to watch the games on TV and see the buzz, the support from the fans, that these games are now getting. Those semi-finals, with 91,000 in Barcelona and over 40,000 in Paris, shows to me how much support and real love there is now for the women’s game. I felt proud to be a part of it.

Lindsey Horan and Catarina Macario of Olympique Lyonnais celebrate victory after the UEFA Women's Champions League final.

Do you see that players like Horan and Macario, who head over to Europe, are benefiting from those experiences when they come back to play with the national team?

Absolutely. But I’ve been asked this question before about what’s best for our players: is it to go to Europe? Stay in NWSL? Go to college? Leave college? And I always say that I don’t think there is one answer, and one mould, that fits all players. I’ve seen some players who need to stay in college longer and others who need to get out of there as soon as possible. It’s the same with Europe and NWSL – with every player, it’s a case of working out what best fits the individual. Cat Macario is a perfect example of how great Europe can be in the right circumstances. She came into Lyon, fought for her spot, became a starter and, slowly but surely, has become an incredible player.

Given the development of the club game in Europe, having witnessed first-hand how strong Sweden have become in Tokyo and seeing the likes of Spain heading into the EURO as favourites, do you feel you have more potential rivals than ever for the world title?

I’ve always felt that so many teams – almost every one we play – see the US as big rivals. We played Sweden, as you say, and they showed what incredible opponents they are. But when we play England, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, you name it, it feels like we’re getting the best out of them. And that’s great for us because that’s going to help us grow as a team and get the best out of ourselves. There’s no doubt we’re going to face some really tough opponents in 2023, and a lot of them. But we’re looking forward to it.

First, of course, you have the Concacaf W Championship coming up. And although we’ve spoken about Europe, and the growing strength of the game there, yours is the region that boasts both the reigning world champions and the Olympic gold medallists…

That’s right, and this Concacaf Championship is something we’re really focused on because we know that, without getting through this, we won’t be going to the World Cup. The fact that it’s in Mexico makes it a lot harder for us. But that’s what makes it exciting too because I feel this young group needs to go through adversity as soon as possible. We can’t go into the World Cup with that being the first competition where they face that adversity, so to have Mexico in our group, playing in front of a full stadium that will be chanting against us, really excites me. I don’t think the majority of the group we’re taking there will have faced something like that and it will be a good learning opportunity. I just hope we come out at the end with some success.

Carli Lloyd #10 of Team United States looks dejected.

Besides the test of facing Mexico as host, is it also fair to say that any potential meeting with Canada in the latter stages would have an added edge due to their victory over you in Tokyo?

Yes. Canada has grown into one of the best teams in the world and just having them in our confederation is very good because we know games against them will always be tough regardless of when we play them and what’s at stake. USA-Canada has always been a big rivalry and I think it’s now becoming even bigger.

We also have the FIFA U-20 and U-17 Women’s World Cups this year. When you see the US teams going there, both as Concacaf champions, along with the young players you’re bringing into the senior set-up, does it make you hopeful for your team’s future?

I actually think the future for the US is brighter than ever before. I had a chance to see some of the U-20 and U-17 teams’ games and the girls at that level are more complete players than they have been in the past. I remember starting coaching 20 years ago and training was once or twice a week with a game on the weekend, whereas these U-17 national team players train four or five times a week and it's individual training, technical training, strength training – you name it. These players are also growing up immersed in the game, watching the game, talking about the game because soccer is around them a lot more than it was for players 20 years ago. I can’t turn on the TV in the US these days without there being a soccer match on, whether it’s MLS, NWSL, Premier League, Bundesliga, Mexican league or whatever. There’s soccer on TV all the time and that was definitely not the case 20 years ago. And it’s definitely helping young American players become total footballers.