Vlatko Andonovski is prepared for the USWNT job
It’s a few days before the 2017 National Women’s Soccer League College Draft in Los Angeles, and Vlatko Andonovski wants to make sure that he hasn’t missed anything.
The United States Under-23 team is in the area for a training camp which overlaps with the senior team’s annual January camp. Several of these U-23 players are among the top prospects in the draft. On this day, they are going through a light training session ahead of a scrimmage they will play the following evening, which most NWSL coaches will attend. That’s tomorrow, game day.
Today, however, is training. As the sun begins to set at the national training center in Carson, California, there is just one field being used among the many that line the campus, each on a plateau to account for the gradual grade of the property. The only people here are players, coaches, stadium personnel, one crazy reporter, and a man up on the hill above the U-23’s training field, watching the session — a man who has been here all week.
That man is Vlatko Andonovski.
Whereas other coaches were content with just watching the scrimmage — as much for discussing trades as any last-minute scouting — Andonovski had arrived earlier in the week to watch these professional prospects train. He wanted to see their work ethic. He wanted to see how they perform when nobody is watching — the vision of a champion, as 1991 World Cup champion coach Anson Dorrance once said, describing Mia Hamm.
There is no such thing as too much preparation for Andonovski, who on Monday was announced as the new head coach of the United States women’s national team, an incredible journey which took him from anonymity at the national level to the most coveted job in the entire sport.
“I’m extremely excited about the opportunity and I can’t wait to start,” Andonovski said in his opening comments on Monday in New York. “I’m just looking forward to the first day on the field with all the players and the staff.”
Andonovski grew up in North Macedonia (which gained independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, when he was a teenager), where he played professionally for six seasons. He came to the United States nearly 20 years ago, not knowing a lick of English, to play indoor professional soccer — yes, the distinctly different version of soccer where they lay turf over the ice and keep the hockey boards up.
He played in those struggling professional indoor leagues for a few years, but his ambition for coaching grew. Andonovksi made a name for himself coaching youth soccer in the greater Kansas City area. In 2010, he joined the staff of the Kansas City Comets indoor organization as an assistant coach.
And then a funny thing happened. The Comets owners had joined seven other ownership groups as founding members of the NWSL. They were complete outsiders with no experience in the women’s game, stacked up against organizations that had played in previous leagues and, in some cases, even kept their coaching staffs from past leagues.
Kansas City need a coach. Andonovski was determined to get the job.
He knew some top college and professional women’s players from his time coaching in the youth ranks. And what he didn’t know, he researched. Andonovski pored over game film, statistics — anything he could get his hands on. He showed up to what was essentially an internal interview objectively over-prepared, because that’s the only way he knew how. The club, which was already the mystery team among the founding eight, soon named him the first head coach of FC Kansas City. The women’s soccer world had a near-unanimous reaction: Who?
“I’m not afraid or shy to say it: I was a nobody coming into the league,” Andonovski said in a recent interview with The Equalizer. “I was questioned by everybody, and it wasn’t making me mad, because everybody was right. I can’t be mad. What I can do is use this as motivation to prove myself. I’m just glad it worked out the way it did.”
Anodonvski knew that he was going to need to put extra time into his preparation to succeed in the league, and at every turn, he did that. He kept thick binders of notes on college players throughout their fall seasons before bringing them in, and then he’d digitize his ranking of his top prospects. He would, on draft day, occasionally pull out those binders and laptops to show the assembled media that he really did get his top targets, even if they weren’t necessarily the big-name players.
That was just the draft, a one-day event. His work throughout the years produced back-to-back NWSL championships in 2014 and 2015. When adversity hit in the years which followed, Andonovski persevered. He kept Kansas City competitive despite such a severe lack of funding from ownership that the coach didn’t always have 18 healthy players on game day. This season, he managed the Reign to a fourth-place finish and playoff appearance despite not having Megan Rapinoe for most of the season — not to mention injury reports that could, at times, have filled binders of their own.
When injuries struck, Andonovski adapted. And he was able to do so in part because he planned ahead, knowing he needed more depth in a World Cup year. His acquisition of goalkeeper Casey Murphy proved prescient as he lost not one but two starting goalkeepers to injuries.
All that preparation helped the 43-year-old ascend to this moment, to being named the coach of the two-time defending World Cup champions and the most storied program in women’s soccer history. A man who immigrated to the U.S. to play indoor soccer, often in front of just a few hundred fans — a man who, seven years ago, was an absolute unknown in the space — is now in charge of the No. 1 team in the world.
“I don’t forget where I came from. I know what I needed to do to come to where I’m at. I’m not going to stop doing it. Obviously, it’s successful; it works.”
— Vlatko Andonovski
New U.S. women’s national team general manager Kate Markgraf narrowed her wide search down to two main candidates: Andonovski and Utah Royals head coach Laura Harvey, the pair who met in back-to-back NWSL Championships in 2014 and 2015. Each candidate was flown to U.S. Soccer headquarters in Chicago for an extensive in-person interview. Each was given about a week to prepare a presentation. And, once again, Andonovski was over-prepared.
He showed up to Chicago with 16 mini-presentations — not a 16-page presentation, but 16 individual topics — for U.S. Soccer, ranging from tactics to team culture and his long-term vision for the youth program. It was the in-person interview, sources say, that truly wowed the search committee of Markgraf, U.S. Soccer sporting director Earnie Stewart, vice president Cindy Cone, and director of coach education Barry Pauwels.
Markgraf said at Monday’s press conference that the decision to hire Andonovski was unanimous following that meeting.
“I’m very proud to sit here and say that we selected the best candidate for the job, with the best fit,” Markgraf said. “Someone who can develop players individually but also collectively evolve the style of play for this team and continue to set higher standards due to his excellent managerial experience and his commitment to building a sustainable culture.”
Markgraf described her hiring and interview process as highly analytical, one in which she created a rubric of criteria and added up aggregate scores. It’s no wonder, then, that Andonovski emerged as a favorite, and it bodes well for a fruitful relationship between general manager and coach.
“I’m a mathematical guru,” Andonovski says. “I love mathematics.” He studied math extensively in high school, and he credits that with developing his attention to detail and his desire for precision. He was a regional chess champion at age 12 in his home country, and he continues to play the game online in any spare time he has.
Some would say his approach to soccer is akin to chess. The math — the numbers game — has guided his style of coaching. Combine that with his experience in the indoor game, where space on the field is extremely limited and coaches must creatively exploit numerical advantages, and one can begin to see how he developed his consistent style, one which has helped push current and former all-world U.S. internationals Lauren Holiday, Becky Sauerbrunn and Rapinoe to new levels in their careers.
“I think chess came from his love and passion for math, and attention to detail,” says Huw Williams, who assisted Andonovski during his years at FC Kansas City. “His practices, the way he set up grids and so on. Everything is particular — symmetrical, even. He’s very much into precision coaching. His style of coaching is to create a numbers advantage and find the open player, or even create the right matchup. Not only 1-v-1, but if you have the advantage of Pinoe going against a weaker player, you try and create that match-up. That’s what he’s able to do. The manipulation of his players to have them play to their strengths. I do believe that a lot of that comes down to his infatuation with numbers and his manipulation of them.”
Williams, who runs a sports business in the Kansas City area, met Andonovski roughly 15 years ago, when they were both working in the youth game. Williams knew immediately that Andonovski was a sharp, passionate coach who he needed to hire — he just didn’t actually have a job for him. So, he created the role of “winter league director” to on-board Andonovski, who was also a volunteer assistant coach with the Comets at the time and became head coach of the indoor team in 2013, briefly serving in two head-coaching roles.
The pair coached together through the youth circuits and, eventually, into the pro ranks. Andonovski remained consistent, whether he was coaching kids, professional women, or professional men’s indoor soccer. He’d break down film with every player individually, every week.
Williams recalls how particularly his head coach would set up cones for pregame warm-ups during that first NWSL season. Everything was evenly spaced and color-coordinated (only for Williams to occasionally and playfully sabotage the symmetry by changing the color or position of a single cone, driving Andonovski mad).
Players came to appreciate the once-unknown coach, support that poured out to Markgraf as she spoke with current and former players of Andonovski. Whether he was redefining how a top U.S. international saw the game or finding talent where nobody else was looking — like this year’s emergence of undrafted rookie Bethany Balcer, from an NAIA school — players came to appreciate Andonovski’s professionalism. They both like him and respect him. He is friendly, but he isn’t their friend. He’s their coach, the guy tasked with getting the most out of them and, ultimately, achieving success together.
“They do like to be coached,” Andonovski said Monday of his players, in response to how he’ll manage egos on the U.S. team. “They want to be better. They want to improve. They want to develop. They do accept information very well as long as it is direct, honest, clear, and concise.”
Markgraf immediately jumped in to add to Andonovski’s answer.
“The best coaches are the honest ones and the ones that will tell it right to your face,” she said. “The team is full and has always been full of interesting, engaged, and competitive women who are looking to kill each other for a starting spot. That won’t change. And you just need a coach that’s honest with you to tell you how to get better, and that’s something that stood out with Vlatko and his management, and why he’s been so successful in shaping good teams around great players that buy into his system.”
Andonovski has a lot of difficult decisions ahead. Many of the United States’ star players are over the age of 30 and there are, as ever, hordes of young, talented players knocking on the door of the senior team — so many of whom he is familiar with from coaching with or against them in the NWSL. He’ll need to navigate that political minefield all in the short buildup to the Olympics, which kick off in less than eight months.
Andonovski has ascended the ranks quickly. Seven years ago, obtaining this position was unthinkable even to him. He’ll likely need to learn some things on the fly, adapting to the international game — to only having a few days with players every few weeks, rather than working with them every day in the club environment. He’ll need to adjust to the pressure of coaching a team where perfection is the only allowable outcome and to telling some players who love him now that they are no longer part of his plans.
There will be bumps along the road, and there will be people who question him. But Andonovski is confident in his decisions, knowing that they’ve been made with the utmost attention to detail. He’s rooted in his core values while remaining adaptable to the situation presenting itself. If he gets something wrong — however that might subjectively be defined — it won’t be for a lack of preparation.
“I don’t forget where I came from,” he recently told The Equalizer. “I know what I needed to do to come to where I’m at. I’m not going to stop doing it. Obviously, it’s successful; it works. I don’t think my personality has changed. I don’t think my approach has changed. Looking back now, I’m the same guy as in 2012, the only difference is I know the game a little bit better. I know the league, I know the women’s game, I know the players. That’s the difference.”