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2023 Women's World Cup

‘Soccer can be cruel’: Vlatko Andonovski reacts to USWNT’s early World Cup exit

Jenna Watson-USA TODAY Sports.

After nearly four years at the helm of the U.S. women’s national team, coach Vlatko Andonovski’s future is unknown.

Andonovski led the team through two major tournaments – the 2021 Olympic Games, and the current World Cup – but his team underwhelmed at both tournaments.

Andonovski spoke to the media after the U.S.’ Round of 16 loss in penalty kicks to Sweden – the earliest the U.S. has ever exited a Women’s World Cup.

“I think we came out today and showed what we’re all about today, showed the grit, the resilience, the fight, the bravery. Showed everything that we could to win the game. Unfortunately, soccer can be cruel sometimes.”

Andonvski stressed the faith that he had in his lineup and game plan, saying, “I thought that we had a great game plan, great strategy. We executed the game plan. We had the right personnel on the field to execute the game plan. And if I had to coach this group, this game all over again, I’ll probably do the same.”

Of the winning penalty by Lina Hurtig that had to be checked by VAR to ensure it crossed the goal line, he said, “Oh, it is a tough moment…I mean, obviously the referee called it, it did [cross the line]. And…that just shows how cruel this game sometimes can be and how small a detail makes a difference between winning and losing.”

Andonovski made the decision to start Emily Sonnett in midfield, after she played all of six minutes in the group stage. And that decision paid off, as Sonnett had a strong match in the middle of the park.

He explained this tactical decision postmatch: “We were very well aware of how Sweden was gonna press. We knew exactly where the danger is gonna come from, and we knew the areas where we, where we need to get the ball as soon as possible. And I thought that the first thing that we needed is a second six to secure the counter attacks, the attacking condition or to delay the attacks in the worst case scenario to lose the ball. 

“And, I thought that the players executed very well, Sonnett in particular. It’s not an easy situation to come in, in a knockout game after not playing at all or very little in the previous games. And to come in and to play the way she did, I thought, it was incredible. I’m very proud of her, very proud of the team, and very proud of Sonnett to step in and take the responsibility in the way that she did, and to execute the game plan – the individual and the team game plan.” 

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Beyond Sonnett’s performance, Andonovski highlighted the stellar play of Naomi Girma throughout the tournament, as well as the other young players who stepped up and played major minutes.

“Naomi Girma, I can talk all day about her. Naomi Girma is here to stay. I’m very proud of her to step in as young as she is in her first World Cup and to execute her defense again the way she did. It is amazing,” he said. “Just every time we watch her play, every time we analyze her play, we do it with a smile on our face because the way she plays just bring joy to everyone. Very proud of the name.

“But also the other young players too that were on the field. I mean, we started five players that had never been in the World Cup. We had Soph Smith, Trinity Rodman, Emily Fox, Andi Sullivan. I thought they were troopers tonight. They were warriors. [They] played well, played hard, [and I’m] very proud of them. And just devastated that, after everything that they did, that we have to go out the way we did. 

“These are players that will be here for years to come, for tournaments to come. This tournament is a great experience for them. I think they’ll dominate the next one together with the players that, unfortunately couldn’t make it like Mal Pugh and Catarina Macario. This team’s got a very bright future and I’m glad we could give them the opportunity that we did.”

While he spoke highly and with confidence about the future of his players and the U.S. team, understandably, Andonovski wasn’t too keen on discussing his future with the team.

“I think it’s selfish to think about me, my future, what I’m gonna do when we have 20-year-old players going through the moment, going through this situation,” he said. “So I want to be there for them, you know, I love them. I love them all. And, you know, they’re my players, but they’re my friends. We spent four years together. They got their first caps with me. They got their first national team call up with me. You know, we spent times, tough times, good times. So [I] don’t want to see them like that. That’s all I think about.” 

The press conference ended with Andonovski responding to a question regarding the criticism his team has faced over the last few weeks – no doubt a reference to Carli Lloyd’s comments that the U.S.’ performance against Portugal was “lackluster” and “uninspiring,” and that they should not have celebrated after the draw that put them through to the knockout round.

Andonovski seemed to nod to Lloyd himself in his answer: “In terms of the criticism, now it’s the time to be criticized now. Now is the time for criticism. Okay. Because, we heard about criticism in the group stage, which was crazy for us, for someone to say how much they love this team and how much they love this country, and how much they love, all the players, and then instead of encouraging them, they’re criticizing them.

“Now it’s time for criticism. Now you can say whatever you want. And, you know, as a coach, when I took this job, I knew that there’ll be times where I’m gonna be criticized or misunderstood, but unfortunately, I will not have a chance to explain myself. I knew that I [was] gonna have to make tough decisions.”

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