If one didn’t want to kick dirt on Vlatko Andonovski as he recedes from the USWNT manager job, and kicking dirt is kind of what we do around here, it would be wise to point out the size of the task he was faced with. He took over a team that had won two World Cups on the spin, so there was really nowhere to go but down, and also had to start turning the team over to the next crop of players. That’s tricky for anyone and any team, not to mention squads that are having to move on and progress from all-time greats as the USWNT was.
Injuries and other absences only hastened the process, and maybe the players that were replacing the older ones just weren’t as good. Andi Sullivan is not what Julie Ertz was. Trinity Rodman is full of promise, but is she Tobin Heath or Christen Press? Alex Morgan is not…Alex Morgan of four years ago, as it worked out. Sophia Smith may win a Ballon d’Or one day, but Megan Rapinoe won one the same year the US won the last World Cup. Not there yet. Naomi Girma was ready to take the torch, but there was no one next to her ready to do so with no Becky Sauerbrunn around.
So yeah, that’s a pretty shitty hand to be dealt. That doesn’t mean Vlatko played it well.
What was so striking about Andonovski’s tenure as USWNT coach is just how turd-rific the actual soccer was. It’s not like the US played scintillating stuff under Jill Ellis, but they had a roster full of the best players in the world at their positions to make it OK. It wouldn’t have been that hard to improve on it. Encourage players to express themselves, take advantage of Lindsey Horan and the mobility of the front line. Add some dynamism. The US didn’t need to be Spain but it could have added new gears. Instead, the team went the other way.
There’s being direct, and then there’s being one-dimensional. The Olympics should have been a wake-up call, where Sweden, the Dutch, and eventually the US’s executioners Canada found it so easy to cancel out the Americans. Press them, don’t be afraid, and they’ll cough up the ball as the front five waited for a direct pass or long ball that was just never coming as Ertz was stranded 40 yards from them. There was little cohesion, few links or triangles, and a lot of hit-and-hope. There was still time to remake how the US played after that mishegas in Tokyo.
And yet it felt like Andonovski just doubled down. Once Mallory Swanson got on a hot streak, the only plan seemed to be, “Give Mal the ball and she’ll figure it out.” Same kind of thing went for Sophia Smith. Just long balls over the top that either could try to chase down. Or the ball humped up the sideline so they could take on one or two defenders all by themselves. It’s hard to build a cohesive passing unit with an international team, given the limited practice time, but other teams figure out a way. The US just never felt like they had anything more than the most basic plan. Perhaps Swanson’s injury was the real death knell, but it also should have been a signal to try something else. Andonovski just moved Smith into the role and kept hacking away with limited tactics and ideas.
Andonovski was also far too loyal. Megan Rapinoe was always the first sub off the bench in New Zealand, and yet she continually proved she just wasn’t at this level anymore. The use of Lynn Williams or Alyssa Thompson was bewildering. He took only two actual centerbacks to the tournament, and only played one while stuffing Ertz into the other slot. Sophia Smith was never tried as the central striker even though that’s where she plays a lot for Portland as Morgan looked more and more off the boil. The player pool was short on holding midfielders for sure, but moving the only one he chose (Ertz) into central defense left the team bereft. Where was Sam Coffey? Sullivan had spent two years proving she wasn’t up to the task, and yet Andonovski kept tossing her out there.
The next manager will have the new generation all to themselves, and will benefit from the growth of Smith, Thompson, Swanson, Macario, Girma, and others. They’ll have the opposite task of Andonovski, as there isn’t much direction to go but up, and any kind of improvement in the style of play will be warmly welcomed. It can’t get worse. If the US completes four consecutive passes twice in a match it’ll be an upgrade.
It was a tough task, but Andonovski failed it. The USWNT will get a clean break, and it’ll need it.
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