AUCKLAND, New Zealand -- The U.S. Soccer Federation has not made any announcements yet, but it seems clear Vlatko Andonovski will not continue on as the head coach of the U.S. women's national team. Whether it's phrased that he will "part ways" or "step down," his tenure with the USWNT, which began in October 2019, will be over soon.
The problem: It's happening about two years too late.
There are a lot of reasons the USWNT crashed out of the Women's World Cup in the round of 16 against Sweden. The team's best players were injured. The team was caught between two generations. The rest of the world has caught up.
Those things are all true. But Andonovski was also not the right choice for a job that is arguably the most challenging in women's soccer, and the warning signs of how this World Cup would go were evident after the 2021 Olympics. Had U.S. Soccer officials heeded those signs, the USWNT might very well still be in this World Cup, preparing for a quarterfinal.
Now, Andonovski ends his USWNT tenure having won just three of 10 games in major competitions -- two during the 2021 Olympics, and one in the 2023 World Cup. In those 10 games, the U.S. failed to score a goal in half of them.
Problems from Olympics carry into Women's World Cup
Back in 2021, the cracks revealed themselves immediately. In the opening match of the Olympics, Sweden humiliated the USWNT 3-0. The Americans looked lost, disjointed and confused -- it was a remarkable about-face from a starting 11 comprised entirely players who had just won a World Cup in 2019 in dominant fashion.
Throughout that tournament in Tokyo, the USWNT never looked to be on the same page. The team even had a stunning nine goals called back for offside. Although the USWNT's finishing woes in this World Cup looked different -- the players simply couldn't get the ball into the back of the net despite being on the front foot -- the attack never looked cohesive Down Under, either.
The irony of the USWNT's World Cup ending in the round of 16 is that it was the best the USWNT had looked all tournament. The players completed more of their passes, held onto possession for more of the game and got more shots on target. That improvement came from what could be considered a stroke of genius from Andonovski.
Forced to make a change with Rose Lavelle suspended for yellow card accumulation, Andonovski opted not for a like-for-like swap but rather a small change in configuration. He switched the USWNT into a double pivot, pairing Emily Sonnett with Andi Sullivan as defensive midfielders instead of putting Sullivan alone with two attacking midfielders ahead of her.
It was a risk: Sonnett had never started in the midfield for the U.S., but she looked up for it. Sullivan and all the players around Sonnett looked better, having a dedicated safe option to play the ball to, rather than having a midfielder like Lavelle who apparently had been told to run at goal. But it's worth noting that Sonnett is not a world-class defensive midfielder. In fact, she has played there only 12 times for her club, all in the past year.
That her insertion into the lineup as part of a double pivot made the USWNT look so much better reinforces that the USWNT's problems were structural ones, not based on talent.
The midfield problems had been fixable all along by Andonovski -- and only him. After all, the USWNT midfield has looked out of sorts since that 3-0 loss to Sweden to open the 2021 Olympics -- it wasn't a secret. And yet, Andonovski was seemingly unable or unwilling to address the failing tactics until it was too late in the middle of a World Cup.
If Andonovski had recognized a solution to the USWNT's problems sooner, he could have constructed a roster better equipped to deliver the solution. He brought in Julie Ertz after a 611-day absence to replace Sullivan -- the need for a Sullivan replacement was so great that he didn't care Ertz hadn't played for a club in two years -- but he abandoned the plan when defender Becky Sauerbrunn got hurt, sticking with Sullivan and putting Ertz on the back line.
Elsewhere, his roster lacked balance and purpose. His preferred forward line, for instance, consisted of strikers who all want to turn inside and shoot rather than provide service (Alex Morgan, Trinity Rodman and Sophia Smith). He brought six forwards to the World Cup, fewer than the USWNT had on the World Cup-winning teams in 2015 and 2019 -- and fewer options for impact subs or tactical shifts -- so he could bring extra midfielders that never even played, despite injuries, yellow cards and tired legs.
Andonovski's starting roster to open this World Cup had never played together, either. It wasn't just that the entire 11-player squad had never played together, but also entire positional lines.
In central midfield, Savannah DeMelo, a surprise uncapped call-up, was suddenly elevated to starter alongside Lindsey Horan and Sullivan -- no wonder they lacked chemistry. (DeMelo played 108 minutes across the USWNT's first two group games, then remained on the bench.) The three forwards hadn't played together, either -- Rodman wasn't a starter for the USWNT until the World Cup arrived -- and it showed. The back line also had zero reps together, papered over by the excellent, team-best performance of center-back Naomi Girma, who played every minute of the tournament.
But the Olympics revealed other shortcomings from Andonovski that carried into the World Cup -- namely, Andonovski's inability to use subs to change games.
In Tokyo, Andonovski relied on preplanned subs, swapping several players at once at a specific minute regardless of what was happening on the field or what the game required. Meanwhile, in New Zealand and Australia, he looked hesitant to make substitutions, unable to work out what the game needed -- the opposite side of the same coin as revealed in Tokyo.
The fact that Andonovski wouldn't make game-changing substitutions also suggests that the USWNT, under his leadership, relied far too much on individual talent over its system and structure. Instead of believing fresh legs could help the USWNT execute a larger plan, he worried, as he essentially said, that his subs would be worse than the players he started.
Examining the process that led to the wrong coach
U.S. Soccer will conduct its usual post-tournament evaluation. Given the high standards of this program, it will find that Andonovski shouldn't continue on as coach after crashing out in the round of 16. But that evaluation must include an attempt to understand how the team ended up with the wrong coach for this tournament in the first place.
The scrutiny will fall then to USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf, who not only hired Andonovski, but stuck with him after an alarming Olympics.
There has been a sense that the players, some of them having worked with Andonovski in the NWSL, were in favor of him being their next coach after the exit of Jill Ellis. After the knockout Sunday, Andonovski even called the players his "friends." But the degree to which the players' opinions swayed Markgraf, a former USWNT player herself, is unclear. Should other choices not favored by the players been considered? Now it appears the answer is certainly yes.
Whether or not the players vouched for Andonovski after working with him in the NWSL, his résumé never should have qualified him for managing the USWNT. His résumé included coaching stints in men's indoor soccer, and he then won two NWSL championships when the still-new fledgling league had just nine teams and wasn't attracting the coaching prospects it does now. He had no international experience as even an assistant or player, and he coached like it.
U.S. Soccer needs to aim higher for the coach of the U.S. women's national team, and that means someone with the résumé of Andonovski -- as likable and as popular as he is -- should never be considered for the job.
To be fair to Andonovski, this was the most difficult World Cup the USWNT has ever played in. The group stage exits of Brazil (under former successful USWNT coach Pia Sundhage, no less), Germany and Canada are evidence of it. Who really knows if two-time World Cup-winning coach Jill Ellis could have done any better?
But too many of Andonovski's choices -- his tactics, his roster, his in-game management -- just didn't work and didn't set the USWNT up for success ahead of the tournament. Andonovski's coaching decisions were at a minimum contributing factors to the USWNT troubles since the Olympics. As the world gets more competitive, the margins are thinner and effective tactics become even more important.
With that, new U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker will have to plot a path forward with or without Markgraf. Crocker wasn't around when Andonovski was hired, nor during the 2021 Olympics, but he was planning to be in New Zealand for the later rounds of this Women's World Cup -- the USWNT didn't make it far enough for him to arrive.
A top coach in international women's soccer -- think someone with a résumé like that of Sarina Wiegman, whose managerial track record on the global stage with England and the Netherlands is unimpeachable -- would still cost a fraction of what U.S. Soccer is paying Gregg Berhalter to get average results with the men's team. U.S. Soccer must course-correct, and quickly, to get the USWNT back on track.
There's no reason U.S. Soccer can't learn from past mistakes and get a world-renowned coach for the USWNT before the 2024 Olympics. It's too late now to do anything about the years squandered under Andonovski, but as the USWNT has shown repeatedly over the years, the team always has the potential to come back better and stronger.