The USWNT's Vlatko Andonovski era begins with a familiar foe

Vlatko Andonovski faces a challenge in his first game as head coach of the U.S. women's national team. Sweden is No. 5 in the world and a team that has got the best of the United States in major tournaments. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Maybe it's for the best that Vlatko Andonovski's first game as head coach of the United States women's national team will skip right past the beginner stage.

Rather than easing in, Andonovski gets Sweden. The team that finished third in the most recent World Cup. The team the U.S. can't seem to escape in World Cups and Olympics. The only team that ever knocked the Americans out of one of those major tournament before the medal round. Pesky Sweden, ranked fifth in the world and already safely qualified for next summer's Olympics in Japan.

And just for good measure, forecasts for this part of Ohio call for temperatures dropping into the 20s by kickoff Thursday night with the potential for rain, sleet, snow -- or all of the above.

It doesn't matter that the game, well, doesn't matter. There's nothing on the line for either team, and the U.S. players are tantalizingly close to a well-deserved break that begins next week. But it's Sweden, and it's going to be a soccer game. And that's the one thing that will feel familiar to Andonovski right now.

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So as much as the team's first training camp with Andonovski is about introductions -- of himself, of new assistant Milan Ivanovic, of a playing style, a philosophy and expectations -- it is also about the more routine act of preparing for 90 minutes on the field.

"He has touched on Sweden a bit," U.S. midfielder Rose Lavelle said this week. "Obviously we're pretty familiar with them, but he's already shown us film of us playing against them. I think it's obviously going to start to ramp up even more so in the next two days, but he's already getting us prepared."

Those are comfortable rhythms for Andonovski. As a coach in the National Women's Soccer League, the remit wasn't to prepare a team for games of consequence months down the road. Whatever game in front of him was the game that demanded his attention. The standings demanded as much.

That will change as coach of the U.S., which plays a lot of games that aren't really about the result but instead about building toward those handful of weeks in World Cups or Olympics when the results matter more than anything he has yet experienced in the sport.

It's just one way in which Andonovski's new job, his first at the international level, differs from any previous job he held. He's coached two of the players who will be available Thursday -- Allie Long and Becky Sauerbrunn. He's coached against almost all of the others, Paris Saint-Germain defender Alana Cook the lone exception. But it's still different in this environment.

"Any leap between professional and international, you're bringing together all the players that are the best in the league and putting them together," Sauerbrunn said. "It's not a big step, but it's just an elevation of the speed of play, of tactics, obviously the pressure of having so many people watching you.

"So it's a little bit of a leap, but also a leap I know Vlatko can do because when I first met him, he had never coached the women's game [at the senior level]. And he did all this research."

That was in Kansas City when the NWSL launched. He wanted that coaching job so much that he made himself an expert on the player pool of a league that hadn't played a game -- watching film, talking to other coaches, doing whatever he could to learn. He learned quickly enough that the team reached the playoffs that first season.

"So when he got hired [for the U.S.], I knew he was going to be staying up late watching all this film," Sauerbrunn added. "I have no doubt in my mind he has researched and is very thoroughly knowledgeable of all the Swedish players, all the formations that they've played in the past -- he's probably watched all their games from the past year. He's just that type of coach."

In that sense, Sweden is the perfect opening opponent. This isn't really a meaningful game, a friendly at the end of a long year. But that doesn't mean it will be an uncompetitive game. It is something to prepare for.

"I've never had Vlatko before, but I feel like I've already learned so much from him," Lavelle said. "Individually and as a team, too, I feel like he's just somebody who is going to make us better."

He'll have to make do this week without Crystal Dunn, Alex Morgan, Kelley O'Hara and Megan Rapinoe, all of whom started when these teams played in the World Cup (Tierna Davidson and Ali Krieger are also absent with injuries, leaving the back line seriously depleted in experience).

Sweden's roster isn't at full strength, either. Captain Caroline Seger didn't make the trip, with coach Peter Gerhardsson making that sound like a load management decision at the end of a long year. Also missing are defenders Nilla Fischer and Linda Sembrant and midfielder Elin Rubensson, all of whom started the World Cup semifinal against the Netherlands.

Conversely, the reigning Olympic silver medalists are bringing uncapped forward Hanna Bennison, who just turned 17 last month. She's the youngest of four uncapped players on the roster, while three more players have single-digit appearances for the national team.

With confirmation Tuesday that the United States will host CONCACAF Olympic qualifying next January and February, the sites still to be announced, the timeline begins to take shape. This is just the beginning.

After playing for him for five years in Kansas City, Sauerbrunn knows Andonovski better than anyone on the roster. She described a meeting between the two this week in which he asked about things the team had done before, ways they went about their work that they liked and that he might be able to incorporate. There will be a lot of that in the weeks ahead, a learning curve.

"It's just so early that I didn't really have any feedback to give him," Sauerbrunn said. "But I think that was his way of seeking me out in case there is something that I see that players would prefer over how it's been going the last few days."

But for all that is to come, Thursday offers something familiar to go with all that is new.

Thursday is a game that won't be easy to win, a game that merits preparation. And that should make Andonovski feel right at home.