It Is Mercifully Vlatkover
2:04 PM EDT on August 17, 2023
Weeks after Sweden ended his team's shambolic World Cup run, USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski is out. The news that Andonovski had tendered his resignation was first reported by 90min on Wednesday afternoon, and U.S. Soccer blasted out a press release the following morning. The USWNT will now seek the right coach to lead the team ahead of perhaps the highest-pressure World Cup in program history. Who is the person to take the reins ahead of the forthcoming 2024 Olympics and a 2027 World Cup at home, on the heels of the team's worst-ever result? The only thing we can say for certain is that it is not Andonovski, a man who piloted the team to success in all competitions except the ones that matter.
Andonovski's departure should come as a relief to U.S. Soccer fans, though the circumstances are perhaps as encouraging as the act itself. A coach with an Olympic bronze medal, a goalless Round of 16 exit in a World Cup two years later, and one lone non-penalty knockout round win in a major tournament is not a coach who should continue to be in charge of a program with serious expectations. In this sense, it is good that Andonovski resigned without a fuss—that he understood or was made to understand that this was an unacceptable performance in a program that expects big things—and that no U.S. Soccer leadership stuck their necks out to keep him around.
The theoretical case for keeping Andonovski would have hinged upon the ill-timed injuries that kept Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario, two players that Andonovski built the team around, from playing in the World Cup. The person making this case would point out his 51-5-9 record over four years and the relatively smooth transfer of power from the Megan Rapinoe generation to the Swanson–Sophia Smith generation. They would point out that the U.S. was actually the better team in their loss to Sweden, as well as in their Olympic loss to Canada, and that the margins between triumph and disappointment are thin enough that it's worth betting on continuity.
This is not a good case. Andonovski failed on the merits. I've never seen the USWNT as tactically flummoxed as they were at this World Cup. Did you watch that Portugal game? They basically didn't complete a pass in the middle of the field. As Ana Capeta's shot sailed towards the post I was struck by this self-destructive desire for it to go in and end the USWNT's run in the group stage. They deserved to lose, and only luck dragged them onwards.
Andonovski insisted on playing midfielders at both center back and left back, making a natural left back play on the right, and trotting out a forward line full of players either not in their preferred roles or not at their best (Alex Morgan). He also kept playing Morgan at center forward despite a bevy of good options and a number of disasterclasses from her. He refused to make substitutions, adhering to a rigid XI for the vast majority of the tournament. When pressed about why his plan wasn't working Andonovski defiantly insisted on its merits, only to panic-react and toggle between one bad option and another with little apparent foresight.
Assistant Twila Kilgore will take over and lead the team at least through a pair of September friendlies, though the Olympics start within a year, and U.S. Soccer has to move fast to identify and hire (maybe poach?) the right candidate. Interestingly, ESPN reports the process is led by new U.S. Soccer sporting director Matt Crocker, and that general manager Kate Markgraf, the person who hired Andonovski, didn't play a role. In fact, U.S. Soccer is also reviewing whether to keep Markgraf around and whether the GM role, which was created for her, is a worthwhile position to keep staffed.
This seems healthy, to me. The men's team just wound up choosing to sit on its hands and bring back Gregg Berhalter, a disappointingly inexhaustive process given the stakes. You have to take this stuff seriously, by poking around for the best possible option but also making sure the poking process is as professional and rigorous as possible. I think any soccer fan would agree that the U.S. player pool is deep and talented, and that's both an opportunity and a challenge, which makes the organizational and evaluatory skills of the next manager more critical than they would be otherwise. With Rapinoe and Morgan probably aging out, the program needs an unsentimental leader. They need someone who can be honest about the nature of Andonovski's failures, who can learn from them and get the USWNT playing confident soccer again, against a world that is improving faster than we are.