Vlatko Andonovski likens the gift he’s been given to a precious jewel. Because like a gem, the U.S. women’s national soccer team Andonovski coaches was forged in heat and pressure and had to wait years for its brilliance to be recognized.
“When it’s successful, then people will notice it more,” he said. “This group of women are incredible soccer players. They’re always going to be a group that represents a diamond.”
And though diamonds don’t fade, they can lose their sparkle if not cared for properly, which is where Andonovski comes in. The team he inherited from Jill Ellis following the 2019 Women’s World Cup triumph was already the best in history.
The one Andonovski will take into the Tokyo Olympics this week is arguably better.
“People don’t see or understand how much these players want to grow,” said Andonovski, whose 22-player roster includes 17 from the unbeaten World Cup team. “Their hunger for getting better and improving and being the best version of themselves is actually bigger than the players that are not on the national team.
“That’s what excites me as a coach regardless of where I’m at.”
Getting where Andonovski is at required a dizzying, improbable journey.
“He’s got enough experience in all the things that he’s dealt with to this point that going into that environment, he’ll manage it beautifully. Everybody has that first entrée into whatever it is, whether it’s MLS, whatever.”
— Former USWNT coach Jill Ellis on current coach Vlatko Andonovski
He was born in Skopje, a city of more than 500,000 that was then part of Yugoslavia and is now the capital of North Macedonia. A central defender, he played for three professional clubs in Skopje before signing with the Wichita Wings, beginning a U.S. tour that would have him play for four indoor soccer teams in four states in six years, making two all-star teams.
His climb up the coaching ladder was even quicker.
Andonovski got his start 11 years ago as an assistant in the Major Indoor Soccer League, then took over FC Kansas City for the inaugural NWSL season in 2013. He guided the team to two championships in three seasons before moving to the OL Reign in 2018, taking it to consecutive appearances in the playoff semifinals.
Sixteen days after that second playoff loss he was named to succeed Ellis becoming, at 43, the third-youngest women’s national team coach in U.S. history and the youngest since 2000. Nearly two years and 23 games later, he is still unbeaten as the national team coach with only a draw with Sweden marring an otherwise perfect record.
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But with Andonovski’s youth comes a different level of experience. Though Ellis managed or was on the U.S. coaching staff for two World Cups and three Olympic Games, Andonovski, 44, has never been part of a major international tournament. And his first will take place against the background of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is sure introduce both distractions and disruptions in Tokyo.
Ellis isn’t worried.
“He’s got enough experience in all the things that he’s dealt with to this point that going into that environment, he’ll manage it beautifully,” she said. “Everybody has that first entrée into whatever it is, whether it’s MLS, whatever.
“Then again maybe it’s not a problem because this Olympics is going to be so different that everybody’s going to be going through it for the first time.”
If it’s not, Andonovski will have to go no further than his locker room for help since the players on his roster have an average of 92 international caps and 77 combined games of Olympic experience. (FIFA recently ruled that Olympic teams can carry 22 active players on their rosters instead of 18 players and four alternatives. However only 18 players can suit up for matches.)
“I don’t shy away from asking questions from the players,” said Andonovski, who has also had conversations with Ellis and U.S. Soccer general manager Kate Markgraf, who won a World Cup and three Olympic medals as a player.
“I do ask Carli Lloyd. I ask Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe,” he said. “I want to know everything because I haven’t been there, haven’t experienced that.”
That curiosity comes naturally for Andonovski, a warm, funny man who speaks multiple languages and has the quiet, contemplative manner of a liberal arts professor. He is slow to anger and his confidence in his skills as a coach and communicator allow him to admit he doesn’t know everything.
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for,” said Lloyd, who will be taking part in her fourth Olympic tournament.
“Vlatko has no ego. That’s what makes him such a special coach. He is incredibly comfortable with who he is as a person and as a coach. He has a philosophy, and he sees the game the way that he does, and he implements it within our squad. He’s always fully prepared, fully detailed.”
Insatiable, too. In Tokyo, the U.S. will have a chance to become the first team of either gender to win World Cup and Olympic titles in the same cycle. But focusing just on that, Andonovski says, would be selling the team short.
“I want to be the first team to win the Olympics and the World Cup and the Olympics and the World Cup,” he said. “I want to be the first team to keep winning.
“It’s such an interesting environment. We don’t talk about winning, but winning happens. All we talk about is process. And then winning is a byproduct of that process.”
“He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played for. Vlatko has no ego. That’s what makes him such a special coach. He is incredibly comfortable with who he is as a person and as a coach. He has a philosophy, and he sees the game the way that he does, and he implements it within our squad. He’s always fully prepared, fully detailed.”
— Carli Lloyd, who will be taking part in her fourth Olympic tournament, on coach Vlatko Andonovski
Well, that and getting better. Because despite consecutive World Cup titles, a No. 1 world ranking and a 44-game unbeaten streak, no one on the U.S. roster is resting on those accomplishments. Talk to any player about championships and personal accolades and they will quickly bring the conversation back to getting better.
“There’s always something to improve on,” said goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher, who has posted shutouts in more than 60% of her 73 national team appearances. “All of us have that mentality to constantly fine-tune all those little intricacies of our game, which is why we continue to push further and further along and set the bar higher and higher.”
Forward Christen Press, who heads to Tokyo having contributed to 37 goals in her last 37 games, agrees.
“The beautiful thing about football is you cannot perfect it,” she said. “It forces you to strive for greatness and greatness is never reached. So there’s always more to do.”
Even Lloyd, a two-time world player of the year and four-time world and Olympic champion, is working harder as a 39-year-old veteran with 306 caps then she did as a 23-year-old making her national team debut.
“There’s no secret. There’s no elevator to the top,” she said. “It’s just crawling myself to the top one day at a time. I’ve literally wanted to be the best possible player that I can be.”
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So while Andonovski might be a little squishy on Olympic protocol and may need help navigating the layers of IOC red tape in Tokyo, that push for knowledge and improvement is something he understands. It’s why he started coaching at the lower levels of the professional game, where he could teach, not manage egos. It’s why he went to college to study business administration but got his master’s degree in coaching education.
“What can I do,” he says he asks himself “to make the players better?”
In 21 months with the most dominant soccer team on the planet, he’s found the answer to that question is no different than it was when coached the indoor Missouri Comets. It’s not so much a matter of talent as it is desire.
“People don’t realize or understand how much these players want to grow,” he said. “Their hunger for getting better and improving and being the best version of themselves is actually bigger than the players that aren’t on the national team or are not as experience or not as good.
“The difference is these players have a lot smaller room for improvement so they may need to work 10 times as hard. But when that improvement happens, it’s very fulfilling.”
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Andonovski said he will reflect on his journey later, perhaps when it’s come to an end and he realizes it wasn’t a dream. And when he does he’ll appreciate how a chance to play for a team he had never heard of gave him a ticket out of a country reeling from civil war. How the first Olympics he will attend is one he’ll be coaching in. And how, in 11 years, he went from being an assistant with a losing team in a tiny men’s indoor soccer league to head coach with the most women’s national team in soccer history.
For now all that stays within the family.
“When I’m on long walks with my wife, I do want to talk about it,” Andonovski says of the quiet rounds he and his wife, Biljana, take around the Kansas City, Mo., neighborhood where they raised three children. “How grateful I am and how honored I am to be a part of such a dynasty and such greatness. How blessed I am with a group of players that will be considered one of the greatest [teams] in the history of the game.”
And how he was handed one of the most precious gems in the sport and managed to make it shine.
The Olympic schedule
The women’s Olympic soccer tournament is a 12-team competition that begins two days before the opening ceremony and ends two days before the closing ceremony. It will feature three of the top four finishers from 2016 in runner-up Sweden, bronze-medalist Canada and Brazil, which finished fourth.
The rest of the field consists of Japan, the host nation, along with Britain, Chile, China, Zambia, the Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand and the U.S., a four-time Olympic champion.
The teams were drawn into three groups of four teams each, with the U.S. landing in a quartet alongside Sweden, Australia and New Zealand. The top two teams in each group, plus the two best third-place teams, advance to the quarterfinals.
July 21: U.S. vs. Sweden at Tokyo Stadium
July 24: U.S. vs. New Zealand at Saitama Stadium
July 27: vs. Australia at Kashima Stadium
Quarterfinals: July 30
Semifinals: Aug. 2
Third-place game: Aug. 5
Gold-medal final: Aug. 6
Go beyond the scoreboard
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