Vlatko Andonovski has always been compelled to pursue the greatest possible challenge. Now, he will embark on the next chapter in his journey, taking the reins of the national team with the highest expectations in women’s soccer: the U.S. Women’s National Team.
The United States Soccer Federation named Andonovski as the 10th coach in program history on Monday, Oct 28. He inherits a side from Jill Ellis that won the last two World Cups and has gold medal aspirations at the upcoming 2020 Olympic Games in Japan.
At this stage in his career, Andonovski was widely regarded as a natural choice for the job due to his familiarity with the player pool and established record of success in the NWSL. When a young Andonovski arrived stateside to play indoor soccer for the Wichita Wings in 2000 he viewed his time in America as temporary. However, as the years went by, Andonovski found himself compelled to build a life in his adopted home.
“It was my playing career that made me decide to stay,” Andonovski said. “I enjoyed playing here. After playing for seven or eight years, it just felt like home. I felt comfortable. I loved the environment and the community I lived in. Everything about it was so nice that I knew that this is where I want to spend the rest of my life. Coaching was something that I always wanted to do. It was at that point that I knew that I wanted to move into coaching in the U.S.”
Starting with indoor and youth teams in the Kansas City area, Andonovski developed a reputation for his cerebral approach to the game and ability to draw the best out of his players. While a respected member of the Missouri coaching community, Andonovski wasn’t a nationally-known coach when he was named FC Kansas City’s head coach.
That changed quickly enough. Andonovski helped lead Kansas City to a 10-match unbeaten run midway through the NWSL’s inaugural 2013 season, helping the club to a second-place finish. Andonovski was named the Coach of the Year for 2013 and followed that accolade by winning consecutive NWSL Championships in 2014 and 2015 (sadly, both at the expense of Reign FC).
When he arrived at Reign FC in 2018, he directed the club to the postseason for the first time since 2015, producing 11 wins thanks to a defense that surrendered less than one goal per match. That success was repeated in 2019, when Vlatko managed the team to a fourth-place finish, taking the injury-depleted squad back to the playoffs.
The same self-expectation of high achievement that pushed Andonovski to take on the challenge with Reign FC now drives him as he takes over for the national team.
“I always want challenging jobs,” Andonovski said. “Any time I had a job or did something, I was always looking for what would be the next challenge. Any time when things were going well, I was always thinking, ‘is there something I could be doing better or that would challenge me more?’ At this point, going into coaching the women’s national team, I knew it was going to be challenging. Any time you’re coaching the best team in the world, it’s going to be challenging, but when that team wins two World Cups in a row, that adds up to a challenge I want to take on.”
Andonovski’s high personal expectations give him credibility when he holds his players to similar standards. Rookies and veterans alike know that they will be pushed to better their game by Andonovski.
Reign FC midfielder Allie Long, who made her World Cup debut at age 31 this season, cites Andonovski as the one who developed her game to the point that she made the U.S. squad.
“I think the role Vlatko has played in my life as a coach and a mentor was the key reason why I made the World Cup roster,” Long said. “His belief in me and the confidence that he has given me as a player while holding me to the highest possible standard was another. It’s almost frustrating at times, but I know it’s coming from a place of wanting me to be better. He sees in me what I sometimes don’t see in myself, so that’s why he expects so much of me. I think for that, he’s played such a meaningful role as my coach and mentor. I think his knowledge of the game, the way he sees things, his level of preparation behind closed doors for games is unmatched by any other coach that I’ve previously had. I never want to be a coach, ever, but if there was a coach where I’d say ‘this is how it’s done right,’ I’d say that he does it right.”
Rookie forward Bethany Balcer, who led Reign FC in 2019 with six goals after being invited to preseason camp as an undrafted trialist, said the development she’s undergone thanks to Andonovski has helped her elevate her game to meet the demands of the world’s most competitive league.
“I think Vlatko is so good at what he does because what he values most are things that all players can achieve: hard work, determination and a willingness to grow,” Balcer said. “That creates an environment that players want to be around and thrive in. It gives us the space to do just that. Vlatko wants to win, obviously, but his focus is primarily on the growth of us as players. That’s rare to find in a coach.”
Taking over a program as iconic in the history of women’s athletics as the U.S. Women’s National Team may seem like a daunting task to some, but Andonovski is ready to embrace the team’s role as a leader in women’s sports.
“I know the U.S. Women’s National Team is a leader,” Andonovski said. “I know that I will have a responsibility to grow that, to evolve the program and to maintain the values that it has. Coming from a league that has certain values and having had some of those same responsibilities, the NWSL was a good platform for me to grow and transition to this program.”
And what will an Andonovski-led U.S. WNT look like? Long provided her insight.
“I think what Vlatko brings to the U.S. Women’s National Team is his ability to teach the game and how it’s played,” Long said. “There’s a misconception that when you get to the U.S. Women’s National Team, you should know everything and be the best, that’s why you’re there. But we’re with each other so much, it’s a really good time to develop. I think that he will get the best out of every player. He’ll hold everyone to the highest standards. I think that his knowledge of the game will help. I think the U.S. Women’s National Team is one of the best transitional teams in the world. I think that he’ll bring his beliefs and his principles and develop a culture that is knowledgeable in the game of football.
“If a team wants to sit back, we’ll have a plan for it. If a team wants to play a 4-1-4-1, we’ll have a plan for it. He’s so prepared. I think that the girls will really enjoy how he sees the game. We’re world champions, it’s a tough job for anyone to come into it and think ‘what can I add?’ but he’s the one coach that I think could do so much for this group of girls. We have a mix of young players and veterans. I think he’ll make the veterans the best they’ve ever been, and I think he’ll help grow the young ones and continue to get better in every facet of the game.”
Still, Andonovski regards his departure from Reign FC as bittersweet. The coach knows that he grown and been shaped by his seven years coaching in the NWSL as much as he has helped grow and develop the league.
“I’m going to miss a lot of things about Reign FC,” Andonovski said. “I don’t know what I’ll miss the most. I’m going to miss the environment. I can’t remember a day that I came in and didn’t have a smile on my face. It could have been the day after we lost or didn’t play well. Maybe I wasn’t happy with the result or the performance of the players, but I enjoyed it. I knew going in that I was going to work with people that loved to be here, that are trying their best and trying to make everyone around them their best. It was a very enjoyable, healthy, enthusiastic environment.”
The coach also took a moment to thank the club’s fans and majority owners Bill and Teresa Predmore.
“This organization needs the support of the fans. This group of players is one incredible group that deserves and has earned every bit of their support,” said Andonovski. “And the two people that definitely deserve lots of credit and don’t get mentioned enough are the owners of the organization, Bill and Teresa Predmore. They are two incredible owners. I want to say a big thank you to them for all their support. I want to thank them for supporting the team and supporting this group. They’ve been incredible in this journey and this process. They’ve done such a professional job taking care of the players and the fans, everything that comes with running a team. I don’t know if there are owners in the country that look at a team in the way they do. They don’t look at the team as two different groups, administration on one side and the coaches and team on the other. They see it as one big family pulling toward one goal. It’s been an incredible journey, it’s been an incredible experience. The fans might be sad to see me leaving. I’m sad to be leaving, but hopefully, one day we will be on the same side again.”