Vlatko Andonovski won’t read this story.
It’s not because of ego or because he thinks he’s above criticism as the U.S. women’s national team head coach, but he’s been building a firewall around himself for a while now. Most news, if he needs to know it, gets delivered via email from the national team’s communications department. He’s not reading stories about himself or the USWNT these days. He hasn’t been for a while.
“This is no disrespect to anyone, I don’t want anything that is said outside to influence my decision,” Andonovski said during an exclusive interview with The Athletic, conducted in April before the World Cup. “I want my decisions to be thorough, thoughtful and decisions I made based on what I know about the players, not what people from the outside told me.”
That’s reason enough, but even he admitted with a laugh that there’s an element of self-preservation, too.
“Yes, I try not to read things, especially as we’re getting closer to the World Cup, are you kidding me?” He asked rhetorically, his laugh booming around the room for a moment. “I mean, we lost three games in October and November, you think I would want to read what people say about me?”
So no, Andonovski isn’t reading this story today, ahead of the USWNT’s final group stage game against Portugal at 3 a.m. ET on FOX — a game they essentially must win by multiple goals to keep control over the top spot in Group E as the tournament shifts to the knockout stage. And a game that if they lose could see the U.S. fail to get out of the group for the first time.
He said as much on Monday, still laughing three months later over the same joke: “I am pretty sure that if I knew everything outside of our bubble, I wouldn’t be smiling.”
“When we win the World Cup, I’ll go back and I will be on my computer reading,” Andonovski promised in April. “I’ll be laughing, like, ‘Yeah, I remember that.’ You were wrong. ‘I remember that!’ You were wrong, too.”
The belief and the goal have always been to come home after winning the final on August 20 in Sydney. This tournament, however, is already providing the reminder that it’s not going to be easy for anyone.
“All these results are reminders for us,” Andonovski said on Monday, “that rankings mean nothing in the World Cup.”
Andonovski was holed up in one of the many meeting rooms at the USWNT’s hotel in Austin, Texas, with the usual long day of meetings and training ahead of him. Two days later, the team faced the Republic of Ireland for the first of two April friendlies, the last chance for Andonvski to look at players in the national team environment before having to decide on his 23-player roster for the World Cup.
Long-time assistant coach Milan Ivanovic made a coffee run before our interview got started. Andonovski nodded his request before Ivanovic departed. It was an easy order to remember, even if they hadn’t been coaching for years together.
“Straight up, black. No additions, nothing, no add-ons,” Andonovski replied when asked what he usually gets. “Very simple, straight in the vein.”
Despite the coffee culture in women’s soccer, he didn’t get hooked until he got the gig coaching the Reign in Seattle. The players, he said, made sure he was going to the right places. His tone suggested this may have ended with him getting roasted a few times.
“It’s not just a culture, it’s a way of life. Oh my gosh,” he said. “Where do you go? Where do they get their coffee from? How do they make it? It was overwhelming.”
Andonovski’s path to the USWNT was via the NWSL, as he had been coaching in the league since its formation. He took the Reign head coaching role in 2017, moving on from FC Kansas City after the club folded — he had led the club to two NWSL championships with talent like Lauren Holiday and Amy Rodriguez. During that Kansas City stint, he also pulled double duty as head coach of the Kansas City Comets, a men’s top-flight indoor league. In 2014, he won championships in both.
Right before his current role, he had led the Reign to the playoffs, despite a massive run of injuries that had nearly derailed the team’s 2019 season. He took the USWNT job that October, fully aware of the expectations and pressure it presented.
“The moment I sat in this chair in 2019 is when the pressure started,” Andonovski said on Monday. “It’s not like this is something new or something I wasn’t aware of. I knew this is how it’s going to be and what the expectations are.”
— U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team (@USWNT) October 28, 2019
But sitting in an Austin hotel meeting room back in April, Andonovski thought he was still the same guy — the one who had balanced multiple teams at the same time, that would stick around an NWSL draft just to show you his draft board because he liked sharing his process or who’d pause his morning jog or coffee run to say hi to someone who crossed his path.
“I don’t know if I have changed, but things around me have changed a lot,” he said. “The environment, obviously, is different. The people I’m surrounded by for most of the day are different, even though I try to stay the same as much as possible.”
And four years later, he could speak to how the expectations around his role had only grown after a bronze medal finish at the Tokyo Olympics and qualifying for the 2023 World Cup and 2024 Olympics at last summer’s W Championship in Mexico.
“It’s different preparing for a Saturday afternoon game against the Utah Royals and it’s different preparing for the Netherlands in a World Cup,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve changed, or maybe I feel like I haven’t changed. Maybe I have.”
The stakes are now the highest they’ve ever been for Andonovski, with the USWNT looking for a World Cup three-peat. No team, men’s or women’s, has pulled it off before. Sometimes it feels strange to call it a three-peat considering the roster turnover of the past cycle under Andonovski and the fact he’s the manager looking for the third after former head coach Jill Ellis won in 2015 and 2019. The days of the NWSL grind are now almost four years behind him, though they’ve played their role in how he approaches the USWNT job.
Mark Parsons, coach of the Washington Spirit, was another NWSL head coach who made the leap to the international game when he took over as the manager of the Netherlands from 2021 to 2022.
“I really, sincerely believe coaching in the NWSL will help you prepare for any other experience in coaching, more than any league or national team that I have seen from a distance or I’ve experienced myself,” Parsons told The Athletic. “I really believe that. The demands and challenges and nuances are so unique, which means you just have to build skills in so many different areas.”
Those skills are crucial, he said, but there’s also nothing that prepares you for a national team environment other than national team experience. There’s less time with players, more time with staff. You’re on the other side of the club and country balance and there are different challenges — but there’s a through-line for any leader no matter what level they’re coaching at, too.
“For me, all coaches in a new club or national team environment, you’ve got to know who you are,” Parsons said. “You’ve got to know what you stand for and you want to be consistent in those things and how you want to lead, how you want to play, how you want to build the culture of your team.”
Being able to build a culture is something Andonovski had quite the reputation for when he took the job, whether that was in Kansas City or Seattle. He had built FCKC around Lauren Holiday, a player he likened constantly to “an artist,” and revived the professional careers of players like Amy Rodriguez and Allie Long.
But in Seattle, he had also shown a knack for nurturing talent from unlikely places, like forward Bethany Balcer, who earned her roster spot through a preseason invite following her NAIA collegiate career, where she earned a supplemental roster spot. Balcer was a player that Andonovski and his coaching staff trusted. It was a decision that’s still paying off for the Reign multiple seasons later.
“Vlatko’s very good at allowing each player to put their stamp on the game and bring what they do best to the table,” Balcer said about the strange 2019 season. “To have an environment that fosters that, but also be able to come together as a unit, and still have a goal, still have a game plan and be able to accomplish it.”
The leap from NWSL to the international stage is a massive one, though.
“People think this environment is tough because it’s stressful and the expectations are high,” Andonovski said. “That’s not the only thing that makes this environment tough. The demands are higher.”
He compared trying to improve the performance of Becky Sauerbrunn, one of the top center backs in the world, to that of a rookie entering the NWSL. The margins are much finer on the senior national team.
“The environment forces you to get better,” he said, “or you don’t belong here.”
One way to get better is to know what the primary mission is every single day, and Andonovski was clear on that front.
“Our job is to serve the players,” he said. “Our opening meeting, always with the staff meeting, we talk about being the best for the players. It’s not about being the best version of yourself, so you can be successful in this job. It’s not about our success. Nobody cares about how successful we are here, nobody should care. It’s all about being the best so we can best serve the players and give them the best chance to be successful.”
Becca Moros, who played under Andonovski in Kansas City and is now head coach at the University of Arizona, told The Athletic that there’s one element of his leadership and culture that she emulates: he is the first one on the pitch, last one out. He’s a leader by example.
“He reminds me more of an old Italian-style manager,” Moros said. “Super organized, hard-hitting, disciplined, loyal, combative. Those are things that he really stands out for, and everybody who plays for him respects him.”
“The thing about Vlatko is that he’s an unbelievable human being,” current OL Reign head coach Laura Harvey said. She’d know. Her own career has been interwoven with Andonovski’s, both as NWSL rivals — both of FCKC’s championship wins came at her team’s expense — and as U.S. Soccer coworkers.
“I knew that before I worked with him, but then working with him, I saw it even more so. He doesn’t think he’s more important than anyone else,” she told The Athletic. “He is so centered on doing the right thing as a human first, that being around him in really pressured environments and tough times, that never wavered.”
Harvey spent a lot of time in those hotel meeting rooms with Andonovski and the rest of the technical staff. Sixteen to 18 hours a day sometimes, just with breaks for sleep or food or training. Andonovski loves telling stories, she said, and she could tell by the look on his face when he was about to settle back for a minute and dig into one. But there was another constant on those days too, when the truck with the team’s gear would arrive. No matter what they were doing, watching film or debating tactics, Andonovski got the staff up to help unload the truck.
“I don’t know if I would have done that,” she said. “That was something that I took away from being around was that being authentically you, and being a good person, is as important as all the other stuff that everyone sees about you.”
Maybe the biggest challenge as the head coach of the No. 1 ranked women’s national team is that it pretty much comes down to all the other stuff — roster management decisions, tactical adjustments (or lack of) in matches, a turn of phrase that might just be Andonovski’s usual blunt honesty or even a joke that doesn’t carry into written form.
The players have gotten used to that style of communication too. Midfielder Kristie Mewis, on this World Cup roster and a player that he drafted in the first year of the NWSL, said back in 2021 that Andonoski is transparent and blunt.
“That’s something that is super important at this (international) level because all of us are mature enough and old enough to know the truth,” Mewis said. “It makes me trust him even more that he can just say those things to my face.”
But at the heart of all the other stuff, there is still just the same guy — born in Skopje in 1976 (then Yugoslavia, now the capital of North Macedonia), who had his own indoor soccer career before shifting over to the managerial side, who, if not for soccer, would have been a mechanical engineer because he loves math so much. He’s a married man with three kids, just a suburban dad in Kansas City who travels a lot for work. Anyone who’s been on a USWNT conference call over has gotten a glimpse of the Andonovski residence when he is home, the small office he’ll dial in from.
“My wife made it for me,” he said. “We were in camp somewhere, and I came back and it was really good. She has all my books there behind me.”
His wife, Biljana, decorated it too with some of those little motivational signs; Andonovski says she likes making those little touches.
But he hasn’t been home much this year; the World Cup is going on after all.
“I haven’t been home for more than two days,” he said in April, though he thought he might get a three or four-day window at home once that camp wrapped up. He had flown to London to catch a UEFA Women’s Champions League match. He got back on a Friday afternoon, had dinner with his family, went to his daughter’s soccer match the next morning, attended the Kansas City Current’s home opener and then departed for Texas for the USWNT’s camp.
When he is home, there’s a line between work and his role as a dad when it comes to his kids.
“I don’t talk soccer with them, I never coached them,” he said. Sometimes, during the height of the pandemic, they’d kick a ball around in the yard. Instead, he makes sure his kids are having fun while playing, that they give 100% effort even in a loss.
“I would love for them to be the best soccer players in the world,” Andonovski said with a smile. “But also if they’re not, I’m still going to love them just as much.”
One of the many challenges of the job is deciding just how much to share. Andonovski doesn’t usually talk about attending his kids’ soccer games. He never thinks he’s supposed to be the story. The culture he’s built on the technical staff is to serve the players. They’re the story.
Andonovski won’t read this story or any of the many others published throughout the World Cup, but he can still usually get a clear sense of what’s on people’s minds after a press conference. On Monday, with plenty of questions about this final group stage match against Portugal, Andonovski deftly took a question from a reporter intended for both him and center back Naomi Girma on what changes would be made following the Netherlands match, “I think that’s more appropriate for myself when it comes to changes unless you want to know what Naomi would do if she was in my place.”
The moment of humor worked, and Andonovski avoided the actual meat of the question entirely. Success.
“It seems like people are really worried about this, or people are not happy with this,” he said back in April, gesturing with both hands and speaking of any number of issues that had come up over the past year, whether that meant the team’s midfield issues or struggles to finish. “What am I going to do? I’m not going to change what people think, and I’m not going to do something because they want to see it.”
“Andonovski’s mood was extremely light and positive.” @JennyTaft shares an update as the @USWNT‘s head coach Vlatko Andonovski discusses the team’s focus ahead of their next match against Portugal 🇺🇸 pic.twitter.com/hIEfenBXE6
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) July 31, 2023
The opinions he needs to hear, he said, are the people already in his office.
“I really don’t care what you think. I’m fine with it, no disrespect. I mean, we’re human. If I read 50 comments that say, ‘Sophia Smith is not a good player,’ then yeah, she misses that (shot), all of a sudden you start looking at it with different eyes. They’re not in my environment. They don’t see Sophia Smith tearing up every training. They don’t see what she does in terms of what we’re trying to do, how she fits in our system.”
There’s also the element of obfuscation that has to be a part of his job. He promised he’ll never disclose his full vision of the USWNT publicly. Simply put, he can’t — not just because that’s information he doesn’t want other teams to have, but also because it’s something that lives in his head. He fully admitted he’ll rarely answer a question in full about tactics. He’ll happily share the obvious, that’s it. It’s a hard no on the details, on what he’s seeing.
“We all see things differently, so it’s hard for you to understand what I see. I mean, you just can’t,” he said. “That’s why it’s harder for you to paint a picture or to get the whole idea, and that’s why sometimes (I) make a decision and you probably think, ‘Oh my gosh, what is he thinking now?’”
Andonovski’s contract as head coach of the USWNT is up after the World Cup; his term doesn’t run through the 2024 Olympics. But he said it isn’t much of a factor for him.
“I don’t think a lot about, ‘This is the World Cup and I’m getting judged on this and then, oh, my contract is up.’ Because if I work or coach to save my job, I will lose it,” he said. “I coach to help this team be the best they can be.”
There is a process at hand too. Maybe it’s trite to duck behind that word, maybe it’s not always visible from the outside.
“We do have a process. I believe in this process,” he said. “That’s my focus. I’m not going in like, ‘If I do this it’s going to be better for my contract.’”
During our interview in April, he brought up a memory from one of his FC Kansas City squads, when the team had languished for a few weeks in a row before turning things around and making the playoffs.
“That was a process that we believed in, but the players also believed it,” Andonovski said. “Things can go wrong. You can lose the team, you can lose the faith to believe in what we do. But instead, (the players) are like, ‘This test is good. They see the picture, it’s very clear to them. This is how we’re going to look, this is why we’re going to do well.”
There’s a lot less time in a World Cup for that picture to come together, but Andonovski’s USWNT had their first test thanks to the Netherlands. From the outside, it doesn’t look like anyone has lost faith. On Monday evening at Eden Park, he was as loose as he’s ever been. The next test awaits.
(Photo: Jose Breton/NurPhoto via Getty Images; Design: Eamonn Dalton)