Vlatko Andonovski, the new coach of the United States women’s soccer team, knows the place that the team occupies in its sport. He knows that it is expected to win every game, and to dominate every tournament. He knows its performances have long been the gold standard in women’s soccer, and he knows that the expectation is that nothing he does will change that.
So perhaps it was unnecessary to remind Andonovski on Monday, his first day as the United States coach, that his predecessor, Jill Ellis, had won the last two World Cups and that she hadn’t lost a game in either of them.
“Thank you,” he joked at a news conference, “for putting on some more pressure.”
In reality, Andonovski will go into his job fully aware of the challenges that lie ahead, and better positioned than most to understand them. A 43-year-old Macedonian immigrant who cut his teeth as a player in European leagues and in indoor soccer before moving into coaching, Andonovski has spent the past seven years coaching in the National Women’s Soccer League. Five times, he led his teams — including the national team captains Becky Sauerbrunn and Megan Rapinoe — to the postseason. Twice, he led his players to championships.
It was in the N.W.S.L., in fact, that he caught the eye of U.S. Soccer’s new women’s national team general manager, Kate Markgraf. As Markgraf made dozens of calls to coaches and to current and former players in her search for Ellis’s replacement, Andonovski’s name kept coming up. He won over Markgraf, and U.S. Soccer’s technical staff, with a presentation he made during his interview in Chicago. The U.S. Soccer board approved his hiring unanimously.
“I can’t wait to start,” Andonovski said Monday. “I’m just looking forward to the first day on the field.”
That day will arrive quickly: The team has two friendlies next week — against Sweden (on Nov. 7) and Costa Rica (Nov. 10) — and will reconvene early next year when the United States hosts the qualifying tournament for the Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Getting the team into the Games, Andonovski said, “is going to be the first thing on the agenda.”
But he takes over at a critical moment for the program. In the United States women, Andonovski inherits a squad full of players confident in both their talents and their opinions, but also one that is embroiled in a gender discrimination lawsuit against U.S. Soccer; one that is widely expected to reclaim the Olympic title, which it surrendered in 2016 after three consecutive championships; and one that will try to fulfill outsize expectations by holding back emerging European programs that are threatening to upend the Americans’ longstanding primacy.
“What this team has done and what Jill has done is amazing,” Andonovski said. “Jill was hired to win one World Cup, and she won two. It just pushed the standards even higher.”
But he acknowledged that the team needed to “evolve” to stay on top.
“The reason is the game is evolving World Cup to World Cup, but it’s also evolving year to year,” he said. “If we don’t follow those trends, then all the other national teams are going to catch up to us. But at the same time, I don’t want to just follow the trends; I want to set those trends. We want to be creative and be leaders in that.”
For that reason, Andonovski said, he plans to use each training camp to begin the longer-term process of guiding the team through its own evolution. That is perhaps even trickier for a new coach than the on-field challenges that lie ahead, since remaking the team over the next World Cup cycle most likely will involve discarding some familiar names and introducing new faces.
“The most important thing is who can do the job,” he said of the possibility that he may have to ease out some veterans. “The performance is what matters.”