From the Arena to the World's Stage - Vlatko Andonovski Named USWNT Head Coach

by Michael Lewis

photo credit: Thad Bell, The Blue Testament

NEW YORK -- When he was running around the likes of Kemper Arena for the Kansas City Comets making life as miserable as he could for opposing arena soccer forwards back in the day, Vlatko Andonovski certainly did not have any delusions of grandeur about coaching a U.S. National Team, let alone the World Champion U.S. Women's Team.

"Now that I look back, I cannot believe that was going to happen," he said Monday. "Twenty years ago when I came to the country, first of all, I obviously was going to enjoy the game and play the game I love. I never thought about [being a] coach."

But times change and so people, who also evolve. Andonovski became a coach and a pretty darn good one at that.

After finishing his playing career in the Major Indoor Soccer League, Andonovski guided the then Missouri Comets to an arena soccer championship and then FC Kansas City to a pair of National Women's Soccer League titles.

"When I started coaching, in the back of my mind, I don't know if I thought about all the time," Andonovski said during a Monday press conference, "but I thought if the opportunity presents itself, I would love to coach this team."

Opportunity knocked and today the 43-year-old native of Macedonia is directing the four-time Women's World Cup Champion team. He succeeded Jill Ellis, who stepped down after winning back-to-back world championships.

Not surprisingly, Andonovski's hiring resonated throughout the MASL.

"I truly think Vlatko put a lot of time into this," said Giuliano Oliviero, head coach of the 2018-19 MASL champion Milwaukee Wave. "There is no one more deserving of receiving this fantastic position as coach of the U.S. National Women's team."

Vahid Assadpour, who played for and was an assistant coach under Andonovski, felt the new USWNT coach combined a love and knowledge of the game that was second to none.

"It doesn't surprise me that he is where he is," he said. "It's just the love and passion for the game and his practical understanding of the game that separates him from the rest. You can see not only the men's side of the game, but the women's side, he has a lot of success."

Andonovski hasn’t been one to hide his opinion. "He's very open and direct," Assadpour said. "He will tell you how it is. He studies the game a lot and always has a plan. He has all the attributes of what a coach should be. I feel like in America in men's or women's soccer, it's very rare to find an unbelievable coach to have all the attributes and he nails them all. So, I am so excited for him and I can't wait to see what the women's game is going to look like in the next few years."

After winning NWSL titles in Kansas City in 2014 and 2015, Andonovski never directed Reign FC, a Tacoma-based women's team, to a championship. But his sides were always competitive. This past season, Reign FC finished fourth and booked a playoff spot but was eliminated in the semifinals by eventual champions North Carolina Courage. Just last week, Andonovski was named NWSL Coach of the Year.

Oliviero noted that the Comets won only one MASL title during Anonovski's tenure, but that did not diminish his abilities or reputation as a coach. During those three years, the Comets were 58-15 (including a 20-0 regular season in 2015-2016) and won 79.4 percent of their games. "In my opinion they were the best team for a three-year stint," he said. "Most of that credit should go to Vlatko and how he had his team prepared."

Oliviero admitted he learned that the hard way against Vlatko during his early coaching days.

"It's funny. I used Vlatko as an example of me as a young inexperienced coach, taking my lumps. and he was the one that was giving them to me most of the time," he said."

So, what impressed Oliviero the most?

"Just so organized, methodical in his approach," he said. "I think his selection of players and the type of player he wanted in his system, which consisted of not only very good possession players but also players that were really dynamic in the attack, players that could wear you down with good team possession. If and when they lost the ball, they also could create a lot of opportunities through their pressure on defense."

In fact, Andonovski added a few wrinkles and innovations to the arena game that are still being utilized today.

"If you look at teams before Vlatko came in, a lot of teams were predicated on a target system, holding balls up, pulling balls back out, which is very effective," Oliviero said. "He added something to the arena game through the transition and pressure part of the game. Vlatko took it to a whole other level."

Which is something that Assadpour hoped Andonovski will do with the U.S. women. Andonovski won't have much time to implement before the next major competition -- the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics.

"I always thought the women's national team was unbelievable," Assadpour said. "They've had a lot of success, but I always thought also that they can be a lot better than what they are. I think he's going to take them and reach the level of potential that they can be at. With that said, I still want everyone to understand they are still the best in the world, but I think they can hit a potential that separates themselves from everybody else and I think Vlatko can make that happen for them."

Arena soccer is the anthesis of the outdoor game, which is much slower paced. Most coaching outdoors is done prior to the match. There is plenty of direction given before kickoff in the arena game, but a coach must need to be quick on his decisions as fast as players are with their feet.

Oliviero felt the arena game prepared Andonovski well for the USWNT job.

"I know if you asked Vlatko about coaching in the arena game, he'll tell you it's just non-stop," he said. "There are so many facets to the game, and it’s constant coaching vs. the outdoor game where you have your plan going into the game. You've got to wait 45 minutes, to talk to your team again. Usually, you'll make adjustments at halftime and go back and hopefully they work in the second half. Indoors, it's just constant. The ball doesn't go out of bounds. It's a lot of chaos. There's a lot of different parts of the game that constantly need attention. not only from coach, but just even the players, keeping them focused for the entire game.

"Coaching, there's a lot to do in the arena game. It's great preparation for him making it to the next step."

During a three-year period in Kansas City, Andonovski pulled off a rare double, coaching the MASL and NWSL teams there at the same time. The seasons didn't overlap -- arena soccer was played in the late fall, winter and early spring -- while the women competed in the spring and summer -- but he discovered there always was plenty of work on his plate.

"It was intense, it was stressful," he said. "It was no days off and I think it was a great challenge and it set me up for the stress of coaching the U.S. Women's National Team, which demands the highest standards in the world for player and coach."

"For all the challenges that are going to be ahead of me, now I completely understand the challenges of coaching the U.S. Women's National Team are going to be greater," he said. "But I hope to get up to speed as soon as possible and get the job done."

It seems Vlatko Andonovski always has.