Why the USWNT's coaching transition is different than any other in sports

Vlatko Andonovski at USWNT training ahead of his first game as head coach. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).
Vlatko Andonovski at USWNT training ahead of his first game as head coach. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

COLUMBUS, Ohio — A little over 24 hours before Vlatko Andonovski’s first game as U.S. women’s national team head coach, somebody said something interesting. It was nei controversial nor brilliant. Frankly, without a few crucial strands of context, it was a tad cliché.

It was in response to a question about the initial steps of an adaptation: “I wanted to get to know the players. I wanted to get to know the system, the structure, how everything works in camp.”

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It’s the type of quote that, in some form, in some language, comes from the mouths of hundreds of soccer players around the globe every year. From youngsters trying to break into an established team. From multi-million-dollar stars who’ve just joined new teams. Strip away the first sentence, and you might even blindly attribute it to a longtime captain adjusting to a new coaching regime.

But here, in Columbus on Wednesday, those words didn’t come from an uncapped newbie. They didn’t come from a USWNT mainstay attuning herself to her first new national team coach in five and a half years. Nope.

They came from the coach himself.

That’s because the USWNT, and the situation Andonovski has walked into, is atypical in the best of ways. Throughout professional sports, and especially throughout soccer, the narrative goes that new coaches arrive with new ideas; with a desire to implement a new system, to train new behavior, to instill new philosophies, and, at club level, to bring aboard new players who jibe with it. Players, on the other hand, whether transferring to a new club or having new ideas thrust upon them, must fall in line. The current U.S. men’s national team is an archetypal, sputtering example.

But within the USWNT, the street is two-way. The players, in many ways, are the system. Andonovski fits the “new player” prototype mentioned above as well as he does the “new coach” one.

Which is not to say the 43-year-old Macedonian isn’t in charge. He very much is. He’s direct, and players like that. In some sense, his words this week resonated with them more than many of Jill Ellis’ did.

But regardless of how long he has with those players, Andonovski said Wednesday, “I don’t think we’re going to see a lot of changes. The team is in a good tactical state. They just won a World Cup, and we have to respect that.”

Much of his first act as USWNT coach, therefore, will be a balancing act. Between old and new. Between already-understood ideas and fresh ones. Between players who conquered the world twice and those who’ll try to do so again four years from now.

How Vlatko’s USWNT is staying the course

But this isn’t just about winning. Not just about World Cups. It’s about strong personalities, and earned entitlement, and footballers who double as human beings who are, and have always been, the fabric of one of he strongest cultures in team sports.

Players have always run the USWNT. The federation listens to them. They outlast coaches. As Yahoo Sports’ Caitlin Murray detailed in her fabulous book, The National Team, they almost inevitably try to get those coaches fired. In a strange way, the clashes are necessary and healthy. But Andonovski knows better than to tempt them too early. To make immediate, wholesale changes would be to incur the wrath of not only a fan base who has grown attached to those players, but quite possibly the players themselves as well.

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Doing so would also be dumb. The Americans are three months removed from a World Cup title. Their next major challenge is just nine months away at the Olympics. World champs won’t fall off clips in that time. The backbone of Andonovski’s first USWNT will be the one Ellis built.

It is telling that his first lineup, which beat Sweden, was very likely the exact one Ellis would have picked, given player availability. It’s also telling that a few of Ellis’ top lieutenants have retained their positions on the technical staff. And that Thursday’s system and shape were extremely similar to systems and shapes the USWNT had used under Ellis.

The transition from Ellis to Andonovski, therefore, will not be an overhaul. Certainly not yet. It will be tweaks. Adjustments. A fine-tuning of an already-humming machine.

How Vlatko’s USWNT is changing

There will, however, be changes. “Obviously there are things that I would like to add, and keep the team in line with the modern soccer, with the modern trends of the game,” Andonovski said Wednesday. “So they keep evolving. It’s not just being in line with the trends, but be innovative and creative to set some of those trends.” It is less about keeping up, more about staying ahead.

That process has already begun. On Monday, Andonovski brought in his most trusted NWSL assistant, Milan Ivanovic, to essentially serve in the No. 2 role that was Tony Gustavsson’s under Ellis. And in his first week on the training pitch, he began adding. Implementing, as Carli Lloyd said Thursday, “small little things.” And teaching. According to players, drill stoppages have been common, with explanations of nuanced tactical points always following.

New USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski instructs defender Emily Sonnett at training in Columbus. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).
New USWNT head coach Vlatko Andonovski instructs defender Emily Sonnett at training in Columbus. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/Getty Images).

Some players claim they’ve already learned a lot. “He’s simple and effective,” Lloyd explained on Thursday. “His training sessions are short, concise, to-the-point. You know the message. He stops to point out some coaching pointers every now and again. It’s the belief in players, and the confidence he has in players, that you feel, and you feed off of. I’ve heard so many good things about him, from so many different players, and now I know why.”

“His attention to detail,” fullback Casey Short added, “is pretty amazing.”

And in the details, there are already deviations from what the USWNT had done under Ellis. Players spoke enthusiastically about them. I broke a few of them down Thursday night.

But the tweaks were a line of postmatch questioning only because with a new coach, they almost had to be. That’s what tradition dictates. That’s what decades of coverage of soccer coaching transitions dictate. What’s different? What has the new boss changed? What adaptations are required? How difficult have new concepts been to pick up?

On the men’s side of U.S. soccer, variations of those questions are still being asked. Last year around this time, Gregg Berhalter changed everything. And 12 months later, we are still talking about his system. System this, system that. System, system, system. Does it suit the players? How long will it take them to master it?

Here, however, on the women’s side, Andonovski’s adaptation is just as valid a storyline, and just as important, as that of the players. He has as much to learn as they have. His ability to understand them will be scrutinized just as much as, if not more than their ability to understand him.

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Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Question? Comment? Email him at henrydbushnell@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter @HenryBushnell, and on Facebook.

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