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USWNT players embrace new coach Vlatko Andonovski’s high expectations

The new coach is focused on pushing his players to improve as the team looks to show its dominance in the 2020 Olympics.

United States head coach Vlatko Andonovski is pushing his players to build on their success heading into 2020. (John Raoux/AP)

Vlatko Andonovski isn’t satisfied.

The newly minted head coach of the United States women’s national team doesn’t want that to come across too strong. He knows that he’s been given the keys to the most highly tuned machine in women’s soccer. But he also knows that he can make it run sharper, faster, better.

So even after a 6-0 rout of Costa Rica on Sunday — the first shutout of his tenure and last game of 2019 — Andonovski was focused on what to improve.

“At the end of the day, I think we can do better,” Andonovski said. “I don’t want to sound arrogant by any means, but I think there are ways we can grow. That’s the coach in me. Regardless of how well we do, we’ll always find clips of how we can do better.”

For Andonovski, this comes in the form of tweaks, not major changes. He says that even if he had been given time to make major shifts heading into his first two games, he wouldn’t have changed all that much about the team. Instead, he looks for the small areas of improvement that will allow the United States to remain dominant.

On Sunday, that meant pressing higher to contain the Costa Rican attack and striking more succinctly in transition. He admits that it’s difficult to turn a 6-0 blowout into a learning opportunity, but Andonovski sees that as his main duty as the new coach.

This drive to improve comes from a belief in each of his players, who he considers to be individually the best in the world. For defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who played under Andonovski for five years with FC Kansas City, the coach’s strength lies in his ability to support and encourage players.

“He believed in me more than I believed in myself and so I think that brought me to new levels that I didn’t even know that I had,” Sauerbrunn said. “To have a coach that I know is capable of doing that… I’m just really excited for the players who get to be coached by him.”

At the end of an exciting yet grueling year for the team, Andonovski’s integration into the team has offered a jolt, challenging players to impress their new coach in otherwise low-stakes friendlies. He’s found a way to resonate with old and new players alike — defender Midge Purce called him “brilliant” after her first cap on Sunday.

For a team looking to transition quickly from a World Cup year to the Olympic year, this change of pace has been vital.

“It’s incredible to see the energy and the smiles and everyone enjoying themselves at practice,” keeper Ashlyn Harris said. “It’s really enjoyable to be here. I think this is a breath of fresh air and it’s good rolling into the new year, because we’ve got business to take care of and there’s not much time.”

At this point in 2015, the Americans had just finished their 10th of the World Cup Victory Tour. That streak of games was capped off by a sluggish 1-0 loss to China during Abby Wambach’s send-off match, breaking the team’s 10-year run of being unbeaten matches on American soil.

Four years ago, the injury-laden team trudged into the offseason. On Sunday, the energy felt different, still electric even as the players beamed at the idea of rest.

“I think by the end [of 2015] we were exhausted,” Sauerbrunn said. “I don’t think we’re any less exhausted now, but I think having a new coach come in, inject some energy, I think that helped us transition. Having that kind of change got us to have that mental shift.”

For veterans like Sauerbrunn and Harris, it’s impossible to talk about 2019 without thinking back to 2015. With the thrill of the World Cup slowly wearing off, the Americans can’t help but compare every upcoming step to what happened — and what went wrong — after the last World Cup win, ending in an early sendoff from the Olympics.

This year is different. With fewer Victory Tour games, the team will get almost an entire extra month of rest compared to 2015, taking all of December and January off before reconvening for CONCACAF qualifiers in February. But the upcoming months will still have an edge, as the team remains desperate to erase the memory of the 2016 Olympics.

“We want to hold that record,” Harris said. “Right now our focus is to come in January, work hard and cause hell in CONCACAF qualifying and make a statement. I think we under-performed in the last Olympics and it’s still a dirty taste in our mouth and we’re high achievers and we want to be the best at everything. We want to win the Olympics.”

So Andonovski isn’t satisfied. Neither are his players. That’s exactly how they want it.

At the start of a job that he says he’s “flattered” to take, Andonovski finds this is perhaps the best part of leading the Americans — he never has to do much to motivate them to improve.

“There are always situations that myself as a coach wants to use as a learning opportunity, but what’s great about this team is that they want to get better,” Andonovski said. “They don’t want to settle for where they are now. We’re not looking at the score. We have to grow. We have to get better.”




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