There was a real sense of excitement as the USWNT’s two November friendlies approached. None of us had any idea what Vlatko Andonovski would do - play it safe or play freely? More of the same, or immediately imprinting his style on the team? You could maybe guess that he’d change things up; after all, what was the point of working his way into this position if he was just going to do exactly what his predecessor did? But we couldn’t know for sure; this is a job that comes with extreme expectations from both USSF and the fanbase. The players are probably quite used to winning as well and would presumably like to keep it that way. And so we first raised our eyebrows a bit at Andonovski’s first training camp roster, which included several NWSL fringe players and young edge case Alana Cook. Then we got the games, and there’s no denying that the positives outweigh the negatives. Here are some of the takeaways from both games, a 3-2 win over Sweden and a 6-0 win over Costa Rica.
Andonovski is getting way more out of the same players
The United States women’s national team has an embarrassment of riches. You could take the US bench and make a competitive, if not always winning, international starting XI. And in the starting XI - woof. Lindsey Horan, Sam Mewis, Rose Lavelle, and more. Some of these midfielders are dominant verging on generational talents, but it often seemed like their performances were struggling to emerge from a system that stifled them, or confused them. But now after two games, several players seem to be breathing easier, including Carli Lloyd, Rose Lavelle, and Lynn Williams. The midfield as a whole looks more exciting and more stable.
When Ellis first debuted the 4-3-3 that became the team’s MO, you could see the seeds of something great buried there. The midfielders she put into that system were doing their best to rotate in and out of each other’s spaces and that created a dynamic, hard-to-pin-down system. But it was also sometimes sloppy and prone to confusion, as players would get caught out or be too hesitant, not knowing what they’d be leaving behind if they tried to step or push. This time around, they already looks more organized.
The team has more structure
That’s the second takeaway, and probably the biggest one so far. Andonovski has got the players knowing their roles but not keeping them so rigidly constrained they can’t adapt or improvise. That would be tragic, to lock a player like Lavelle into a rigid system. But at the same time there’s more stability as everyone seems to understand better how to shift into the spaces their teammates leave behind, which in turn enables a creator like Lavelle to just take off with the ball at her feet, or Julie Ertz to decide now is the time to press out of deep, or Morgan Brian to pincer the defense with her run.
One place where Andonovski has to cement that structure is in the communication between the goalkeeper and the center backs. A miscue between Alyssa Naeher and Becky Sauerbrunn gave away a comical goal against Sweden, and it’s a well-known problem that Naeher sometimes misjudges how or if she should leave her line - it’s as though she’s being tugged back and forth between competing goalkeeping philosophies and someone with a firmer hand on the defensive tiller may be able to guide that situation into a calmer port.
He rotated more in two games and is serious about growing the pool
It’s a really promising sign that literally in his first two games, Andonovski gave out two new caps. I don’t think it should be discounted that many starting players were completely unavailable, but Andonovski not only capped new players, but changed four players in his starting XI and did some heavy bench rotation between games. He was willing to put two uncapped players in his defense, including one who was converting from her normal forward position. Against a smaller Concacaf team? Sure, that made it a better calculated risk than putting those players out against Sweden. But he still did it, and he gave three keepers time over the two games. Maybe this is just part of his settling-in as he wants to see as many players as possible, and come Olympic qualifiers we’ll be getting frustratingly static lineups. Maybe as soon as Megan Rapinoe, Alex Morgan, Kelley O’Hara, Crystal Dunn, et al. are game fit, the roster will fall into the same patterns. Maybe it’s all just new relationship energy and when it wears off, we’ll have the same old complaints. But I don’t think that’ll be the case. The improvements on the field strongly suggest that Andonovski has a better eye for maximizing talent, and the fact he wasted no time in bringing in Alana Cook is a huge plus. I’m already excited for Olympic qualifiers because I can’t wait to watch how this team plays, and that’s probably the biggest plus of them all.