Vlatko Andonovski feels the heat after USWNT’s lackluster group stage at World Cup

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United States’ head coach Vlatko Andonovski speaks to the media during a FIFA Women’s World Cup press conference at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Friday, July 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

It’s been a sluggish start for the U.S. women’s national team (USWNT) at the 2023 World Cup. Slugs stuck in molasses are more like it for this squad. While it’s easy to say that there’s no chemistry (there isn’t) and they haven’t figured out who works best where (Julie Ertz needs a home), blaming players isn’t going to be the ideal way to build morale or take the pressure off yourself.

Turning the spotlight on Vlatko Andonovski might be the next step, and boy is his seat on fire. The 46-year-old has a well-earned reputation as a conservative, somewhat inflexible coach. That has been on full display this World Cup.

United States’ head coach Vlatko Andonovski speaks to the media during a FIFA Women’s World Cup press conference at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Friday, July 21, 2023. (AP Photo/Abbie Parr)

USWNT coach under fire and for good reason

USWNT plays Sweden in their knockout round game on Sunday at 5 a.m. ET, and it’s the most crucial game this squad and Vlatko have faced in this tournament. The USWNT was supposed to skate through the group stage but instead, they barely managed to scrape by five points to finish behind the Netherlands. How did all of it happen? Mainly offensively.

There’s an old saying that defense wins championships. But in soccer, scoring a goal or two isn’t going to hurt. Especially given that in the four years since the USWNT won the World Cup, the rest of the women’s soccer world has done a lot of catching up.

That is something that Vlatko clearly doesn’t understand.

Survive and advance might be a true sentiment but good lord, the players deserve better. If the USWNT had one bad game, that’s a different story. But for them now, it’s a different feeling for a team failing to show consistency in attack. 

Under former head coach Jill Ellis, who managed the USWNT to their fourth World Cup title, the team thrived. Ellis never lost a World Cup match, going 13-0-1 during her tenure. Just four years later, the USWNT did win the SheBelieves Cup but failed to win gold at the Tokyo Olympics, losing 3-0 to Sweden in their opening match.

They have a chance for revenge on Sunday morning under Andonovski, but that’s not a guarantee.

United States’ Alex Morgan takes a shot on goal during the Women’s World Cup Group E soccer match between Portugal and the United States at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Cornaga)

An undeniable “style” of play

Looking at Vlatko’s style, it’s easy to see how the US keeps getting beat. The midfield is a hot mess express. The team has mainly functioned in a 4-3-3 setup out of the 2019 World Cup in games with Andonovski. Even though the group lost Julie Ertz and Sam Mewis to extended injuries, now they have Ertz back, but she keeps getting slotted as a center back and that is not her traditional home.

Making in-game adjustments also is a weak spot of Andonovski’s. They had three games where they actually did have good performances in large stretches of minutes. Yet the manager kept (almost) the same lineup until the Portugal game. Remember Lynn Williams, who he once called “the best 15-minute player”? He only started her in the final game. While her appearance was a huge boost to the squad, one might question if he played her earlier would this discussion even be happening?

Andonovski also has a new hole to fill in the knockouts: there’s no Rose Lavelle against Sweden. She earned her second yellow card in as many games against the Portuguese, leaving the USWNT with a big hole in the- guess where- the midfield. The bigger question: will he make the smart and tactical decision?

The simple answer would be to move Julie Ertz back into the defensive midfield to add a spark. Pair her with Naomi Girma and Andonovski might have better luck. It would be a personnel chance that might spark and help jell more of the team in this incredibly crucial game.

Yet there’s no guessing what Vlatko might do.

From left, United States’ Naomi Girma, United States’ Julie Ertz and United States’ goalkeeper Alyssa Naeher talk during the Women’s World Cup Group E soccer match between the United States and Vietnam at Eden Park in Auckland, New Zealand, Saturday, July 22, 2023. (AP Photo/Andrew Cornaga)

Will Vlatko be able to turn this ship around?

Speaking before the media ahead of Sunday’s match, the manager highlighted the painfully obvious for everyone:

“It’s the knockout stage and there’s no room for mistakes, so we have to be ready to be our best in this game…we have a great roster of players who are here for a reason, for moments like this and are ready to step in.”

Vlatko Andonovski, 8/5/23

There is depth and talent in the 23 women that are in Australia; it’s visible to everyone. The lack of adjustments made in the draw against the Netherlands highlighted that maybe Andonovski is in over his head.

No one QUITE knows what went wrong at the 2021 Olympics but the chatter coming from the sidelines isn’t helping. According to the Athletic, players Christen Press and Kristie Mewis have shared concerns that roster management is a problem.

Vlatko has bitten back against his critics. After comments made by former USWNT player Carli Lloyd following their final group stage game, the 46-year-old brushed off the concerns.

“For someone to question the mindset of this team, after everything they do, it is not the right time for that and not the right thing.”

Vlatko Andonovski, 8/5/23

That’s just the point: critics can and will question the mindset. The players know they can do better and by all means, WANT to do better. While the younger players on the squad do back up Andonovski’s methods, it’s clear that lip service isn’t producing the desired results.

Boiling down all of this, the main question is perfectly clear: Is he willing to do whatever is necessary to accomplish the goal — even if it means trying something radically different? 

Many USWNT current and former players, as well as fans, sure hope the answer is yes. For Andonovski, to save his job, that might be the only decision to make.

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United States’ Lindsey Horan celebrates her team’s first US goal during the Women’s World Cup Group E soccer match between the United States and the Netherlands in Wellington, New Zealand, Thursday, July 27, 2023. (AP Photo/Alysa Rubin)

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Mandatory Credit: AP Photo/Abbie Parr, AP Photo/Andrew Cornaga, & AP Photo/Alysa Rubin