If USWNT can’t three-peat at World Cup, is Vlatko’s job safe?

Being the manager of the U.S. women’s national team is one of those jobs that comes with the seat already warm.

History guarantees such an environment. The Americans have won four World Cup titles and four Olympic gold medals; going a step further, only once have the U.S. women not reached the semifinals of a major tournament. That came in the 2016 Olympics, when Sweden dumped the Americans out of the tournament via a penalty shootout at the quarterfinal stage.

The expectations remain sky-high for the U.S. heading into every tournament it plays, and that pressure is especially present for whoever the head coach is. You either win or run the risk of losing your job.

“Tragically for the United States, there’s one standard and it’s a ridiculous standard, but it exists,” said former U.S. manager and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill women’s head coach Anson Dorrance, who led the U.S. to the inaugural World Cup title back in 1991. “It’s sort of a compliment to the country that [the expectation to win is] our standard.”

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So just how hot is the seat of current USWNT manager Vlatko Andonovski? Suffice it to say, a few more burners have been turned on compared to when he first took the job in 2019.

In his first major tournament leading the USWNT at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo — played in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic — Andonovski’s side underwhelmed, never looking close to approaching its best.The Americans were trounced 3-0 by Sweden in their group stage opener and never really hit their stride afterward, edging Australia on goal differential to claim second place in their group and then needing penalties to get past the Netherlands in the quarterfinals.

When the U.S. lost 1-0 to Canada in the semis, it wasn’t a shock, even as the U.S. had the advantage in nearly every statistical category that day, save the one that mattered. Along the way, there was talk of how the pandemic made the whole experience seem subdued.

That tournament isn’t the only reason there’s intense scrutiny on Andonovski heading into the upcoming World Cup. At the end of 2022, the team endured a three-game losing streak, its first such run in 29 years. Sure, it came against top sides England, Spain and Germany, but that excuse hasn’t been acceptable in the past, and it won’t be trotted out in Australia and New Zealand.

To his credit, when it comes to this tournament, Andonovski didn’t take the “definition of insanity” approach of simply repeating what he did at the Olympics. He revamped the team by bringing in younger players, which always carries with it the risk of leaving veterans disgruntled. “One of the hardest things to do in a national coaching position is to cut a kid that’s won world championships for you,” Dorrance said. “So how do you cut any players that were a part of that world championship in 2019? It’s just a very, very difficult call. Obviously, hindsight gives us the privilege of knowing that maybe the team did need some refreshing.”

To a degree, injuries to the likes of Sam Mewis, Tobin Heath and Christen Press forced Andonovski to bring in new blood. But one could see he employed a methodical approach and long-term view. Naomi Girma has earned 15 caps. Trinity Rodman has 17, while Sophia Smith has 29. All of that helped mitigate the loss of a pair of other young attackers in Mallory Swanson and Catarina Macario.

The team has historically bounced back from the rare humblings it has received at major tournaments. After getting walloped 4-0 by Brazil in the semifinals of the 2007 World Cup, the team recovered to win Olympic gold in 2008. It did the same in 2019 after the aforementioned Olympic disappointment in 2016.

For his part, Andonovski has embraced these expectations though viewed another way, he has no choice. “Would I be happy with anything short of a third straight win? No, absolutely not,” he said in June. “I mean, there’s only one thing in mind. Our goal is to win the World Cup. There’s no question about it. And I don’t think that anyone on our team thinks anything different.”

The time is now for Andonovski to deliver. His contract is up after the World Cup. For the first time in USWNT history, his performance is being evaluated by the USWNT general manager, in this case, Kate Markgraf. Along with USSF president Cindy Parlow Cone and federation CEO JT Batson, they will have the final say as to whether Andonovski is dismissed or continues.

When asked what success would look like for Andonovski, Markgraf declined to answer, instead alluding to the high expectations that accompany the USWNT.

“I think if you are working for, or have played on the U.S. women’s national team, you understand the pioneering spirit and the desire to do unprecedented things as well as inspire others,” she said. “That is why that’s omnipresent through every single campaign.”

So what kind of performance will be enough for Andonovski to come back? Reaching the final is probably the bare minimum, as lofty a standard as that is. He’s walking a tightrope without a safety net. A semifinal appearance would be on par with the finish at the Tokyo Olympics, and likely deemed not good enough. How the U.S. plays will also be a factor.

If the USWNT reprises the subpar performances from the Olympics, Andonovski will be gone. If the team repeats the stellar play it showed at the 2019 World Cup, that will tilt the scales in Andonovski’s favor in terms of a possible return. Another positive for Andonovski is that he and Markgraf have a close relationship, with the U.S. manager recently referring to the friendship that the two have.

But the USWNT program has long possessed a ruthless streak in terms of players and coaches. Greg Ryan was axed after the defeat to Brazil at the 2007 World Cup. Tom Sermanni, fired in 2014 amid a player mutiny, didn’t even get a major tournament to show his worth. Each tournament has its ebbs and flows, meaning the seat underneath Andonovski figures to get hotter over the next month.

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