Vlatko Andonovski's first year as coach of the United States women's national team always offered a chance to make history. He just didn't know it would look quite like this.
After taking over from Jill Ellis last fall, Andonovski was supposed to have an opportunity to coach the defending world champions in the 2020 Olympics, potentially becoming the first team to win World Cup and Olympic titles in successive years. Instead, as the one-year anniversary of his debut approaches, Andonovski and the U.S. women are on the verge of breaking the national team's World Cup-era record for the most consecutive days without a game.
After winning the first Women's World Cup in 1991, the U.S. went the next 257 days without another game. As November arrived this year, 234 days had passed since the U.S. beat Japan on March 11 to clinch the SheBelieves Cup. Considering the next FIFA international window doesn't begin until Nov. 23, and teams don't play games on the first day of a window, the record is sure to fall no matter what the U.S. does with its schedule for the remainder of 2020.
So although most players at the recently concluded 10-day U.S. training camp in Colorado had the opportunity to play NWSL or NCAA games while the national team sat dormant due to the coronavirus pandemic, Andonovski endured perhaps the longest stretch of his life away from the field.
"I feel bad for him because he's been in quarantine for basically seven months and not had a camp to go out and coach on the field," midfielder Lindsey Horan said early in camp. "So I think [the opening practices were] exciting for him, just getting back on the field again and being able to interact with the players and coaches again.
"We needed that, and we've needed this camp for a long time."
The bubble-like environment and COVID-19 testing necessary for the team to gather in Colorado were just the latest challenges in 2020. The changes that both delayed the Olympics by a year and created an unprecedented cycle in which the U.S. can play three major tournaments in the span of four years, afforded Andonovski an opportunity to get to work on the future.
"Going into the first year, I knew where I wanted to be for the Olympics in 2020," Andonovski told ESPN. "But as soon as the Olympics were canceled, we evaluated everything and looked at where the team is at and started adding layers in terms of where we think the team can be in 2021 for the Olympics and how we can evolve the team to get to that point."
Andonovski wasn't looking to reinvent a wheel that rolled to success in France last summer. So far, he is unbeaten as coach with a 10-0-0 record that includes titles in the CONCACAF Olympic qualifying tournament and SheBelieves Cup. The primary challenge was cutting the World Cup roster of 23 down to the Olympic limit of 18 players.
"It wasn't going to be easy, but I would say I was very close," Andonovski said. "Then once the Olympics was canceled, I got farther away because I started looking at different players, more players actually. I started to deepen the pool."
Until the October camp, the expanded pool of players existed only in his mind as he watched and studied tape or from the socially distanced stands at NWSL games. Although the U.S. roster last week looked different because so many familiar names were unavailable due to European club commitments, injuries or personal choice, it wasn't just filling out numbers that brought in defenders Sarah Gorden and Midge Purce, midfielders Catarina Macario and Kristie Mewis and forwards Bethany Balcer, Sophia Smith and Kealia Watt.
The 2021 Olympic roster could look very different than a 2020 roster.
"In some positions we're starting over," Andonovski said of the depth chart. "In some positions we're already set in place. Bottom line, regardless of what the approach is, everybody has to perform. If they're not performing, they're going to move down very quick. And if they're performing well, they're going to move up."
Andonovski is reluctant to answer when asked which camp invitees had something to offer, noting that he and his staff were still sorting through their data and evaluations. He offered positive reviews to both Mewis and Lynn Williams, the former NWSL MVP who appeared headed for the 2020 Olympics after missing out on the World Cup under Ellis. But he said his best takeaway was that nobody stood out as being particularly unprepared to contribute at the international level.
That included the long-awaited senior team debut of newly minted American citizen Macario, who defender Abby Dahlkemper said made a positive impression. Macario expressed concern beforehand about her fitness coming off a fall in which Stanford isn't playing and local health restrictions make even training difficult. Andonovski acknowledged she was in a different place physically than NWSL players coming off their fall schedule. Yet even though she had to leave camp early due to a prior family commitment, she was impressive.
"There were things that she did in camp that surprised the coaches and the players that were on the field," Andonovski said. "You could tell with one or two things that she's going to do that she's special."
Andonovski talked about wanting to add "layers" to what the U.S. does and presumably who is doing it. Exactly what that looks like, from personnel to formations to tactics, remains to be seen. He wouldn't delve into the details yet, meaning we have to wait to see what it all looks like the next time the U.S. takes the field -- or at least the next time it announces a roster.
Andonovski said that he felt lost in the first couple of weeks after the sports world shut down this spring, including the cancellation of April friendlies against Australia and Brazil. A person so enamored with order that former assistants used to torment him by shifting practice cones a matter of inches when he wasn't looking, he thrives with structure. With no games and no practices, he was suddenly home in Kansas City for extended periods after years of commuting to Seattle to coach the NWSL's Reign, or U.S. Soccer's Chicago offices. Adjusting to the role of international coach, which comes without the day-to-day access to players that club coaches enjoy, was always going to represent a change.
"For someone that has never been in a national team system it was a little bit difficult to figure out what is it we can and how we can impact a player's development," Andonovski said. "It wasn't easy, but we figured that in these strange times, the phrase for us is going to be creativity. So we tried to stay as creative as we could."
NWSL fans grew used to the sight of Andonovski in the stands at Challenge Cup games (his ever-present notebook even inspired a Twitter account). But he and his staff, spearheaded by assistant Milan Ivanovic, communicated more directly with players throughout the spring, summer and fall.
"One thing I would say is this man studies the game so much," Horan said. "[He] spends so much time planning sessions, planning these PowerPoint [presentations] for us, teaching us. And he's one of the most intelligent coaches I've met and come across and maybe just sees the game in a different way."
The coaches arranged regular video sessions with the entire player pool, with each line of defense, midfield and attack and with individuals. They presented position profiles to players, emphasizing what each position needs to bring to create the whole that Andonovski envisions. The coaches watched too many hours of film to count to distill it down to digestible portions.
"He was keeping in contact with us all and was able to watch the Challenge Cup and the fall series and give us feedback on those games but also give us some extra work we could be doing after our NWSL practices," Dahlkemper said. "Or 5 to 10 minutes after that practice concluded, while we're still on the field, do X, Y, Z exercises, which I found really helpful and awesome to always incorporate in. I think he did a really good job of managing us and incorporating the things that he still wants to implement with us on this team."
All they didn't do was win, lose or draw any games.
Although the time in Colorado last week was unlike just about anything previously undertaken by the national team with the players sequestered at an area hotel and tested before, during and after the camp, Andonovski said the feeling on the field was decidedly familiar. They didn't alter much in the way of drills or training plans, including two 11-on-11 scrimmages. He said it didn't take long for the players to shake off their international hibernation and show the kind of competitiveness for which the national team practices are famous.
"I was pleasantly surprised; it was there from the first second," Andonovski said. "I don't think they know any other way. They have certain standards, and once they step on the field they forget about everything else that is going on in the world and they just go for it."