Caitlin MurrayESPN12 Minute Read
When it comes to the future of the U.S. women’s national team, there’s a lot to do and not a lot of time to do it.
Vlatko Andonovski has finally resigned as head coach after steering the USWNT to its worst Women’s World Cup finish in program history. His decision to step down was as necessary as it was inevitable, but it doesn’t automatically fix anything.
The USWNT still needs serious reform, but with another major tournament coming up in less than a year in the form of the 2024 Olympics, there’s not a lot of time to spare. The U.S. Soccer Federation is now in a situation where it’ll be making decisions soon that will have big impacts in the short term and for years to come.
Here is a look at the biggest items on the to-do list for U.S. Soccer and whoever becomes the next USWNT coach.
Step 1: Pick a coach (and make sure they have the qualifications Andonovski lacked)
U.S. Soccer has announced that new sporting director Matt Crocker will be leading the search for a new coach. It’s perhaps notable that USWNT GM Kate Markgraf is not leading that search, but we’ll get to that in a moment.
Crocker’s background is not in women’s soccer — before joining U.S. Soccer full time earlier this month, he headed football operations for Southampton in the Premier League — but it shouldn’t be difficult to hire someone qualified. Andonovski had no international experience — not as a player, not as an assistant coach, and not as a head coach — which should’ve disqualified him for the job.
If U.S. Soccer is willing to pay for the best coaches in women’s soccer, poaching another international coach is a no-brainer. Coaches such as England‘s Sarina Wiegman and Australia’s Tony Gustavsson should be at the top of U.S. Soccer’s list, but with the 2024 Olympics around the corner, some of these proven coaches might not be available yet.
That leaves U.S. Soccer with two ways to approach this:
1. Hire someone on a multiyear contract through the next World Cup-Olympics cycle, and settle if the best candidates are still committed to their current teams, or
2. Bring on someone for the Olympics only, then make a permanent hire afterward when more candidates become available.
If U.S. Soccer wants to look short term at the Olympics only, former USWNT coach Jill Ellis makes an intriguing option, too. She wasn’t on the list of USWNT head-coach candidates ESPN’s experts put together because, over the long term, it doesn’t seem as if it would make sense for Ellis or for U.S. Soccer. But in the short term, if no long-term candidates are available, maybe U.S. Soccer can convince her?
Ellis stepped down after winning back-to-back World Cups in 2015 and 2019, the ultimate high note to leave on. But the part of her legacy no one talks about anymore is the disappointing quarterfinal exit at the 2016 Olympics. A retry at the next Olympics is a chance for her to find success in the one tournament where she didn’t win. In her favor is the fact that, even if it goes poorly, it still won’t tarnish her double-World Cup-winning legacy.
(I interviewed Ellis for a piece I did about Gustavsson, where she said U.S. Soccer ought to look at Gustavsson as a candidate, and I didn’t have time to ask her whether she’d be interested in the USWNT job herself. She’s leading FIFA’s technical study group for this World Cup and was pressed for time as she spoke to me between meetings. This is another reason I doubt she’s looking to go back into coaching full time right now: plenty of opportunities keep coming her way, beyond her president role at San Diego Wave FC.)
Whatever U.S. Soccer does, the struggles of Andonovski raise the stakes to get this hire right. Maybe there was a time when the USWNT had such a differential in talent, fitness and/or resources — you name it — that it could overcome a bad coach, but the Andonovski era proved that time has passed.
Step 2: Decide whether the USWNT needs a GM at all (and whether it should be Markgraf)
When Markgraf was hired as general manager for the U.S. women’s national team in 2019, it was a new position. It also seemed, at least on paper, as if it might be an unnecessary position.
U.S. Soccer added a general manager on the men’s side after the men’s team failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. Whether this was a move that has provided extra support for the men’s team or was intended to add a buffer layer of accountability for people at the top of U.S. Soccer is something fans and pundits continue to debate. But once the men’s team added a GM, the women’s team had to have one too.
U.S. Soccer then added another layer of oversight when Markgraf’s hire was announced: men’s GM Earnie Stewart was promoted to sporting director — becoming Markgraf’s boss in large part, sources told me, because his salary was so much higher than Markgraf’s as GM that the optics were seen as a problem within U.S. Soccer. Brian McBride was later hired as the new men’s GM.
Stewart, a sporting director for various men’s teams, did not have relevant experience in women’s soccer (just like Crocker), and Markgraf, while an intriguing hire for a lot of reasons, had no experience in sports administration herself — and then she hired an inexperienced coach, too. In short, two people were apparently directly responsible for overseeing what Andonovski did — Stewart and Markgraf — but in the end it didn’t seem to help much.
U.S. Soccer has not replaced McBride as the men’s GM since he stepped down in January, and maybe the federation won’t. If the federation doesn’t have a men’s GM anymore, does it need a women’s GM? In May, Oguchi Onyewu was hired in a new role called “VP of sporting” that directly reports to Crocker. That role, which U.S. Soccer said doesn’t replace the men’s GM role, oversees everything U.S. Soccer does despite, again, Onyewu having no background in women’s soccer.
For years the USWNT didn’t have a GM and everything worked out just fine. This isn’t cause-and-effect, of course — the timing might be incidental as much as anything because women’s soccer is getting much more competitive, which we’ve seen during this World Cup. But U.S. Soccer changes its organizational chart seemingly as often as the U.S. national teams change their kit designs, so the federation’s top brass are probably in the midst of deciding not only whether Markgraf should remain as the USWNT’s GM but whether the USWNT needs a GM at all.
Step 3: Retool the USWNT roster (and cut players without sentiment, as hard as it is)
The USWNT’s World Cup roster is full of players who have had previous success on the international stage or have been outstanding in the National Women’s Soccer League. But that clearly didn’t always translate to the 2023 World Cup.
Rather than hoping they’ll come good, the players who have performed well in the NWSL but not for the USWNT need to be cut loose. In some cases it might be clear — Andonovski loaded his World Cup roster with successful NWSL players he apparently didn’t think were good enough to see the field — but others will be tough. Look, for instance, at the case of Savannah DeMelo. We don’t know whether she can hack it at the USWNT level because she made the roster as an uncapped player and was thrown into a role without much of a chance to succeed.
For the players with outsized reputations, the next coach must shed any reverence for the past. That job is made a bit easier by the retirement of Megan Rapinoe — she was sensational for the USWNT for about a decade but, at this World Cup, didn’t look like the world-class player she once was. The USWNT needs to invest in finding its next great game-changing winger instead of hoping it can still be Rapinoe.
Other evaluations of veterans won’t be as easy. Alex Morgan has been the face of the USWNT for years now, but she also had a very rough World Cup. There needs to be a serious examination about whether she wasn’t put in the right position to succeed or whether she just isn’t at the level to contribute to the USWNT.
This is the sort of tough decision-making that must happen with every player before settling on an Olympic squad.
Step 4: Make the system and the tactics fit the USWNT player pool
Andonovski’s tactics were a failure at the World Cup, full stop.
His attacking line, for instance, was full of redundant parts. Morgan needs service to thrive as a striker, but the so-called wingers on either side of her were actually strikers who wanted to dribble and shoot, not pass the ball. Why play a 4-3-3 that can’t score goals in the way a 4-3-3 is meant to score goals?
His midfield was also a mess. That was proved by the fact that switching to a double pivot with Emily Sonnett — in her first start in the midfield for the USWNT — seemed to fix a lot of the USWNT’s problems. Unfortunately, that switch came far too late in the World Cup.
So what’s the next coach to do? Well, it should depend on how the roster looks once the coach finishes Step 3.
The system needs to fit the players, not the other way around. This isn’t club soccer, where you can go out and sign players for the system you want and then work on it every day for months at a time. This is national team soccer, where the players in your pool are the only players you have and the system should be relatively turnkey and easy for them to execute with limited prep time.
On top of that, the next coach needs to make sure the players are comfortable with different systems based on different scenarios. Andonovski seemed to have an idea about how the USWNT should play, and he never really deviated from it. The wacky tactical experiments and surprise formations former coach Ellis tried (and got criticized for) in friendlies? Andonovski never did that, and because of that the players could not adapt or solve problems on the field in the World Cup.
Step 5: Make team chemistry and player mentality a focus to bring back USWNT swagger
If U.S. Soccer nails the previous four steps, the USWNT will be in much better shape, but there is something else that has been missing from this team. It’s harder to put your finger on, and it could’ve been because of the bad tactics the players were saddled with, but the mentality was off during the World Cup.
Lindsey Horan and Lynn Williams, in their final media availability before the fateful round-of-16 match against Sweden, volunteered that the players had discussed with one another wanting to play with more joy. That they admitted that confirms a lack of confidence that didn’t help the USWNT either. After all, through four games, the USWNT’s expected goals, or xG, was 9.14, per Opta calculations, and the team took 85 shots but scored only four times. A team with more swagger was probably going to score more off those chances.
Although Sweden got knocked out in the semifinals, the Swedes looked much better than the USWNT did at every point. The Sweden players also discussed how much fun they were having and how much they were enjoying each other’s company. They held cornhole tournaments and played games with each other to decompress. Compare that to a USWNT group that, from outside, didn’t appear to be having fun.
(I personally asked multiple players how they spent their downtime, and the response I always got was that recovery and meals were their downtime. If they did any team-bonding activities, they kept it a secret.)
The Swedish players talked throughout the tournament about the importance of their team psychologist — indeed, the cornhole tournament was the psychologist’s idea. But it could be as simple as allowing the players to take their mind off soccer — at past tournaments, players took team field trips to zoos and landmarks together. In Auckland, New Zealand, they said their days were filled with training and recovery “modalities.”
Or maybe there’s something else that needs to be addressed. Whatever it is, the USWNT needs its mojo back.