In sports, perfection is a double-edged sword. It’s the ultimate goal, one that teams work toward every day. But once it’s reached, anything less is seen as a failure.
That’s where Vlatko Andonovski and the U.S. women’s national soccer team find themselves right now.
The squad has been so good, and for so long, that missteps are seen as catastrophic causes for concern. So when the United States recorded back-to-back losses this week for the first time since 2017, hands began to hover over the panic button.
Don’t push it yet, USWNT fans.
But feel free to keep hovering.
The USWNT lost 2-1 to England and then 2-0 to Spain in friendly matches, their first back-to-back losses in over five years – which, while jarring, is not too big of a deal. Let’s start with the obvious: These were friendlies. Sure, especially against England, there were bragging rights to be had, but the point of these matches is to figure out what works and what doesn’t in preparation for the World Cup, which is still nine months away.
So the losses themselves aren’t the issue. What I’m worried about is whether or not Andonovski, who took the helm after the 2019 World Cup, is actually learning anything of value from them. If the USWNT is losing while also failing to iron out a roster that works, that’s a problem.
Fifteen players were unavailable for selection for the European trip, something Andonovski made sure to mention during a press conference leading into Tuesday’s match against Spain.
But in a way, the roster limitations provided a good opportunity for Andonovski and company to get a feel for how other players can help or hurt the team going forward.
Several of the missing players, including Alex Morgan, Mallory Pugh and Catarina Macario, are locks for the roster when the team heads to Australia and New Zealand next July, so there’s less need to see them in action. Instead, less established players could make their cases.
Against England, Trinity Rodman’s would-be goal was called back, but her ability to cover serious ground and impact nearly every part of the field was on full display. We got a glimpse of a Rodman and Sophia Smith partnership that looks promising – something Smith said she was excited about – but Andonovski didn’t explore that much further. Rodman got her second start against Spain, but was subbed out at halftime before the pair could get anything going.
And when Rodman went out, Ashley Hatch came in. Those two are an elite duo for the Washington Spirit, so why not test how they would play together on the national team? Andonovski, though, rarely has done so.
Then there’s youngster Alyssa Thompson. Andonovski is easing her into the senior team, he says. But playing her in the final minutes of two games in which the team is trailing doesn’t seem like a fair chance for her to get her feet wet, or for the staff to see if she fits in on the roster.
Also against England, in a match featuring defensive mistakes aplenty, 22-year-old Naomi Girma stood out as a difference maker on the back line. Her decision-making, awareness, speed and physicality have made her a popular player among fans. So it seemed to make sense that Andonovski would explore which players gel alongside her. Instead, Girma didn’t see the field against Spain.
The list of personnel questions goes on but can be summarized simply: The losses don’t concern me. What does concern me is whether or not those losses are being used for the team to learn and grow. I’m not in practice sessions, nor privy to Andonovski’s thoughts – but from the outside, it doesn’t seem like those questions are being answered.
It’s also important to acknowledge the overall atmosphere surrounding the team. The Sally Yates report rocked the NWSL, and in turn the USWNT. Hearts and minds were heavy, so players (and coaches) being off their game is understandable.
As spectators, it’s easy to say that players should be able to put those things aside. And there is a fair argument that Spain is going through something similar, and that squad managed to defeat the USWNT with its second-string unit.
Still, the Yates report brought to the forefront some horrible, heartbreaking stuff. And frankly, it’s much more important than two soccer matches.
The status of the USWNT, of Andonovski and of his job should become much clearer next month, when FIFA’s second-ranked team, Germany, comes to town. If the USWNT – who remains No. 1 for now – comes away with two wins, and if the answers to a few roster questions become clearer, then Andonovski likely will remain safe in his post.
But if the USWNT loses twice against Germany, then it may be time to stop hovering over the panic button and actually push it.