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Vlatko Andonovski returns to the NWSL with question marks

The Kansas City Current have named Vlatko Andonovski their new head coach after his departure from the USWNT. (Robin Alam/USSF/Getty Images)

When the Kansas City Current announced they had hired former U.S. women’s national team manager Vlatko Andonovski as their head coach on Monday, reactions were understandably mixed. Andonovski is a coach with an impressive NWSL resume, who nonetheless returns to the league with failures to answer for at his most recent position.

Andonovski currently represents two conflicting reputations: a championship-winning NWSL coach returning to his roots, and the coach who oversaw the worst World Cup finish in U.S. women’s national team history.

Kansas City’s leadership has faith that Andonovski’s ability to shape a roster with more time and communication than was afforded to him at the international level will pay dividends at the club level. There’s no reason to believe that this can’t be a successful partnership, but a few questions do remain.

Where he can turn things around

The Current had an exciting offseason in 2023, looking to create the right balance of veterans and young talent to turn their high-flying attack into a team that can control matches on both sides of the ball. But the season didn’t play out the way they intended. Injuries to top free agents and a few core defenders set Kansas City on the wrong path early, and the quick dismissal of coach Matt Potter did not do much to turn things around.

Based on his time in the NWSL, Andonovski is a good fit to take on the Current project due to a number of strengths. One is in his emphasis on defense, something he can point to as a bright spot of the USWNT’s World Cup campaign. His FC Kansas City championship teams were anchored by Becky Sauerbrunn in her prime, and he maintained the Reign’s defensive integrity in the face of many injuries during his short stint there.

While his strategic pragmatism didn’t always pan out on the world stage, with more time to implement his approach, Andonovski has the opportunity again to create one of the stingier teams in the NWSL. That focus will be welcome in Kansas City, whose hyper-attacking 3-5-2 of 2022 turned into a less effective 4-3-3 in 2023. The team struggled to close out matches without conceding, even as the attack found its footing later in the year.

Andonovski also identified his intended creative playmakers in his introductory press conference. He specifically mentioned Debinha, Michelle Cooper and Lo’eau Labonta as the types of players he wants to have the freedom to create chances. While Labonta and Debinha are seasoned NWSL veterans, Andonovski clearly has a vision for the rookie Cooper. That suggests he wants to retain cohesion in a roster that might otherwise go through some swift changes in the offseason.

Andonovski (and general manager Camille Ashton) will have to attempt to re-balance what has turned into a talented but aging and oft-injured roster. The team carried contracts for players like Sam Mewis, Desiree Scott and Hanna Glas, all of whom are incredibly dangerous players on their best day, but none saw the field in 2023. Morgan Gautrat and Vanessa DiBernardo were similarly unavailable throughout the season.

Andonovski was known for his ability to maintain steady results in the face of absences with the Reign. He’ll have a similar project to tackle in Kansas City, particularly with expansion on the horizon in 2024.

You can’t always go home again

A major point of emphasis in Andonovski’s hiring is that Kansas City is his home and a place where he has been entrenched in the local women’s soccer community for many years. While his familiarity is certainly an asset, it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s destined for success in a second stint, albeit with a new club structure.

USWNT dialogue after the World Cup indicated that players didn’t always feel like they had a set style of play, nor were their roles within the team always clearly communicated. From the outside, Andonovski also seemed to freeze tactically in big games and when evaluating talent, presenting a very different image from the calm mind that had such success in the NWSL. It’s possible that he’ll feel more freedom to implement his plans in Kansas City, but his transformative experience at the helm of the U.S. might be something he needs to shake off rather than carry with him.

Andonovski’s appointment is also interesting in the context of a very similar coaching hiring and firing this past year. After the Washington Spirit struggled on the field while dealing with upheaval off of it in 2022, team owner Michele Kang sought out former coach Mark Parsons. Parsons had coached the Spirit in the early days of his NWSL tenure and returned to the club after winning trophies in Portland. In between his NWSL stints, he also had a disappointing run as coach of the Netherlands national team. Parsons’ return made immediate waves, and he was given a fair amount of control of the Spirit’s roster. He notably traded USWNT mainstay Emily Sonnett to OL Reign on draft day before the 2023 season.

Parsons oversaw an improved Spirit season, but one that finished in heartbreak after a Trinity Rodman red card and a loss to the North Carolina Courage on Decision Day cost the team a playoff spot. Nonetheless, it seemed that Washington had their high-profile coach and a foundation to build upon, so long as they trusted in the process. Then last week, Parsons was dismissed in the aftermath of the team’s inability to reach the postseason.

The story of Parsons and the Spirit is certainly a pattern that Andonovski will want to avoid, and it can serve as a warning. Ambitious ownership with the pockets to compete for national team coaches will want the results that come along with their investments. Potter’s quick dismissal as Current head coach earlier this year indicates similarly high expectations for a club that was the first to be eliminated from playoff contention this year.

Giving Andonovski the benefit of the doubt that he’s a coach who thrives in long-term processes with the day-to-day duties of a club manager makes sense. But Parsons’ experience in Washington also lays bare that the right fit isn’t always a place where you have history.

Claire Watkins is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @ScoutRipley.

Liberty, Aces Surge Ahead of WNBA All-Star Weekend

NY Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu dribbles up the Chicago Sky court on Saturday.
NY Liberty's Sabrina Ionescu is scoring a career-high 19.4 points per game on the season. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

The New York Liberty head into the last week of regular play prior to WNBA All-Star Weekend — and the subsequent Olympic break — firmly ahead of the pack with the WNBA's best regular season record, becoming the first team this season to reach 20 wins on Saturday.

With Breanna Stewart briefly sidelined, Sabrina Ionescu led the Liberty to a two-game sweep of the Chicago Sky, topping the score sheet in both games. Ionescu is currently averaging 19.4 points per game, the highest in her career (not including her three-game rookie year).

Las Vegas center A'ja Wilson shoots over Atlanta center Tina Charles on July 12th, 2024.
A'ja Wilson posted her third-straight 25-point, 15-rebound performance last weekend. (Rich von Biberstein/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Aces excel behind WNBA MVP favorite A'ja Wilson

The Aces continued climbing the table behind A'ja Wilson's record-breaking run, finishing the weekend in third with a record of 16-7. On Sunday, Wilson became the first player in WNBA history to register three consecutive 25-point, 15-rebound performances.

With Sunday's 89-77 victory over the Mystics, Las Vegas has won 10 of their last 11 games following the return of starting point guard Chelsea Gray. The third-place Aces are now nipping at the heels of the Liberty and second-place Connecticut Sun (18-5), with the Minnesota Lynx and Seattle Storm tied for fourth at 16-8.

The push for playoff positioning grows fierce

Amidst the looming Olympic break, further down in the WNBA standings, sixth-place Phoenix dropped to 12-12 on a two-game skid, while Indiana won eight of their last 10 games to capture seventh.

Eighth-place Chicago currently holds onto the final playoff spot, with double-double machine Angel Reese boosting the Sky's stats despite back-to-back losses.

Speaking of double-doubles, Reese's record-breaking double-double streak came to an end after Saturday's loss to the Liberty.

A frontrunner for WNBA Rookie of the Year, Reese finished with eight points and 16 rebounds against New York, falling just a couple points short of what would have been her 16th-straight double-double. The LSU grad's record stands as the longest double-double streak in WNBA history, surpassing previous record-holder Candace Parker by three games.

Phoenix Mercury mascot Scorch waving a 2024 WNBA All-Star flag at a 2023 home game.
Phoenix Mercury will host the 20th-annual All-Star Game on July 20th, 2024. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Next up: WNBA All-Star Weekend

Regular season WNBA play extends through Wednesday, with all eyes turning to the 2024 WNBA All-Star Game this upcoming weekend. The highly anticipated matchup between the US Olympic squad and WNBA All-Stars tips off on Saturday, July 20th in Phoenix.

Barbora Krejcikova, Taylor Townsend Take Home 1st-Ever Wimbledon Titles

Barbora Krejcikova of Czechia celebrates winning the Wimbledon Championship against Jasmine Paolini of Italy
Saturday's Wimbledon win marks Krejcikova's second Grand Slam title. (Julian Finney/Getty Images)

Czech tennis player Barbora Krejcikova defeated Jasmine Paolini in three sets on Saturday to capture her first Wimbledon championship.

Krejcikova outlasted Italy's Jasmine Paolini 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 to take the championship. The 28-year-old previously won the singles title at the 2021 French Open, as well as doubles titles at all four Grand Slams at least once.

Wimbledon finals players break into WTA top 10

After Saturday's results, Krejcikova moved from No. 32 in the WTA rankings to No. 10, returning to the top 10 for the first time in six months. Wimbledon runner-up Paolini jumped from No. 7 to No. 5, a new career-high ranking.

Paolini also made waves by becoming the first woman since Serena Williams to reach both the Wimbledon and French Open finals in the same year. She lost out to 2024 French Open-winner Iga Swiatek at Roland Garros this past June.

Doubles champ Taylor Townsend won her first Wimbledon honors on Saturday alongside partner Kateřina Siniaková. (Robert Prange/Getty Images)

Taylor Townsend wins doubles at Wimbledon

Former ITF Junior World Champion Taylor Townsend won her first Grand Slam in doubles at Wimbledon this weekend alongside Czechia's Kateřina Siniaková.

The No. 4 seeds beat No. 2-ranked Gabriela Dabrowski and Erin Routliffe 7-6(5), 7-6(1) in a heated final on Wimbledon's Centre Court. The pair came back from two down in the first set before turning the tables on the 2023 US Open champs to secure the win.

This is the 28-year-old American's first win in three Grand Slam doubles finals, having fallen just short of the title at both the 2022 US Open and 2023 French Open. For Siniaková, however, the victory marks her ninth-career Grand Slam doubles championship and her third time taking the doubles title at Wimbledon.

"This is my first one, my first Grand Slam title — I've been close two other times," Townsend told reporters after the match. "To get over the finish line the way that we did, I think we played so well. We were just locked in, in control. We played our way. It felt good the way we did it."

USWNT Tops Mexico in 1st Olympic Send-Off Game

USWNT striker Sophia Smith celebrates her match-winning goal during the Americans' pre-Olympic friendly against Mexico.
Sophia Smith scored the lone goal against Mexico on Saturday. (Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

The USWNT's Olympic send-off series began with a bang this weekend, as the team avenged February's Gold Cup loss to Mexico with Saturday's 1-0 victory in New Jersey.

Sophia Smith registered the contest's lone goal, firing off a strike in the 64th minute that made good on the team's six shots on target.

The 1999 USWNT poses with their World Cup trophy before last weekend's Mexico vs. USWNT friendly.
The match paid tribute to the World Cup champion 1999 USWNT. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

USWNT '99ers take the field before kick-off

While the friendly served a critical purpose in the USWNT's Olympic prep, it also provided the chance to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the 1999 World Cup-winning USWNT. The entire '99ers roster was in attendance, reuniting 25 years after they changed the future of women's soccer with their penalty kick World Cup win against China at the Rose Bowl.

"I have this really cool picture I use with the team, which is the [1999] team on the podium and that ridiculous crowd, unbelievable. Across it I put, 'People don’t remember time, they remember moments,'" USWNT manager Emma Hayes said in response to the commemoration.

USWNT boss Emma Hayes looks on prior to kickoff against Mexico on Saturday
USWNT boss Emma Hayes has her work cut out for her approaching the Olympics. (Brad Smith/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

Hayes's Olympic lineup still a work in progress

The match itself was an end-to-end, occasionally sloppy affair, with an eye into Hayes's Olympic roster strategy.

Rose Lavelle started at attacking midfielder alongside defensive midfielder Sam Coffey and connecting midfielder Lindsey Horan. Defenders Tierna Davidson and Naomi Girma continued to develop their established center-back pairing, while Jenna Nighswonger earned the start at left back in just her 10th international appearance.

Headlining the USWNT's new-look offense was Mallory Swanson, Trinity Rodman, and Smith, who are continuing to find their flow as the team moves on from the Alex Morgan era.

"There's no denying when the game opens up, we thrive. My goal is to thrive in all moments. So we still have a lot of learning to do with that as a team, as a collective," Hayes said of the team's attacking opportunities in transition.

"When we attack it can be done really quickly, but it can't be just that. There's going to be moments we can't [play quickly], and we have to be a little more indirect, switch the pitch a little more, and recognize the moments when we get locked into one side."

USWNT forward Sophia Smith celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal against Mexico
With Olympic football starting on July 25th, USWNT prep time is at a premium. (Stephen Nadler/ISI Photos/USSF/Getty Images for USSF)

The Olympic group stage nears for the USWNT

With the Paris-bound USWNT facing their first group stage match against red-hot Barbra Banda's Zambia on July 25th, Hayes has just one more game to work out any offensive kinks.

The US will square off against Costa Rica in their final pre-Olympic friendly on Tuesday in Washington, DC, with live coverage on TNT starting at 7:30 PM ET.

Women’s Sports Win Big at 2024 ESPY Awards

Host Serena Williams speaks on stage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
Tennis icon Serena Williams hosted the 32nd annual ESPY Awards on Thursday night. (Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for W+P)

Thursday's 2024 ESPYs doubled as a celebration of the rising popularity of women's sports, as retired tennis superstar Serena Williams hosted the proceedings with ease.

"Get up, get off the TikTok, work hard, find out how capable you are. Be great. Be so great they don't want to believe in you and then be even greater," she told the next generation at the end of her opening monologue.

South Carolina Gamecocks accept the Best Team Award onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks took home the ESPY for Best Team. (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Women's sports take center stage at ESPYs

Athletes in women's sports were big winners throughout last night's ceremony, reflecting a watershed year across the entire sporting landscape.

Indiana Fever rookie Caitlin Clark took home both the Best College Athlete and Best Record Breaking Performance Awards for her historic NCAA career at Iowa.

USC star JuJu Watkins won Best Breakthrough Athlete after an exceptional freshman season with the Trojans.

Gymnast Simone Biles won Best Comeback Athlete, as the two-time Olympian prepares for her third Summer Games later this month.

Las Vegas Aces' all-time leading scorer A'ja Wilson came up big in both the Best Women's Sports Athlete and Best WNBA Player categories.

The undefeated 2023-24 South Carolina Gamecocks won the award for Best Team.

Dawn Staley accepts the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance onstage during the 2024 ESPY Awards
The Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination." (Frazer Harrison/Getty Images)

Dawn Staley honored with individual award

SC coach Staley picked up her own honor, receiving the Jimmy V Award for Perseverance for her continued contributions in the field of cancer research advocacy.

Named after NC State men's basketball coach Jim Valvando, the Jimmy V Award recognizes "a deserving member of the sporting world who has overcome great obstacles through perseverance and determination."

"I must confess, I feel a little undeserving of this recognition," Staley said in her acceptance speech. "Past recipients of the Jimmy V Perseverance Award have faced incredible challenges and proven themselves as true warriors. I have merely been a spectator to such immense courage and resilience."

After opening up about her family's personal connection to the cause, Staley spoke about her greater journey as an advocate, both on and off the court.

"I try my best to do things in the right way, knowing that some little girl is out there watching me... maybe, she's one of the 13 pairs of eyes that see every little thing I do everyday and make sure to comment on it, that's my team," she said, motioning to her undefeated Gamecocks squad seated in the audience.

"How do I not fight pay disparity, when I do the same job and get paid less but win more?" she continued. "I can't ask them to stand up for themselves if I'm sitting down. Nor can I ask them to use their voice for change if I'm only willing to whisper."

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