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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.