Andonovski banks on experience for his first international gambit

Vlatko Andonovski looks on.
United States head coach Vlatko Andonovski looks on during his side's Summer Series match against Nigeria on June 16, 2021 at Q2 Stadium in Austin, TX. (Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire)

Vlatko Andonovski made sure that his version of the United States women’s national team would be full of experienced players spiritually capable of succeeding in such a great tournament as the Olympics.

Therefore, the average age of his Olympic squad will be almost 31 years. Of the 18 players selected, 17 of them featured in the 2019 World Cup-winning team. The only player to not experience World Cup glory in France was Kristie Mewis.

Additionally, 11 members of Andonovski’s squad participated in the 2016 Olympics in Rio. However, the USWNT’s road to silverware ended abruptly in that tournament’s quarterfinals.

In just 30 hours, the USWNT Olympic roster announcement had a huge impact across Instagram and Twitter. Approximately 9.1 million impressions, 420,000 dollars in social value and 394,000 engagements were some of the numbers the announcement gathered around the net, according to Zoomph.

But what really is a concern at this point is the level of preparation and fitness. Out of shape players or even injured ones are going to bring a lot of headaches to the latest USWNT manager.

An 18-player squad is kind of short

Due to Covid-19, Euro 2020 was postponed for 2021 too. As a result, UEFA allowed the teams to form squads consisting of 26 players instead of 23. As of now, no such adjustment has been made by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

US Soccer, Sweden and the Netherlands football associations have gathered to push for larger squads consisting of 22 players instead of 18. As the Skopje-born USWNT manager said: “I would welcome the four substitutes to become full players.”

Injured veterans are a major risk

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Jill Ellis was heavily criticized for taking injured players to Rio Olympics in 2016. Andonovski is facing the same issue, as Tobin Heath has not featured in a game since the winter due to ankle and knee injuries. Julie Ertz is another major fitness doubt, since her sprained knee is putting the 44-year-old coach under pressure.

Yet, the former Reign FC coach is not sweating. “Both Heath and Ertz are rehabbing and progressing very well,” Andonovski said. He also appeared sure that Heath might be in shape for the early July matches against Mexico in Connecticut.

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Despite this, taking rehabbing players onboard to a major tournament for women’s football is a huge gamble Vlatko is willing to take. Whether or not the team finds success in Japan will depend on critical decisions like this.

When the former Missouri Comets coach was asked about the high average of age his team is consisted of, he answered that he doesn’t judge his players by their age. “They are either good, perform well and can help us win, or they can’t,” Andonovski said to the media.

Carli Lloyd will turn 39 in July. This is bound to make her the oldest US Olympic participant in women’s football history. Becky Sauerbrunn is officially 36 as of 6 June and Megan Rapinoe will be 36 too when we reach 5 July.

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Nevertheless, the USWNT’s coach assures his squad will be up to the challenge.

“We have a very experienced roster that has been through adversity at the highest levels,” said Andonovski. “It’s no surprise those players have distinguished themselves. They have embraced the challenges and have shown tremendous flexibility and determination over the past 15 months to get us to where we are today.”

The four alternates

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The USWNT coach faced one of the most bitter-sweet challenges a modern coach can face today. Choosing between a vast collection of the best players there are, is a headache every coach wishes to have ironically enough.

In US Women’s National Team’s case, the challenge was even bigger for Andonovski. The compressed format could see the US squad playing six games in only 17 days in a hazy, hot, and humid summer in Tokyo.

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If the USA team is planning to go far, most of the ageing stars will have a real run for their money. Most of them have not completed enough minutes this year to make it out in one piece with such an exhausting schedule.

The 2019-appointed manager has decided to register four players as alternates: Lynn Williams, Jane Campbell, Casey Krueger and Catarina Macario.

These four will travel along with the 18-player squad. Yet, they will not participate in any games unless some of the regulars face injury.

The excluded players

Lynn Williams has been in tremendous form recently. The three-time NWSL champion has scored five goals and assisted two in seven leagues games so far this season. The 28-year-old player is probably considered a victim of the hard-to-exclude attacking veterans such as Press, Morgan and Lloyd.

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But what really seems concerning is the exclusion of Margaret “Midge” Purce and Sydney Leroux. Unlike Williams, Purce did not even manage to make the cut for the alternates, since Krueger was preferred in her place.

Purce’s main weapon is the high versatility on the field. She is also considered the next big thing of the USWNT. Her football display in the latest SheBelieves Cup and for Gotham FC has brought praise. Many people consider her current form far superior than that of Kelly O’Hara and Emily Sonnett, both of whom made the cut due to their experience.

She can well play in all positions on the wings both in attack and defence. Although Andonovski has stated that he has made “a balanced team with many players who can play several positions” opting out the most position-flexible player is not quite the right choice.

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The Canadian-born Leroux has not played a single minute of international football in recent years. Her last call-up came during the 2017 Tournament of Nations. After giving birth twice, she has earned her in-form status scoring four goals in eight games this year. It would be great to see her flummoxing the Olympics with her bursts of speed, but Vlatko did not grant her return.

Experience over youth

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Vlatko Andonovski clearly preferred to have a squad with an average of 111 games under its belt, rather than pump fresh blood into his team.

“Altogether, we feel very comfortable with some of the more experienced players,” Andonovski said to the press, considering how aged his squad looks right now.

“I was very happy with a lot of those players that did not make it. In some ways they helped the team grow and develop and prepare for the tournament,” Andonovski said after revealing his squad.

The USWNT manager might be unconsciously creating a scenario where younger and inexperienced players are not getting that “baptism of fire” in the bigger stage. Without the proper experience under their belt, this could result in the upbringing of unprepared young players. That would be detrimental not only to the national team but also to their own careers.

The unbeaten streak and the 2016 “fiasco”

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The US is running a 42-game unbeaten streak. In order to maintain this record, they will have to beat Mexico in their two upcoming friendlies. It has been nine years since their latest capture of an Olympic gold medal.

Captain Sauerbrunn and her teammates will head to Tokyo this summer looking to bag their fifth Olympic gold medal after failing to do so against Sweden in the 2016 Olympic Games’ quarterfinals.

Before 2016’s fifth-place finish, the USWNT had never failed to reach the final. On top of that, the only other time they missed out on the gold was in Atlanta 21 years ago against Norway.

If the USWNT wants to be the first women’s national team to win the Olympics after winning the World Cup, they will have to perform in top gear. For some of the players, this might be their swan song and their final moment for international glory.