How Vlatko Andonovski made a name for himself in the NWSL -- and likely beyond
Editor's note: Vlatko Andonovski is expected to be named coach of the U.S. women's national soccer team on Monday. This story has been updated since it was originally published on Oct. 17.
Among the missions of the National Women's Soccer League, subsidized in part by U.S. Soccer, is to identify and develop talent that might otherwise go unutilized in the pursuit of international glory.
It just so happens that one of the success stories is a 43-year-old from North Macedonia.
Seven years ago, Vlatko Andonovski was a stranger to most women's soccer fans. Now the world knows at least his name, even if some might still be hazy on the details when it comes to the reported new coach of the U.S. women's national team. After two championships and five playoff appearances with FC Kansas City and Reign FC in the NWSL, Andonovski takes on an even greater challenge in replacing Jill Ellis, the most successful coach in national team history.
Getting here meant bridging two worlds, first giving up the familiarity of home to follow soccer to the United States and a new life. Then balancing an almost obsessive belief in preparation with a human touch. Together they afforded him the opportunity of a lifetime.
"I'm not arrogant by any means, and I know that when I came in the league I was nobody," Andonovski said. "I know that every coach in the league was way ahead of me. I knew that I had to do a lot of work to catch up and be able to mesh with the product on the field."
And together, they are why he was never really nobody, just someone we didn't know yet.
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Born in what was then Yugoslavia in 1976, Andonovski turned 15 just days before what is now North Macedonia voted for independence from the faltering communist country in 1991.
Unlike some of the Balkan states, North Macedonia's transition to democracy was largely peaceful. So while it was possible for a teenager to go about life normally, it wasn't possible to ignore a world in which change, upheaval and a breakdown of order were more than headlines.
"We were fortunate enough that we were not involved in a civil war or any kind of war," Andonovski recalled. "That was nice, but what was not nice was that everywhere around there was some kind of war going on. That was something that was not easy to deal with, knowing we had friends and family in the surrounding countries."
But even in a changing world, soccer was constant. And those roots still shape his soccer identity. There is evident pride in his voice when he talks about Yugoslavian players of old as the "Brazilians of Europe" for the technical magic and boldness with which they played. His father played professionally in the old country, as did he and his brother in the new country. Uncles played and coached. No matter what else was going on, conversations at home invariably turned to soccer.
A whole new world
Andonovski began his professional career in Macedonia but came to the U.S.in 2000 when a friend encouraged him to take a chance on an indoor league. He signed a six-month contract with the Wichita Wings of the National Professional Soccer League. The team and the league soon folded, but he has been in the U.S. ever since, most of that time in Kansas City and almost all of it in the women's game.
He wasn't aware of women's soccer growing up. The academy in Skopje that picked him out of hundreds of applicants didn't have a similar setup for girls. There wasn't a pro women's league. His introduction came when he moved to this country and started coaching youth soccer.
"It just happened at that time that the team I started coaching was a girls team," Andonovski said. "I don't think it was a choice at that time, but it became a choice later on."
Beyond the relatively small world of youth soccer as part of the Missouri Olympic Development Program, he was largely unknown when the NWSL launched in 2013 and the Kansas City team named him as its first coach. What players soon discovered was that Andonovski has few equals when it comes to preparation.
"Just off the first phone call, the conversations that we had you, could tell he had done his homework," former FC Kansas City defender Leigh Ann Brown said. "Obviously, I Googled him and looked everything up. But if you didn't know those things, you would have no idea he didn't have prior experience with [coaching] women at our level. He had done his homework.
"Even to this day, he's dotting his I's and crossing his T's."
He was no less committed to preparation when the team gathered for preseason. Jen Buczkowski, a seasoned professional who had won a Women's Professional Soccer title with the Philadelphia Independence while playing for Paul Riley, recalled calling her old coach at one point early in the preseason with a simple message: This guy is crazy.
Day after day, they ran and ran. The second session of two-a-days usually began on the track rather than the soccer field. Sometimes they ended there, too. Andonovski worked the players hard. He wanted them to have the stamina to play attacking, passing soccer, like the Brazilians of Europe, without sacrificing the defensive foundation he believed in as a former center back.
Yet after running the players into the ground, Andonovski and Huw Williams, who worked alongside Andonovski both in youth soccer and with FCKC, sometimes went grocery shopping for the players who were too tired to do anything but collapse at home.
Andonovski and his wife, Biljana, met in North Macedonia. She joined him in the U.S. not long after he arrived. All three of their children were born in this country, but their family extends to anyone in the Kansas City area with ties to another home.
"The Macedonian, Serbian, Croatian -- the old Yugoslavian community here in Kansas City, you go to Vlatko's house," Williams said. "That's what you do. For birthday parties, for social events, you would go there. Singalongs and all of that stuff. They certainly brought that culture here.
"It's that close-knit unity and the respect that Vlatko shows to his friends and family that spreads over to his teams."
Bonds matter. Along with soccer, family was a constant. So even after he took the head-coaching job with Reign FC prior to the 2018 season, Andonovski's family remained in Kansas City. He commutes home for a couple of days between weekend games, loading fresh game film on his laptop to study on the flights.
His kids all play soccer. His oldest daughter, Dragana, will play at Missouri State next season. The family business rolls on. But it is important that his family knows where they are from, too. Not for their identity. Not for tradition for tradition's sake. He wants them to understand how much people matter.
"It's not necessarily just making them aware of where they come from or the culture," Andonovski said. "It's about developing relationships and friendships and keeping ties. Being close with your friends, doing things together, being united. That's what it's all about."
Which also helps explain why, after inviting FC Kansas City players over for dinner a few times in the early years of the NWSL, he also began bringing baked goods his wife made to practice.
"They were very delicious," Buczkowski said with no small degree of wistfulness.
A professional team isn't a college team -- or even a national team, for that matter -- when it comes to time spent together. People have lives and loved ones. They go their own ways. But both in Kansas City and now in the Pacific Northwest, Andonovski's teams are notable for their chemistry. They play well together. They work well together. They tolerate each other. That includes a coach who makes it abundantly clear that players aren't merely chess pieces.
"I think he gains a lot of respect from his players, and he does it in the right way," Buczkowski said. "Even though we hated him in the beginning for all the running."
Megan Rapinoe recently described her club coach as something close to a tactical savant, suggesting last week that even an NWSL setting doesn't fully allow him to "put on his full arsenal of what he knows." At the heart of that is a robust pragmatism. Total soccer might be the ideal, an attacking, possession style predicated on rock-solid defending, but with this season's injury-ravaged Reign only the most recent example, he adjusts to circumstances.
All of which is only as valuable as Andonovski's ability to communicate those tactics and preparations to players. Here again, Rapinoe cited his ability to connect with every level of the depth chart, to "meet them where they're at."
He brought out the best in Lauren Holiday, the World Cup-winning midfielder who earned MVP honors in Kansas City. He worked with Becky Sauerbrunn when she won three consecutive defender of the year awards. Yet he also scouted, signed and coached Bethany Balcer, an undrafted rookie from an NAIA school. She will likely be the second rookie of the year to play for him, the only two in NWSL history not drafted in the first round.
"He has the ability to set challenges for players that are just within their reach," Williams said. "If it's too easy, that's not going to motivate a player. If it's too difficult, same thing."
Lauren Barnes has played more minutes in the NWSL than anyone, a starter for Reign since the beginning. She has nothing but praise for former Reign coach Laura Harvey, on whose watch she was named the league's defender of the year in 2016. And yet Barnes believes the past two seasons saw her playing her best soccer.
"Vlatko's pushed me to another level I never thought I had in me," Barnes said. "From a defensive point of view, he's a master at what he does."