Will the “Vlatko Era” Continue the USWNT's Success?
The USWNT has been graced with a large pool of talented players throughout its history. This talent has facilitated the team finishing no worse than third place in all eight World Cups, reaching five finals and winning four. The Olympic record is equally impressive, with the team attaining the medal round in five of six Olympics and gold medaling in four.
So, it is not surprising that there is renewed enthusiasm surrounding the USWNT with the Tokyo games being a few months away. Prompted by the Olympic limited roster of 18 players, articles appear like clockwork about the rationale for selecting one player over another. While the debate raises the team’s visibility and expectations from the fans, there is more occurring in the background than Vlatko Andonovski finalizing a roster. The fact is that this year's quadrennial tournament marks the start of a new era for the USWNT.
Regardless of gender, successful cycles for most national teams last about 10 years. The reason is simple: A core group of top players provides a foundation for a national team when there are few squad mutations that may deter its success. Skilled role players are added or subtracted from the team in that cycle and are bolstered by the strength of that core. Yes, winning breeds success; unfortunately, it is never permanent. Players age and retire, while other nations build their squads to unseat the champion. What is noteworthy is that the United States has been able to sustain its competitiveness over 30 years. Only Brazil, Germany and Italy on the men’s side can arguably be compared with what the USWNT has achieved. Other WoSo national teams have challenged U.S. dominance: Norway’s great team of the '90s; Germany’s juggernaut during the first decade of the 21st century, winning two World Cups in a row; and the magnificent “Nadeshiko” Japanese National Team, which faced the USWNT in three successive quadrennial finals at WC 2011, the 2012 Olympics and WC 2015. Other national teams have had opportunities, such as Sweden, Brazil, France and England, but faltered in the quest. What differentiated them from the others came down to chemistry, underscored by coaching. Yet none left the imprint on WoSo that the United States has over 30 years. “Title IX Era” 1991-1999: The U.S. established its dominance thanks in large part to the university feeder system providing a cadre of top tier players. Yet it was the two coaches, Anson Dorrance and Tony DiCicco, who made critical tactical decisions that secured the wins at World Cups in ’91 and ’99 respectively, as well as at the 1996 Olympics, the first to feature women’s soccer. I recall my disbelief at the first U.S. match of WC 1999 at the Meadowlands upon realizing that Michelle Akers was playing as a defensive midfielder. My concerns were vanquished later, as Akers nullified China’s indomitable Sun Wen for 90 minutes in the final before being subbed in extra time due to injury. “Dark Years Era” 2000-2007: The “99ers” raised our expectations for the immediate future, but the team managed just one win out of four major tournaments, at the 2004 Olympics. Yet the two coaches, April Heinrichs and Greg Ryan, were criticized far more for how the team performed than for the losses themselves. American 100+ international goal scorer Tiffeny Milbrett quit immediately following WC 2003, calling Heinrichs' tactics “limiting,” “unimaginative” and “stifling.” Ryan made the mind-boggling decision to start Briana Scurry over Hope Solo in the Brazil semifinal at WC 2007, where the U.S. suffered the worst defeat in its history, losing 0-4 as the team had fallen to its nadir.
"Resurgence, Establishing a Dynasty” 2008-2019: Club soccer has had numerous team dynasties, with Olympique Lyonnais being the obvious example in the women’s game. It is far more difficult to be anointed with that moniker as a national team. Still, the United States has won two World Cups and two Olympic gold medals in this 11-year span, deservedly achieving that recognition. Moreover, the USWNT joined Germany and Brazil's men's teams as the only ones to appear in three WC finals in a row. The achievement resulted from an infusion of top tier players and their versatility, as well as the tactical decisions made by the two coaches of this era, Pia Sundhage and Jill Ellis. Here are the critical coaching moves:
Sundhage quickly changed the team’s direct play focus by emphasizing passing and technique and employing a 4-2-3-1 formation, leveraging the midfield double pivot. Heather O'Reilly characterized it as bringing a "...European flair in terms of east-west, not just north and south,” Coupled with Solo's highlight saves in the final versus Brazil, the U.S. won the Olympic gold medal in 2008. Sundhage also demonstrated tactical flexibility by switching to a 4-4-2 in both WC 2011 and the 2012 Olympics to support Abby Wambach with a partner forward (who better than Alex Morgan?).
While Ellis shepherded the team to its WC 2015 victory, it was the 2016 Olympics loss to Sweden that became Ellis’ moment of truth. Over the next three years, she displayed her mettle, determination and tactical acumen. She instilled into the players the capability to execute multiple tactical formations to address different game situations seamlessly during a match, a factor that did not go unnoticed by her competitive counterparts and analysts alike as the team celebrated its victory in 2019. The journey was aided by the team’s depth and versatility and by a group mentality that every team member expects to win every game. The USWNT earned the right to be called the team of the decade.
The "Vlatko" Era Begins: Many coaches retire after a WC, particularly upon winning, so Ellis’ decision to quit was not a shock. Kate Markgraf, general manager for women’s soccer at the USSF, hired Vlatko with the priority of raising the technical level of the team while maintaining its competitive stature.
The challenges he faces to achieve these goals are daunting: (i) inheriting an aging team. The USWNT was the “oldest” squad at WC 2019. (ii) US Soccer divesting itself of control of the NWSL operations while providing WNT players the choice of being salaried by the federation or contracting on their own with their club teams. The latter option reduces the number of times the team is able to practice together and compete in matches as compared with the previous model. (iii) UEFA teams attracting U.S. players to Europe via lucrative contracts, limiting their availability to the FIFA windows. Any evaluation of Vlatko's job to date is limited by the few matches that have been played. The good news is that the team has remained undefeated. Besides providing young players the opportunity to experience USWNT camps and games, he did the same for veterans he believed earned the opportunity to break into the ranks of the senior team. More importantly, a careful review of the last two SheBelieves Cups provides insight into the philosophy Vlatko is seeking to implement.
First, the center backs are tasked with building out from the back. To that end, the defensive midfielder acts as the pivot. While the center backs pass horizontally, the presence of the defensive midfielder is to act as a focal point either as a distraction or receiver of a pass. When possession does reach Julie Ertz from her defenders or the keeper, she then looks for one of the midfielders or wide players to pass to. A subtle addition to her responsibilities but one that facilitates meaningful forward possession.
The other change appears to be more impactful: Vlatko enhanced the high press first utilized by Ellis, making it exceedingly difficult for teams to build out of the back. The "blindside press" was used in both SheBelieves campaigns, as well as against the Netherlands in the late 2020 friendly. Those that are familiar with ice hockey will recognize its similarity to the 1-2-2 forechecking system.
The new method includes an additional forward or midfielder from the weak side, hence the name "blindside press." When used effectively, it eliminates options in the opponent's defensive third by squeezing out any space they may seek to use. In essence, by condensing the high press to one side of the field, it forces the opponent to lose possession by an errant pass, a straight tackle or kicking the ball downfield or out of bounds. The following brief YouTube video from the SheBelieves matches in 2020, produced by soccer analyst Matt Ford, explains the methodology. It utilizes stop action and screen captions. Watch it in full screen mode … It is a worthwhile four minutes!
These changes alone cannot guarantee success. Vlatko will require a replenishment of quality players as more of the existing roster ages or retires. One cannot predict whether Catarina Macario or Sophia Smith will become the future offensive threats of the USWNT. Who will replace the indispensable Ertz as a defensive mid should she get injured? Will Tierna Davidson become the defensive stalwart we rely upon when Becky Sauerbrunn calls it a day? I could go on, but it is only conjecture at this stage. That said, the “99ers” inspired a new generation of stars that continued the USWNT success. Having watched young girls cheering in awe at their heroes at the NYC parade in the summer of 2019, coupled with the initiatives already undertaken by Vlatko to change the team’s strategic thrust, I believe the outlook is positive.