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Vlatko Andonovski departs Reign FC to become new USWNT head coach

Search for a new head coach is in the “second round” of discussions, according to co-owner Bill Predmore.

Reign FC Head Coach Vlatko Andonovski Portraits Photo by Jane Gershovich/ISI Photos/Getty Images

At last, the worst-kept secret in women’s soccer is official.

Vlatko Andonovski is the new head coach of the defending FIFA Women’s World Cup Champions, the United States Women’s National Team. US Soccer made the official announcement in New York City on Monday afternoon.

“It’s a huge honor and I’m very excited to get started with this group of players and staff as we work towards continued success for this program. All of the talented coaches and players that have come before have built a legendary tradition of excellence and I’m committed to working very hard to continue to move this program forward,” said Andonovski on accepting the position in U.S. Soccer’s release.

His appointment to arguably one of the most high-profile head coaching jobs in all of soccer means his run as Reign FC head coach ends at two seasons.

Andonovski was brought in after former Reign head coach Laura Harvey, the club’s manager through their first five years of existence, stepped down to pursue other opportunities. Those Harvey-led squads won two NWSL Shields, but also lost to the Andonovski-led FC Kansas City in back-to-back NWSL Championship games, in 2014 and 2015.

Andonovski’s arrival at Reign FC came with two objectives: reload a still solid, but veteran squad, and return to the playoffs. He accomplished that in both seasons as Reign FC coach, and while the team fell short of the ultimate goal of winning the NWSL Championship, the club is definitely back to being a player in the league.

If the two NWSL Championships and two NWSL Coach of the Year awards on his resume weren’t enough to draw attention on the national-team coaching level, then it’s for sure been his wizardry in player development in the seven seasons he’s coached in the NWSL, and there was no greater proof of that than in his final season coaching Reign FC.

It may sound like a broken record, but the major storyline of the 2019 Reign FC season was injuries.

An unprecedented level of bad luck saw six players designated to the Season-Ending Injury List. Then you have the regular knocks that players pick up over the course of a season. Add to that a little thing called the FIFA World Cup, where Reign FC had eight players representing their national teams while the NWSL season continued at home, and the club was tested like never before. Yet amazingly, Andonovski never allowed the team to hit rock bottom.

The injuries and absences were never used as an excuse as to why at times, a patchwork lineup was fielded. The team still competed in every match, and when the chase for the final playoff spot was on the line, Andonovski guided the team to the results they needed to see post-season play.

All along the way, Andonovski’s signature ability to discover and develop players was on display. This season, fans were introduced to the emergence of forward and NWSL Rookie of the Year nominee Bethany Balcer, NWSL Goalkeeper of the Year nominee Casey Murphy, Darian Jenkins, and Celia Jimenez Delgado. When the club needed to bring in players in response to the injuries and departures, we were introduced to Rosie White, Rebecca Quinn and Ifeoma Onumonu. The year before, Andonovski brought over veteran Danish defender Theresa Nielsen, who showed she can more than hang in the fast and physical NWSL. Steph Catley also joined the squad in Andonovski’s first year to bolster the left side of the field both defensively and when on the attack. Megan Oyster, Morgan Andrews, and Christen Westphal joined the team last season, each growing under Andonovski. Reign FC’s core veterans also benefitted from his Midas-like touch. Jess Fishlock, Bev Yanez, Lauren Barnes, and Megan Rapinoe all regularly offered unsolicited praise for how he helped them find new wrinkles to their games.

While it’s unfortunate we’ll never see the Liam Neeson impression he promised us should the club win the NWSL Championship under his stewardship, Andonovski inarguably left Reign FC in a better state than what he inherited before the 2018 season.

“I’m really happy for Vlatko and proud of him,” said Reign FC co-owner Bill Predmore in an interview with Ride of the Valkyries in wake of today’s announcement. “Vlatko’s one of the good guys and it’s a huge opportunity for him. I think he’ll be brilliant at it and I’m glad he’s getting the opportunity.”

Obviously Predmore wished Andonovski wasn’t leaving the team, but as he previously told us, neither he nor the club was going to get in the way of such an opportunity if it arose. Predmore said when Andonovski’s name was first reported as a candidate not too long after Jill Ellis stepped down from the position after winning back to back FIFA World Cups, he knew the chatter around Andonovski would only increase. To everyone’s credit, it never became a distraction at the club, especially as the team prepared for their playoff semifinal against the North Carolina Courage.

“Obviously [the players] are reading Twitter like everybody else, so they had a pretty good idea of what’s going on. It’s not like it was ever a secret that it was happening. Although he didn’t specifically address that he was interviewing for the job, my assumption is all the players knew that the possibility existed,” said Predmore about the early days of the coaching search.

A team meeting was held a week before the playoff game against North Carolina, where Andonovski and Predmore shared that US Soccer had presented a formal job offer, and while there were still details for Vlatko to negotiate with the federation, he was likely going to accept. “We didn’t want the players hearing through Twitter or some other venue and then that messing up the [playoff game] preparations,” said Predmore.

“They were happy for him. They genuinely love the guy and want to see him be happy. They think this was a great opportunity for Vlatko and his family,” said Predmore describing the player’s reactions.

So where does this leave Reign FC and their search for a new head coach?

Predmore says the search has been ongoing for about seven weeks. While he did not disclose any names during our chat, Predmore did say the range of individuals he’s talked with spans coaches at the college level, club level (primarily in Europe), and international level.

“The goal – I love Vlatko, I think he’s brilliant, but I want to find somebody better,” said Predmore. “That’s gotta be the objective. Given who he is, that’s going to be a very difficult task, but that’s the problem for me to solve right now.”

Outsiders might raise their eyebrows at that quote and perhaps cynically say, “Good luck,” but Predmore is confident he can make it three-for-three in hiring quality coaches to not only keep Reign FC’s standard high but hopefully take it to the next level.

“It’s my job to figure that out. I want to believe I can do that. The bar is high. There’s a little bit of science to it, a little bit of magic, and a little bit of luck. I’d say with Laura, I probably leaned more on luck to get that one right. With Vlatko, it was a little bit easier. We learned first-hand how good he was at his job, so it really wasn’t a difficult choice. I don’t know that there’s any particular pressure because of the previous choices. The pressure comes from knowing we’ve got to get better. We got to get someone great in that spot. We’ve got to figure out how to make the role attractive enough.”

While still only in what Predmore described as “the second round” of discussions with candidates, he said the objective is to have someone signed by the end of the year, and that some of Reign FC’s longest tenured players will be involved in the process of picking the next Reign FC head coach.

“We did exit interviews the last couple of days and I do think [the players’] perspective on this is important. I think there will be a small group of them that will have an opportunity to talk to maybe the last two or three (candidates), and I think they’re going to have valuable perspective and insight,” said Predmore. “They’ve got to believe in whoever it is, and I think the easiest way for them to do that is to be part of the process.”

It’s reminiscent of the season-ticket holder kickoff party just before the 2018 season began. A good deal of Reign FC fans were meeting Andonovski for the first time and getting to know him personally. There was understandably some anxiety with the club entering a new era with a new coach, yet midfielder Jess Fishlock was said it best in terms of why fans need not worry.

“If we didn’t believe in what we were doing, we would just leave,” she noted on that March 2018 evening.

It’s understandable that Reign FC fans are once again entering an offseason with trepidation of the unknown. Who is going to lead this team into 2020 and through an all-but-confirmed expansion draft? Yes, this club finished the season with an unprecedented 31 players under contract, and as much as so many players were needed just to have healthy bodies available to play, the roster was also constructed with an expansion draft in mind. Certainly the next Reign FC head coach will be selected in part because of their vision of the roster and what they think they can achieve with it, but they will also have that position because the players that will make up the 2020 roster will have also bought into the vision.

It is bittersweet that Vlatko Andonovski has departed Reign FC, but one of the best coaches in NWSL history is departing Reign FC to take the helm of one of the best jobs the beautiful game has to offer. The expectations will be high, but Andonovski has shown an ability to exceed lofty expectations before.

Andonovski may no longer be coaching Reign FC, but it’s highly unlikely we’ve seen the last of him at Cheney Stadium. It’s just that next time he’ll likely be wearing a polo shirt with the USA crest and four stars over it, observing national team mainstays and perhaps the next generation of USWNT stars.

“I’m very grateful for the two years I was here, grateful for the opportunity Bill and Teresa [Predmore] gave me. Grateful to the players for working with me and giving me their best and allowing me to be the best. Grateful for the coaching staff who were with me in long days and late nights,” reflected Andonovski on his time with Reign FC. “And absolutely grateful to the fans for all of the support in the two years.”

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