Vlatko Andonovski’s departure as head coach of the USWNT is official, and the mutual agreement with U.S. Soccer is certainly an amicable one despite the team’s early exit from the World Cup in the round of 16. Andonovski stepping down felt inevitable since that loss to Sweden on penalty kicks, with only the logistics of ending his contract ahead of the end of the year to be determined.
Thursday’s official news from U.S. Soccer raises a lot more questions than it actually answers, though at least a few were given. There was official confirmation that Twila Kilgore, an assistant coach with the USWNT since Feb. 2022, will serve as interim coach for now. She’ll lead the USWNT through a pair of friendlies set for September against South Africa in Cincinnati and Chicago. No other information was communicated about the rest of the coaching staff, though.
The federation confirmed Crocker will lead the search for a new head coach, though that raises its own question — why not Kate Markgraf, who is still (as of now) the general manager of the women’s program for U.S. Soccer? There’s no mention of her in Thursday’s release at all, and no quote on Andonovski — despite her leading the coaching search in 2019.
The federation also did not communicate a timeline, process, or any sense of what they might be looking for from a new head coach.
There’s also this sentence: “In advance of U.S. Soccer’s search for a new Sporting Director last year, Cone and U.S. Soccer CEO JT Batson initiated a review of the Sporting Department which led to changes in role and scope of the Sporting Department.” No other details are presented in how role and scope may have changed. Matt Crocker was hired in April to lead the federation as its sporting director, but there’s been no communication from the federation between that hire and now on how it may have impacted or restructured the women’s program.
His official start date for shifting fully over to his U.S. Soccer role was planned for Aug. 2, but he was allowed by Southampton FC to depart early and he started on May 28.
In a conversation with The Athletic shortly after his hire in April, Crocker said that he was still in learning mode around the USWNT and the women’s program, and trying to ensure that World Cup preparations were fully supported. But as a new employee, he didn’t want to disrupt the process that was already underway — and his first major task was to hire a head coach for the USMNT, a search that resulted in the return of Gregg Berhalter in June.
Crocker said then that the work ahead for him on the USWNT side would be “for the next cycle.”
That time is now here.
Revisiting the hiring process for Berhalter (round two) can perhaps offer some insight to how Crocker might approach a hiring process for the WNT role. Interviews for the MNT were described as “rigorous, intense” by Crocker.
“Everything from psychometrics (the science of measuring mental capacities) to abstract reasoning tests, logical thinking, to tests where candidates had the opportunity to prepare for certain elements around strategy and what they would do, how they would evolve the team, and then certain tests where they just literally had to deliver under pressure on that moment in time,” Crocker said. “It gave us an opportunity to get real rich data, and then it took us a period of time to sit down and effectively tune all of these numbers.”
Crocker does have a model in place from the MNT search, which includes style of play, leadership approach, relationship building and a coach’s ability to “create and drive a vision and identity.”
While the matters of vision and identity felt long necessary for the MNT, it has suddenly become all the more relevant for the WNT following the results of the 2021 Olympics and 2023 World Cup.
According to U.S. Soccer’s release, Crocker has completed an “in-depth analysis of the women’s national team program and development of a long-term strategy to ensure U.S. Soccer can continue its success,” resulting in an “operational roadmap that will guide the women’s program forward.”
As of Thursday though, none of that has been shared. It’s not to say that work hasn’t been done and a strategic outlook doesn’t exist, but from the outside, it’s still a vacuum from U.S. Soccer. Will it include greater investment and resources dedicated to player development, talent identification, the youth national teams, the grassroots level, coaching education — even the NWSL? All of those things should be on the table. But we simply don’t know what the plan is yet.
To be fair, this is a massive undertaking. As the federation promised in their statement on Aug. 6, “Our goal remains the same, to win. We are committed to surpassing the standard we helped to create and we will rise to meet the challenge.”
Eleven days later, and the first domino has fallen. But as of Thursday, the only information we have is what’s contained in U.S. Soccer’s official release on Andonovski stepping down. There’s no conference call for media to ask questions and there’s astonishingly little to sift through to figure out what else they might be working on.
They do have an immediate deadline for providing that strategic outlook in those two September friendlies. If there’s no plan presented externally before then, there’s only so much they could do to avoid questions while on the ground for those matches — and it would be deeply unfair to put players and an interim head coach in line to answer questions that are meant for the organization’s leadership.
But there’s another, bigger deadline in the Olympics on the horizon. There’s another major tournament a year out, a chance to flip the script on the narrative around U.S. Soccer. The vacuum of information can only last so long, simply because the timeline is out of U.S. Soccer’s control.
(Photo: Alex Grimm – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)