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What to know about U.S. women's coach Vlatko Andonovski, making his World Cup debut

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The U.S. Women's National Soccer team plays its first World Cup match against Vietnam in New Zealand on Friday. That game will kick off a quest for something never achieved in either women's or men's World Cup soccer history - a third straight championship. It will be up to coach Vlatko Andonovski to lead them. Greg Echlin has more on the coach with the tall task.

GREG ECHLIN, BYLINE: Forty-six-year-old Vlatko Andonovski is a naturalized U.S. citizen who settled in Kansas City in the early 2000s after coming from North Macedonia to play indoor professional soccer. When he arrived in the U.S., his soccer coach at the time, Zoran Savic, had similar Eastern European roots.

ZORAN SAVIC: I think I'm one of the last ones that if somebody asked me, where are you from, I said, well, I'm from former Yugoslavia. And what is that? I said, well, at one time, we had one country. Now we have seven.

ECHLIN: Zavic says he's not surprised to see Andonovski coaching the U.S. team in the Women's World Cup.

SAVIC: First of all, because the type of person he is, the type of integrity has, the work ethic that he has, the thirst for knowledge that he has and the pursuit of success that he has.

ECHLIN: In addition to Andonovski's diligent preparation, he's known for being direct and frank with his players. Defender Sofia Huerta, one of 14 newcomers on this year's World Cup team, says she likes knowing where she stands.

SOFIA HUERTA: He definitely has been vocal with me with what I'm good at, why I'm on the team and what I need to improve. And so, you know, he's laid that out for me very specifically.

ECHLIN: Andonovski says he's approaching this tournament with a singular focus.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VLATKO ANDONOVSKI: Our goal is to win the World Cup. There's no question about it. And I don't think that anyone on our team thinks anything different.

ECHLIN: To reach this point, there have been some bumps along the way. Andonovski succeeded Jill Ellis after the 2019 World Cup. He's been molding a team in transition from seasoned veterans to younger players with less experience. Even so, he says he's not going to dwell on their growing pains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDONOVSKI: When we talk about being honest, being transparent and communicate with them, it never goes with what they don't do well. There is always, how do we fix this?

ECHLIN: An example of that took place in Denver last summer as a tuneup against Colombia prior to the World Cup qualifying tournament. Lindsey Horan, thrust into a leadership role as co-captain of this year's World Cup team, was stopped on a penalty kick.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Oh.

ECHLIN: It was not one, but two missed opportunities by the U.S. on penalty kicks in that contest, even though the U.S. still won the match. Afterward, Andonovski avoided criticism of his players.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANDONOVSKI: A penalty kick - probably the best goalscoring opportunity that you can have as a team, but that's part of the game. And to give credit to the goalkeeper, I thought she did a great job.

ECHLIN: Ever since his women's professional coaching career began in 2013 in the National Women's Soccer League, Andonovski proved that success can also come with, as his players have said, simply being a nice guy. Huerta cites one instance when she recalls being told of making the World Cup roster.

HUERTA: There was a FaceTime, and I just wasn't expecting that at all. So it was very funny interaction between us specifically in that moment. I was like, are you FaceTiming me right now? But, no, he's amazing, and I'm so thankful that he gave me this opportunity.

ECHLIN: Now with Vlatko Andonovski at the helm, the U.S. women's team has an opportunity to make history in its sport. For NPR News, I'm Greg Echlin. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Greg Echlin