Andonovski, One-on-One: Leading 'warriors and artists' at FC Kansas City

ISI Photos-Tony Quinn

From unknown to two-time NWSL champion, FC Kansas City's leader has earned his fame the hard way.

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PORTLAND, Ore. -- Vlatko Andonovski was an unknown in U.S. soccer before landing the head coaching position with FC Kansas City as the NWSL started in 2013. What followed was a run of triumphs that branded the nascent club as the league’s best, with back-to-back titles in 2014 and 2015 vaulting the Blues into a conversation with the best women’s professional teams this country has known.

Players like Becky Sauerbrunn, Lauren Holiday, Nicole Barnhart and Amy Rodriguez, all long-time United States internationals, will always be at the center of that success, but Andonovski built the team. He was the first to play Holiday as a No. 10, guiding her to an MVP in 2013, and he helped Sauerbrunn solidify her place as the standard for defending in women’s soccer. In the process, his teams drew acclaim for an attractive style that set them apart.

Last season, Kansas City experienced its first step backward, unable to overcome the absences of Holiday (retirement) and Rodriguez (pregnancy) while missing the playoffs. This season, with Rodriguez out again (torn ACL), Kansas City is still fighting to find its 2015 form.

Andonovski, however, remains one of the most respected coaches in U.S. soccer, ranking highest among NWSL bosses in our #FFT25BestCoaches countdown. With his team visiting Portland, we caught up with the Macedonia-born coach:

FOURFOURTWO: You’re No. 12 on our #FFT25BestCoaches list, top among NWSL coaches. You see that – you see the list of names in front of you – what comes to mind?

ANDONOVSKI: They’re big names. They’re names I have learned from on different occasions, just watching a game or watching their practices. It’s just flattering to have your name among some of the best.

FFT: It’s an interesting situation, for you, because the NWSL is a young league, and five years ago, you’re coaching in the [Major Arena Soccer League]. I’m sure this is exactly what you thought your career path was going to be, right?

VA: It’s funny, because I wasn’t even a head coach in the MASL. I remember, five years ago, I was named the head coach for FC Kansas City and started reading some of the articles about that, and a lot of people were right. The question was: Who is Vlatko Andonovski? The first time I read that, I was like, “Really?” But then I thought about. Who am I, in this game? I used that more as motivation than anything else; not to prove the people wrong, because they were right. I just wanted to prove to myself I could do this.

FFT: I know you from the NWSL, and I know a little from your past (playing in Macedonia, U.S. indoor soccer). How did you transition into coaching?

VA: Ever since I remember, I wanted to be a coach. I remember being a player on the field, and sometimes even my teammates would say, ‘OK, we have a coach. We don’t want to hear it from you, constantly.’ I always wanted to be the one that would organize the team, whether it was practice or a pickup game, or even in a regular game. I knew I wanted to be a coach.

Ever since I retired, I was just looking for an opportunity to better myself through education, through observing practices, and through games. Luckily for me, I had an opportunity to observe numerous Sporting Kansas City practices, and I travelled all around the world to watch practices, games, talk to coaches as much as possible.

Even right now, before the season, I spent time with the Chicago Fire and Veljko Paunovic in Florida. I flew down there and asked if I could attend practices. It was great because I got to learn from one of the best.

FFT: He’s the one ranked one spot above you!

VA: They’re doing good! Obviously, it was an amazing opportunity.

The desire to be a coach moved into, ‘Okay, what do I need to do to be a coach,’ and to better myself and looking for opportunities, and making the most out of it.

Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos

Daniel Bartel-ISI Photos

FFT: What coaches inspired you? What coaches, when you watched their teams play, got you thinking about how do they do that, or what are they motivated by?

VA: It’s not going to be a crazy answer if I say Pep Guardiola, but that’s someone who influenced me, just because I grew up in his era! I grew up as a player watching Pep Guardiola, but then as a coach, I also grew up in the Pep Guardiola era. That’s someone who really inspired me.

A coach that I’ve followed very, very closely, as well, is Marcelo Bielsa. I just admire his methodology and attention to detail. Obviously, you can never be Bielsa – maybe somebody else can! – but I try to get as close as possible to his methodology.

FFT: They’re probably two of the most aggressive coaches in the world with how they try to occupy and manipulate space. It reminds me of what one of your peers said about your team’s play: “They play the most pure brand of soccer in the league.” What does that mean to you, when you hear the word “pure?”

VA: When I started coaching, my goal was to make a change – make a change in the women’s game. I wanted to make the women’s game as beautiful it could be. And, I can’t remember where, somebody wrote that our style was refreshing for the eye. That was a compliment, for me. With that, I felt like we already won. ‘Kansas City is a breath of fresh air.’ I shared it with the team, and said, “listen, we’re changing the game. We’re making an impact.”

Five years later, if you look back, we haven’t been as successful in the last year or so, but we still have the same identity. That’s who we are. Even if we tried to change it, it would be hard, because the players that are coming are embracing the idea.

FFT: I had forgotten how close you actually got to the playoffs last year. I think people actually associate last year with you losing your attack. Not only that, the one player who most exemplified the style you talked about retired. Would it be crazy to say last year’s coaching job was your best?

VA: I’m glad you’re saying that, because in informal conversations, I’ve said last year I did a better job than in the two years we won it. I had to be a lot more analytical, a lot more detail orientated, and I to come up with a lot of things that I never had to worry about when I had Lauren Holiday and Amy Rodriguez and Jen Buczkowski and Leigh Ann Robinson and Amy LePeilbet.

Last year, I had to be creative enough but simplify for the young players so they can get things done. Like you said, it was probably the best job I’ve ever done.

FFT: It gets to another weird thing about your profession. As much as you’re judged by people who write your checks, you’re also judged by the points column, and there are always limits to what you can do. What do people like me, and fans, miss when we derive so much of a coach’s stature from that one number at the end of the season?

VA: There are so many little things. Last year, some of those things were developing some of the young players. We had rookies, players that had never played in the league, players who had been kicked off of other teams who we picked up.

Even this year, we’re talking about players like Lo LaBonta, who was not good enough to play in this league, then she came to Kansas City and became a regular starter. You have Brittany Ratcliffe. She was not good enough in Boston. She went to Chicago – was not good enough in Chicago – and she’s one of our main starters.

For me, that’s a success. I’m not saying I’m the only one. Other coaches have done a great job with their players. I really respect that. I think part of what this league was formed for was those kinds of players, so they don’t slip through the cracks.

Even national team players. Becky Sauerbrunn, from the first day I ever saw her training, I thought, ‘this has got to be the best player I’ve ever seen.’ But she wasn’t a starter on the national team. Then she became the best defender in the world, and one of the best players in the world.

Usually we have one artist. Lauren was one of them. We know the artist will change the game with one idea.

I didn’t make Becky Sauerbrunn. I didn’t create Becky Sauerbrunn. The structure, the environment, allowed Becky Sauerbrunn to reveal her qualities. Lauren Holiday, the same thing. Lauren Holiday was Lauren Holiday before she came to Kansas City. I didn’t have to do anything.

Our job as coaches is to act more as facilitators. We need to create an environment where people can expose their creativity. I think that is something coaches should be judged by. Those are things the public should be looking at.

FFT: If there is one player that seems to exemplify your philosophy, it’s Lauren. Lauren had been coached by Tony DiCicco, Pia Sundhage, Tom Sermanni, Jill Ellis, and she was mostly a forward before moving into a deep midfield role. I remember Lauren saying one of the first conversations she ever had with you, you said she was going to be a 10. To what extent does that exemplify your philosophy about how the game should be played?

VA: The first conversation I had with her, I said, “We are going to build our game through you. You are going to be on the ball as much as you want. Every player, before they pass to anyone else, will first look at you.” That was our thing. We knew that Lauren was willing to take the responsibility. She always had the ability to make everyone around her better, which was why everybody accepted what we did.

In our club, we divide the players into warriors and artists. Usually we have one artist, or two artists on the team. Lauren was one of them. We, as warriors, are willing to adapt around the artist. We know the artist will change the game with one idea. We are willing to do whatever it takes to help the artist be at her best.

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports

FFT: We have a list that has MLS coaches, international coaches, NWSL coaches, NASL coaches. Do you think it’s fair to compare those coaches? Some people, in our reporting, said it’s not fair to compare an NWSL coach to an MLS coach.

VA: I do think it’s fair. That gives more respect to the women’s game. The NWSL is the highest league – the top women’s league – and should be compared to MLS. At the same time, in the NWSL, we have World Cup champions. We have players that are at the very top of their sport. I think by comparing the leagues, you’re saying that ‘You guys are up there, and the coaches will be treated the same.’

FFT: Do you think there is a meaningful difference when you’re coaching men versus when you are coaching women, as far as the skills you need to succeed in those two realms?

VA: I’m sure there is. Because of the different physicalities, there are going to be certain skills you’re going to need if you choose to play a more physical team. But for the most part, the principles should be the same. The methodologies should be the same. The philosophies can be the same, regardless if you coach a women’s team or a men’s team. People do not understand how good the women’s game is.

FFT: What would you say are some of your weaknesses?

VA: It may be a weakness, it may be a strength – I don’t know – but I get too attached emotionally to the team, to the players, and I have a hard time cutting or releasing a player.

I feel like cutting a player, I give up on a player, and that just absolutely kills me. I always want to do as much as I can, put in as much time, and give every opportunity to the player, try to develop her in becoming the best possible player. If I don’t do that, it’s me giving up on the player.

I have been criticized in the past, that I need to be a little sharper, but I just can’t do it. It’s a weakness of mine, but at the same time, maybe it’s a strength. I think the players believe, when they come to Kansas City, they’ll get a good, fair treatment and develop as players.

FFT: Last question I have: What do you see for your future? You’re only 40. You have 25, maybe 30 more years of this. Very few coaches spend that time in one place. What would you like to do over the next, say, 10 years of your career?

VA: First and foremost, I want to finish my Master’s degree. I’m three classes away.

FFT: What’s your Masters in?

VA: Soccer.

FFT: Soccer? There is a school that has a Master’s in soccer?

VA: Yes. The University of Ohio.

FFT: That’s amazing!

VA: The next on the list is the pro license.

I want to be the most educated coach in the country. I want to give myself the best chance to be the best. Whether I’m going to be the best, that’s a different story, but I want to give myself the best chance. Whether it’s learning from the best, getting the best education, working hard, whatever it is. I will do whatever I can to be the best.

The second goal is to progress in my career. In the short term, it’s FC Kansas City. That’s where my focus is: winning the championship; developing the players; making them the best they can be. The long-term goal is wherever God wants me to go. Wherever he wants me to be, I put all my faith in him.

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