(Reuters) – Little more than four months on the job, U.S. women’s soccer head coach Vlatko Andonovski is earning high praise from team veterans, as the squad looks to build off the momentum of its fourth World Cup win and shake off the demons of an early exit at Rio 2016.
Andonovski, who took over in late October from longtime coach Jill Ellis, has made a smooth transition into the head coaching role, players said on Saturday, a day ahead of their SheBelieves Cup game against Spain.
The 43-year-old Macedonian-American set up a veteran-heavy Olympic qualifying roster in January, leveraging the talent pool’s experience on the road to Tokyo 2020.
“He’s done a fantastic job,” said defender Kelley O’Hara, who has competed in three World Cups with the team. “I think you can kind of see it in the way that we’re playing.”
Forward Carli Lloyd, who featured in four World Cups and called her 2017 injury and subsequent demotion to the bench “rock bottom” for her career, said she has seen a dramatic reversal in trajectory under Andonovski.
“There’s no judgment towards my age, at the end of the day. If I’m performing and I’m doing well in practice and games then essentially under him, you’re going to be rewarded,” said Lloyd, 37. “We’re really starting to gel and you’re starting to see this new product of football out on the field.
“I think, scary thing is, we’re only going to get better.”
Bumps in the road are inevitable, however, as the former coach of the NWSL’s OL Reign – formerly known as Reign FC – will be faced with the unenviable task of cutting the existing 20-person qualifying roster to 18 for the Tokyo Olympics.
But Julie Ertz, a two-time World Cup champion and the reigning U.S. Female Soccer Player of the Year, said fighting for playing time and a ticket to the Games had not thrown the team, which claimed back-to-back World Cup wins under Ellis.
“This team is always really competitive, everyone’s fighting for a spot all the time,” said Ertz. “Of course it’s competitive, but at the end of the day it’s for the team.”
Unsurprisingly, it was a sentiment shared by Andonovski himself.
“I love that fact that nobody feels locked on this roster,” he told reporters. “It’s a competition and they embrace it.”
The United States, which defeated England 2-0 in their first match of the SheBelieves Cup, face Spain on Sunday at 5:00 pm ET.
Reporting by Amy Tennery; Editing by Christopher Cushing