To comprehend FC Kansas City head coach Vlatko Andonovski’s success in the National Women’s Soccer League, you have to understand a couple of things.
The first is his obsession with game tape. He has watched thousands of hours and can tell you about plays that happened years ago. His wife and kids watch video with him at home. He might watch one game two, three or four times.
Andonovski came into the NWSL somewhat anonymously, the head coach of an indoor soccer team, the Missouri Comets. He had plenty to learn about the women’s game, so he retreated to his basement and watched game tape long into the night. He’s an insomniac anyway, but this hobby certainly didn’t help his sleeping patterns.
“When he first got here, he put in hours and hours of research, watching old tapes of players in the league,” said defender Becky Sauerbrunn, who has been with FC Kansas City and Andonovski since the franchise’s inception in 2013. “When I first met him, he could recall plays I’d made in previous games from years ago, which is pretty crazy.”
Four years and two NWSL championships later, Andonovski and FCKC have just finished their worst season in franchise history at 7-8-5. They will (or may choose not to) watch the NWSL championship game this weekend. It’s the first time in the four-year history of the league that Kansas City won’t be participating in the postseason.
As FCKC gears up for a comeback in 2017, Andonovski’s work ethic and signature attention to detail will be more important than ever.
Which brings us to the second thing to understand about Andonovski: How he has responded to this season is the best possible illustration of his personality, which helped build FCKC into what it is in the first place.
“For me, as difficult as it was, I was almost excited because I thought this was a good test for me,” Andonovski said. “Spiritually, it was a good test.
“If we define success by winning or losing, I was not successful this year. But if we’re defining success by other parameters, then it was a good year. All the challenges we had, we overcame most of them.”
The past couple months have been one of the hardest stretches of Andonovski’s life. Forget soccer for a moment: Toward the end of a losing season, in the middle of the sleepless nights spent trying find a way to turn it around, Andonovski lost his father, Dragi. The two had been incredibly close, often talking on the phone three times a day in spite of the time difference between Kansas City and their home country of Macedonia.
An ocean away, the father watched every FCKC match on YouTube, even if it meant staying up until 3 or 4 in the morning. After each one, win or lose, Vlatko would slide behind the wheel of his car and call Dragi on the way home. It didn’t even matter what they were talking about — it just mattered that Dragi was on the line.
When Vlatko got the call that Dragi had suffered a fatal heart attack, his world crumbled. Dragi was the man who taught him that relationships were the true measure of success, that work ethic was paramount, that soccer was meant to be a beautiful sport. The two were best friends.
“I miss him all the time, but there are moments when I really miss him,” Andonovski said. “They became a habit; it’s almost like I need those phone calls. … He was the one who made sure we had good family chemistry, tight relationships, and that’s something that actually has helped me throughout life in everything I do, whether it’s having a family on my own or coaching a team.”
Dragi was a CEO back in Macedonia. He was the kind of company leader who would go into the office on the weekends just to say “hi” to the employees working overtime. Vlatko would sometimes accompany his dad to the office — the two were usually on their way to some kind of a soccer game — and ask, “Why are you going in? It’s the weekend.”
“He was the CEO of the biggest transportation company in the country, and I remember him going under a bus to help his workers and coming out all oiled up,” Andonovski said. “He was not afraid or ashamed to get the job done.”
As it turned out, like father, like son. As he grew older, Vlatko came to understand the work ethic of his father, then embodied it in his own career.
Now, as FCKC begins a crucial offseason, that foundation is more important than ever for the man tasked with righting the ship.
At a recent FCKC practice, Andonovski had just hit a rocket of a goal into the back of the net. Wearing a red scrimmage vest — he nearly always participates in his team’s drills — he raised his arms, ready to gloat.
“How good am I?” he called out to his players. They’re accustomed to his antics. Some rolled their eyes and shook their heads.
Most would say their coach who spends hours in his basement watching game tape has something of a compulsive personality. And Andonovski does have his tics: He meticulously measures out where the cones are to be placed for practice, for example, to the point where general manager Huw Williams spent most of the season going behind him and moving one cone at a time, just to drive him crazy.
In addition to his analytical side, Andonovski has a knack for creating that family atmosphere his dad taught him to value. He jokes with his players, talks trash and runs around the practice field like he’s still a teenager.
The players appreciate it: When Andonovski turned 40 last month, they brought him cookies and a birthday balloon, poking fun at him for being over the hill.
“Coming to your first professional team, you’re a little nervous,” said defender Katie Bowen, an FCKC rookie who also plays for the New Zealand national team. “But he always joins in practice; he’s always in there shooting, like, ‘Hey girls, let me show you how it’s done,’ and he’ll whiff it and be like, ‘Oh that was a flat ball.’ Then he’ll hit a screamer and be like, ‘Yeah, that’s how it’s done,’ and just walk off the field. He’s a great guy, and I feel lucky to play for him.”
The players have also bought into Andonovski’s system — a possession-oriented style of soccer in which defense is at a premium. The philosophy has won two NWSL trophies.
Even seasons like this one prove that the team trusts in what Andonovski has built. FCKC started 2016 winless in its first six games. In the first 10 matches of the season, the Blues accumulated 10 points and scored just six goals. They spent time at the bottom of the NWSL table.
“When we started losing in the beginning, I didn’t want to go in and change everything just because we lost a few games, because I know this (system) works,” Andonovski said. “Even more importantly, everybody else around you knows it works. It was good that nobody panicked.”
Never mind that FCKC didn’t have its two veteran forwards (Amy Rodriguez and Sydney Leroux both sat out the season because of pregnancy). In the final half of the season, FCKC doubled its goal output (scoring 12), accumulated 16 points, and finished just two wins below the playoff red line.
And Andonovski’s team had the second-best goals-against average (1.00) in the league.
Moments after a recent FCKC home match, Andonovski is rushing to leave. He has finished his session with the media, checked in with the players, grabbed the rehydration drink he consumes after every match. He searches for his bag, explaining that he’s headed to a nearby college game. Scouting knows no offseason.
Despite this season’s disappointment, Andonovski is already thinking about 2017. Preparation for the draft starts now, and Andonovski scouts for potential draft picks as much as anyone in the organization.
The extra work is par for the course. It’s not by accident that Andonovski went from anonymous to champion in the span of two years.
“Most of the people involved initially (in NWSL) were people who had been around women’s soccer a while,” said Williams, FCKC’s general manager who also served on Andonovski’s coaching staff. “We would go to meetings, and we’d be by ourselves because we didn’t know anybody. All of that was a challenge for Vlatko. He’s very motivated, and he put in the extra work to be the best he could be. He’ll do that again. He truly lives this job.”
In his spare time, Andonovski is studying for a master’s degree in soccer coaching (yes, you can get an advanced degree in soccer). He has three trophies (two in the NWSL, one in the Major Indoor Soccer League), but the climb upward doesn’t end for him.
Since the loss of his father, though, Andonovski has gained more perspective about balancing his ambitions.
“The last conversation I had with my dad was actually about the master’s degree,” Andonovski said. “I told him my plans, that I want to see if I can finish it a little bit sooner. His last sentence after that was, ‘You probably need to relax a little bit and slow down. You have time. Don’t rush it.’ ”
As he heads into his fourth offseason with FCKC, Andonovski’s response to his father’s advice is twofold. After leaving his position as head coach of the Comets earlier this summer, Andonovski does have extra time for his family and maybe even the occasional moment of relaxation.
But Andonovski is also his father’s son: There may not be a bus to crawl under and fix, but there is work to be done, most of it unglamorous. Outworking everyone else is part of his DNA.
FCKC, once again, has something to prove. Andonovski has surprised a league before, and he’s ready for the challenge of doing it again.
“Sleepless nights are always with me because I’m either thinking and trying to figure out a way to fix it, or when it’s going well, I’m trying to figure out a way to make it better,” he said. “When the results were not going our way, I found myself working harder.
“This season, even though it may not look like it, helped me be a better coach. … I don’t see myself slowing down. I don’t know if I know how to slow down.”