COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was not a perfect start, but any imperfections in the United States’ 3-2 win against Sweden that ushered in the Vlatko Andonovski era were more telling than a flawless first step would have been.
There wasn’t frustration after two late goals from Sweden made for a fraught final quarter of an hour on an already frigid night in Columbus. There wasn’t any doubt about direction. There wasn’t hesitation about the hire or anything tepid about the endorsements.
“I think we’re all smiling, we’re all enjoying it,” Carli Lloyd said of the early days of the new regime. “Not enjoying the cold, but yeah, it was good. I was happy.”
Good luck finding a more compelling example of why that view was unanimous in Andonovski’s first game than the captain who scored twice while playing in her 287th game. Lloyd has now scored for five national team coaches. Only Kristine Lilly scored for more. Yet the most familiar player on the field was also the one whose performance most clearly illustrated the possibilities of a new day.
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Lloyd had her own moment of imperfection, sending a penalty kick over the crossbar late in the second half to miss out on her 21st hat trick, but the 37-year-old was otherwise unshakeable as one of only two non-defenders to play all 90 minutes for the Americans.
“She scored two goals, but on top of that she assisted on a goal,” Andonovski said. “And she was involved in the buildup as well. At times she was [occupying] different pockets to help us in the buildup and was very successful there. So overall I was very happy with her performance.”
Lloyd made the case all year that her play merited starting minutes for the national team. The problem for any player on the U.S. is that there are more players whose play merits starts than there are starting roles. In that regard, she was boxed in by Alex Morgan, the incumbent in the No. 9 position as the central forward, and Rose Lavelle, the rising star in the No. 10 attacking midfield position that Lloyd played for so long and to such fanfare in the 2015 Women’s World Cup.
So she bided her time and did all that was asked of her, appearing in every World Cup game but starting only once.
Lavelle remains an ascending star, and the midfield remains crowded with candidates for playing time. But Morgan is out until at least late spring, the Silver Boot winner in the most recent World Cup expecting her first child in April. That leaves Lloyd, who earned rave reviews for her play with Sky Blue FC after returning from the World Cup, with the potential for a lot of minutes.
Asked after the game what he wants from the No. 9 role, Andonovski noted, “goals.” But if the game against Sweden is any indication — and Andonovski said the plan was both tailored to the specific opponent but also reflective of his larger aims — that role also comes with a lot of freedom.
“I think she can [connect in the attack] with us more,” midfielder Lindsey Horan said of Lloyd. “Before, a lot of our game was transition and a little bit more direct. I think with Carli’s technical ability, playing with her and trying to get the 8 and 10 around her is very important. And the way that she can hold up the ball and then get in behind afterward is just another element to her game that we haven’t necessarily seen. We’ve seen bits and pieces, but I think now you’ll get to see it more.”
The opening goal came on a well-timed run from Lloyd to slip behind Swedish center back Magdalena Eriksson and be in position to finish Christen Press’ picture perfect pass. The team’s second came with Lloyd dropping back into the middle of the field to collect a header from Tobin Heath and return the favor with a pass that sent Press on her way to her 50th career goal.
The last saw Lloyd, who has played with Heath for the better part of a decade, sense that her teammate would flick a contested header toward goal and make the necessary run. Gathering the ball, she chipped a shot over Swedish goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl for a 3-0 lead.
Against a top-tier opponent, albeit one missing as many key players as the U.S., Lloyd was involved all over the field. She was a presence and a part of something. She wasn’t an isolated figure waiting near Sweden’s box.
“I’m allowed to pop off the line and come into the channel,” Lloyd said. “Whether that’s checking off into the space in front of the back line, being able to turn, being able to thread a through ball. If I have somebody at my back, I’ve just got to lay it, connect it to a midfielder. … It’s that fluidness of being able to interchange. That’s the game of football. You see it everywhere around the world, and that’s what he’s trying to implement.”
Maybe it’s why Lloyd was smiling as she jogged onto the field for the start of Thursday’s game, standing at midfield and clapping encouragement to teammates. It’s why Casey Short, who helped set up the opening goal and drew the penalty kick that Lloyd failed to covert, offered glowing words of praise for the coach after playing 90 minutes as outside back. And why Andi Sullivan echoed those sentiments after the midfielder came on as a second half substitute.
Players are excited to play for the new coach. Mostly because of who he is, but perhaps also partly because he’s still new enough to be an avatar of whatever players want him to be. It is still worth pointing out that Jill Ellis won two World Cups doing it her way. But as she noted in stepping away, change is necessary.
The initial buzz will, of course, wear off. Not everyone will be happy forever. Andonovski’s renowned personal skills will be tested as the team goes through Olympic qualifying and, if successful, trims the roster to 18 players. Perhaps that test will even come from the No. 9 position, where Press could compete for minutes or Morgan could crowd the picture with the return she’s intent on making next summer.
It’s only going to get more difficult. But for a night, the Andonovski era was as advertised. And even a perfectionist was happy. That’s not a bad place to start.
“It’s the belief in players and the confidence that he has in players that you just kind of feel and you feed off of,” Lloyd said. “I’ve heard so many good things about him from so many different players, and now I know why. It’s just an aura that he has about him. He’s calm, he’s collected, and he just wants to make this team better and he wants this team to be playing good soccer.
“We’ve got the talent, we’ve got the quality of players. Now it’s just about beating down teams way more than we have in the past.”