Vahe Gregorian: Amid crisis in women’s soccer, USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski condemns breach of trust | Sports

Vahe Gregorian: Amid crisis in women’s soccer, USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski condemns breach of trust | Sports

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — When it was scheduled weeks ago, the media event at Children’s Mercy Park on Thursday afternoon was intended to be an upbeat affair to promote the Oct. 21 U.S. Women’s National Team game here against Korea Republic.

Not to mention a fertile opportunity to continue touting Kansas City’s bid to be a host for the 2026 World Cup via the voices of Sporting KC’s Peter Vermes, Kansas City NWSL’s Huw Williams and USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski, a Kansas City treasure by way of the Republic of North Macedonia.

But circumstances changed in the wake of the appalling allegations of sexual misconduct against North Carolina Courage coach Paul Riley, and the institutional inertia in response, reported last week by The Athletic. The accusations were reiterated Tuesday on the TODAY show by Sinead Farrelly and Mana Shim, bookending a chaotic few days that included the NWSL canceling its weekend games and announcing the resignation of Commissioner Lisa Baird.

Given the sudden churning of the state of affairs, some might have looked to cancel or reschedule. Some might have avoided the issue altogether or given a tepid statement and waved off follow-ups.

But not the ever-sincere and upstanding Andonovski, the former Kansas City Comets player and coach who guided FC Kansas City to two NWSL championships and took over as USWNT coach in 2019.

To Andonovski, this was an opportunity to be seized and a crisis to be addressed … not something to shrink from or slink out of.

Because he knows the sense of broken trust, from predatory behavior to an absence of secure safeguards and a culture of denial, is crushing and vast and isn’t going to be repaired without substantial commitment to change over time.

Suffice to say he emphatically conveyed his disgust in the breach of trust at all levels, saying that every player should always rest assured “they don’t have to look over their shoulder or be afraid of anything,” and later making it a point to express his approval of change at the top.

“For them, (leadership’s) priority was bringing sponsors and bringing finances to the league …” he said. “They failed at the most important thing.”

While words are only words and revamped methods and mechanisms are going to be crucial, candidly acknowledging the issues, as Andonovski did from a high-profile position, also is part of a vital first step nicely encapsulated by an encouraged Farrelly on TODAY.

“The support and the validation of this story by everyone globally — it has blown me away …” she said. “It felt like it has given my pain purpose, and that has been a liberation for me that I have not been able to feel for 10 years.”

But the outrage will mean little if it flames out without sparking deep institutional changes, changes that Williams believes KC NWSL co-owner Angie Long can help engineer as part of the executive committee named to oversee the front office until a new commissioner is found. He noted her passion and the cultural messages she and co-owner/husband Chris Long have sent all along, along with the financial commitment they are making that includes plans to build a $15 million training facility in Riverside.

Like Williams, Andonovski also noted that KC NWSL will be playing its home games at sparkling and spacious Children’s Mercy Park next season, instead of nearby Legends Field, as a point of demonstrating increasingly appropriate care for the women’s game.

While he’s worried about the damage done to the league by abusers and inept responses, Andonovski cited the example of playing here as “what the standard needs to be in this league. Yes, I’m excited, but I shouldn’t be. … We should not get excited because we’re going to play in a proper stadium.”

That sort of advocacy to raise the standards is just what’s needed in his role at a time when the struggle for safety off the field is in some ways entwined with the disregard for fair pay and more equitable treatment of the women’s game.

First and foremost, though, it’s about the most fundamental welfare of players.

And that’s why he broached the controversy immediately.

In his opening statement, Andonovski said he was saddened and disgusted by what he read and felt the “utmost respect” for the players who had the courage to speak out in what we can only hope will be a crucial step against a broader scourge in the league well-stated by an ESPN report:

“Four different coaches, all men, have been fired in just the past four months for off-field reasons, including alleged sexual misconduct, verbal abuse, toxic work environments and racist remarks. Even worse, in almost every case, the coach’s problematic behavior had been known before his hiring — there were patterns, not one-offs — but those teams hired them anyway.”

As he wrapped up his introduction, Andonovski stressed that he welcomed questions on this topic as well as the upcoming game.

As it happened, most follow-up questions were about the hovering scandal, something he addressed with condemnation of the allegations of disgusting actions and compassion for the victims.

When he approaches relationships with players, he said, “I see them as I see my daughter.” And the first principle in creating the family-type atmosphere he seeks to cultivate is, of course, trust.

“And nobody should take advantage of that,” he said.

That’s why he spoke out and why he’s pleased by such developments as U.S. Soccer hiring former U.S. Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates to conduct an independent investigation of “allegations of abusive behavior and sexual misconduct in women’s professional soccer.”

“We know that she’s going to do an incredible job,” he said, “and that nothing is going to get … overlooked.”

Still, what happened is too deep-rooted and systemic to be eradicated immediately. “All of us failed,” as Williams put it, to provide “these players the minimum, the minimum, of having a safe environment.”

So only time will tell whether the last week makes for a pivot point, or merely sound and fury signifying nothing.

But in this time of need, it’s an encouraging development that someone of Andonovski’s stature and influence embraced the revised scenario on Tuesday and lent comfort and support to a cause that deserves as much voice and illumination as it can get.

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