England’s Sarina Wiegman is the undisputed best coach in women’s soccer — but a long shot USWNT candidate

England’s Sarina Wiegman is the undisputed best coach in women’s soccer — but a long shot USWNT candidate

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 16: Sarina Wiegman, Head Coach of England, celebrates after the team's 3-1 victory and advance to the final following the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Semi Final match between Australia and England at Stadium Australia on August 16, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Sarina Wiegman celebrates after England’s 3-1 victory over Australia to advance to the 2023 Women’s World Cup final on Aug.16, 2023 in Sydney, Australia. (Mark Metcalfe/FIFA via Getty Images)

Sarina Wiegman’s “fairytale” rise to the top of soccer began as a savior.

In the fall of 2016, she was a 47-year-old assistant coach of a Netherlands women’s national team stumbling toward the 2017 Euros. To many throughout the sport, just seven years ago, her name was unknown.

Now it’s on the tips of tongues from Australia to England to the United States. Wiegman is the undisputed best coach in international women’s soccer; she’s 90 minutes from World Cup glory; and she’s the most-fancied candidate for the U.S. women’s national team coaching vacancy, all because she seized one opportunity and never looked back.

She ascended to her first national team head coaching job in an emergency. The Netherlands sacked Arjan van der Laan in late December 2016, and elevated Wiegman, first on an interim basis, then a permanent one. She had six months to prepare a dispirited team for the European championships. She molded it into a dynamic, adaptable unit that won those Euros. Two years later — and just four years after the Dutch appeared at their first-ever Women’s World Cup — they charged to the 2019 World Cup final. Two years after that, Wiegman jumped to England, where her Lionesses won the 2022 Euros, and confirmed her status as the sport’s top coach.

So Wiegman, a former Dutch national team captain, entered the 2023 Women’s World Cup with very little to prove.

Nonetheless, in leading England to its first-ever World Cup final (Sunday, 6 a.m. ET, Fox), she has added to her rapidly growing legend — and proved she is everything that outgoing USWNT coach Vlatko Andonovski was not.

But no, she is not the favorite to become the next USWNT boss. She is in a similarly attractive job, with a contract through 2025, and with a federation, the English FA, determined to keep her “for a very long time.”

The FA’s CEO, Mark Bullingham, told reporters Thursday that the FA would “100%” reject any attempts to poach Wiegman — and the past two summers have shown why.

Weigman’s impeccable track record

Andonovski’s USWNT failed, in part, because it was inflexible and predictable. Wiegman, after riding a single lineup and formation through last summer’s Euros, has “rip[ped] up the playbook to keep the Lionesses ahead of the pack,” as one British tabloid put it, “with the head coach’s new-look fluid formations handing England the element of surprise.”

In other words, she has done what almost every great international manager does. She has transformed England into “tactical chameleons.”

She recognized, after losing three starters to pre-World Cup injuries, that her classic 4-2-3-1/4-3-3 approach was sputtering. After losing a fourth starter in England’s second group game, she flipped to a 3-4-1-2 shape that empowered attacker Lauren James and maximized personnel. When James was then red carded and suspended in the Round of 16, it became more of a 3-5-2 thereafter.

With midfielder Ella Toone reinserted into the starting lineup, replacing James, England controlled its semifinal against Australia. With winger Lauren Hemp terrorizing the Australian defense as a second striker, England beat the co-hosts with its best performance of the tournament.

Wiegman’s interpersonal skills have also been celebrated. She blends a semi-strict management style — she was once a PE teacher during her playing career — with a familial warmth away from the field. She is demanding but quirky. She notified players of their place in her Euro 2022 squad by handing them a literal golden ticket that read: “Congratulations! You’re going to the Euros!” But she also isn’t afraid to cut or bench those players when necessary — like she did with Dutch captain Mandy van den Berg during the Euro 2017 group stage.

She has, admittedly, ridden a bit of luck this month. She needed a penalty shootout to beat Nigeria in the Round of 16 and a Colombian mistake one round later. But her track record — Euro 2017 winner, 2019 World Cup finalist, Euro 2022 winner, 2023 World Cup finalist — is unimpeachable. The only blip was a 2021 Olympic quarterfinal, when her Dutch lost to the U.S. on penalties. She has clearly mastered the international game — and U.S. Soccer, even if it can’t hire her, must take note.

Would Weigman even want the USWNT job?

When USWNT general manager Kate Markgraf dove into the team’s last coaching search, in 2019, her apparent top candidates came from club soccer. She mentioned four of them publicly while still working for ESPN, shortly before starting at U.S. Soccer. Andonovski, Laura Harvey and the since-disgraced Paul Riley all coached in the National Women’s Soccer League. Mark Krikorian and other reported candidates worked at American colleges — which is where then-outgoing USWNT coach Jill Ellis made her name.

Andonovski and Harvey seemed like the leading candidates all along, and in a prior era, this focus on domestic club coaches might’ve made sense — because the USWNT operated much like a club team, gathering regularly for extended training camps. The national team was a player’s primary job.

But women’s soccer has evolved in recent years. Players now spend the vast majority of their time with professional clubs; the USWNT convenes far less frequently. The game has moved in the direction of men’s soccer, where it’s widely acknowledged that a club coach and a national team coach do very different jobs. One can choose a system, acquire players who fit within it, and implement it day after day. The other works with a finite player pool and far less time to actually coach it.

This, in retrospect, was probably one of U.S. Soccer’s biggest oversights in the 2019 search; Andonovski had never coached at the international level.

And it should shape the 2023 search to replace him.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 16: Sarina Wiegman, Head Coach of England, congratulates her players in the huddle after the team's 3-1 victory and advance to the final following the FIFA Women's World Cup Australia & New Zealand 2023 Semi Final match between Australia and England at Stadium Australia on August 16, 2023 in Sydney / Gadigal, Australia. (Photo by Alex Pantling - FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Sarina Wiegman is the first head coach to lead two different countries into a World Cup final. (Photo by Alex Pantling – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)

Wiegman is the leading example of a proven national team coach, but it’s unclear if she would even want the U.S. job. England’s player pool is just as good, if not better. Its soccer federation is richer. Its opportunities at major tournaments — with the Euros in addition to the 2024 Olympics — are greater. It seems unlikely that Wiegman would force her way out of a contract (which the English FA is keen to extend soon) to move her family thousands of miles away. Her only connection to the U.S. is a brief playing stint at the University of North Carolina.

But she is not the only proven national team coach. And plenty others — perhaps Tony Gustavsson, who just led Australia to the World Cup semis, and previously won two World Cups as Ellis’ assistant? — would surely be interested.

The USWNT gig remains one of the top coaching jobs in women’s soccer. The U.S. player pool, while perhaps no longer the best in class, remains one of the best. The resources and cultural acceptance of women’s soccer remain unmatched. And while the short-term future looks shaky, the medium-long term includes a 2027 World Cup potentially on home soil and a 2028 Olympics definitely on home soil.

So there will be no shortage of interest. There also should be no shortage of money. U.S. Soccer paid its men’s national team coach, Gregg Berhalter, a base salary of over $1.3 million, according to tax filings. It paid Andonovski only around $400,000 annually. It is likely prepared to close that gap to lure the USWNT candidate of its choice.

Whether it would pay enough to land Wiegman — or whether Wiegman even has a price — is unclear. Her candidacy seems solely rooted in public speculation.

But it is at least notable that, mere hours after news of Andonovski’s resignation broke, and hopeful speculation ramped up, Bullingham, the English FA CEO, went on the record to express his commitment to Weigman.

“We’re massive fans of her,” Bullingham said. “We believe she’s happy, and we’d love to continue working with her for a long time.”

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