Tom Sermanni has been sacked as head coach of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team. The standards are pretty high for the U.S. team that has won four Olympic gold medals since 1996 and two FIFA Women’s World Cups since 1991. But does his sudden ouster have more to do with the team’s dismal showing at the Algarve Cup in March, or with discontent among the players?
“I was completely blindsided,” Sermanni said, according to SI.com as reported by abcnews.com. “Maybe I’m losing my intuitive and perception skills, but I didn’t sense a real unease in the team. But I could be wrong in that regard…To put it in a nutshell, they just felt that the way I was managing the team wasn’t working. It could be the U.S. team is a unique team that has certain demands that perhaps my management style or my philosophy didn’t quite jell with.”
Outstanding record. Sermanni actually had a sterling record since taking over for Pia Sundhage in the fall of 2012. Sundhage, who coached the U.S. women to an Olympic gold medal in 2012, departed to take the coaching reins of the women’s national team in her native Sweden. As a new coach, Sermanni was undefeated in 2013, winning 13 matches with three draws. His final contest as U.S. coach was a 2-0 win over China April 6 in which the stingy American squad allowed only one shot on goal. Meanwhile, the U.S. had 23 shots at the Chinese net and ran its unbeaten streak at home to 81 games (71 wins and 10 draws).
What went wrong? Although Sermanni lost only twice during his tenure, those two defeats came at an inopportune time. They were back-to-back losses against Sweden and Denmark at the 2014 Algarve Cup, an annual tournament in Portugal that is the biggest event for women soccer players aside from the FIFA Women’s World Cup and the summer Olympic Games. The team looked just awful at a tournament they are accustomed to winning, finishing a dismal seventh, an all-time low. First Sweden ended the U.S. team’s two-year, 43-game unbeaten streak. Then, in the game against Denmark, the U.S. team allowed five goals for the first time in its history and lost by more than one goal for the first time since 2008. The U.S. finished last in its group and wound up outside the top three for the first time in over a decade.
Did players rebel? Sermanni’s 16 months at the helm was a very short stay. Should he have been given more time? On the surface, the team’s poor showing at the Algarve Cup should not have been enough to deny Sermanni the chance to guide the U.S. through at least one cycle of the FIFA Women’s World Cup and Olympic Games. After all, that’s what he was hired to do. However, there was something disruptive about his coaching style, and that was his predilection for tampering with his starting lineup. Rarely did he send the same lineup onto the pitch in consecutive matches. He was also working a lot of newcomers into the lineup, and that may have infuriated some of the proven veterans. Abby Wambach, the greatest goal scorer in the history of international soccer, found herself fighting for playing time with young strikers Sydney Leroux and Christen Press. How do you tell someone like Wambach that her minutes are being reduced? Even though the squad had an overabundance of talent at forward, Sermanni was reluctant to go with a 4-3-3 alignment (four defenders, three midfielders and three forwards). Why restrict yourself to having only two forwards on the field when you have a luminous aggregation of star power that calls for using three? Sermanni also tinkered heavily with his midfielders and defenders. Within reason, competition is often good for the final product. But the players have to feel comfortable and familiar with playing alongside one another, especially on defense where delicate teamwork and precision are required. Is it possible enough top players were so upset with the direction of the team that they revolted and demanded Sermanni’s termination? And do the players collectively have such clout?
Reverse course? Sermanni will not get to fully implement his plans for transitioning younger players into the lineup. He has been successful in the past, leading the Australian national women’s team to the quarterfinals during the last two World Cups. He will undoubtedly find new challenges and opportunities. The interim U.S. coach will be Jill Ellis, U.S. Soccer Federation’s director of development. She held the interim coach title once before, steering the American side to five wins and two draws in the fall of 2012, while keeping the seat warm until Sermanni officially started in January 2013. Once selected, the new full-time coach may lean more heavily on the proven, but aging, veterans. The new coach must bring stability and clearly define the roles of the players before the 2015 FIFA Women’s World Cup qualifications begin in Mexico this fall.
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