M. Spencer Green/Associated Press
M. Spencer Green/Associated Press
CHICAGO – Tom Sermanni doesn’t come with a guitar. And forget about bursting into song when he meets the U.S. women’s soccer team for the first time, as predecessor Pia Sundhage famously did.
“I can’t do that one bit,” the Americans’ new coach said, smiling. “I can come up with some good one-liners and clichés, but players don’t tend to appreciate them as much.”
If he can lead the Americans to their third World Cup title, Sermanni’s witty remarks will sound every bit as good as any song played by Sundhage.
The 58-year-old Scot, by way of Australia, inherits a much different U.S. team than the fractured, fragile bunch Sundhage got five years ago. The Americans are on their best run since 1999, reaching the final at each of the last three major tournaments and coming away with two titles. They have been ranked No. 1 in the world since the 2008 Olympics. They have the world’s best goalkeeper in Hope Solo and arguably the two best forwards in Abby Wambach and Alex Morgan.
But the rest of the world has begun closing the gap on the U.S. in recent years, and it will be up to Sermanni to make sure the Americans don’t lose their place as the undisputed power in women’s soccer.
“I don’t think you just sit back and hope the team will be successful,” Sermanni said Wednesday on a conference call. “The main reason for that is the game is changing at a rapid pace. The quality of the teams is much closer than it was in the 1990s and early 2000s.”
U.S. Soccer Federation president Sunil Gulati and the other four members of the search committee looked at more than 30 candidates, male and female, American and foreign-born. But few possessed Sermanni’s combination of international experience and the ability to manage players in a firm but fair manner, qualities that will be increasingly critical over the next four years.
“Tom is someone with a terrific reputation as a coach both on a personal and a professional level,” Gulati said. “He knows the challenge ... the challenges to keep the team No. 1 in the world.”
Once dominated by the U.S., Germany, Brazil and the Nordic countries, there is increasing parity in the women’s game, and Sermanni knows the changing landscape better than most – particularly in Asia, where Japan followed its World Cup title by reaching the Olympic final.
Sermanni transformed Australia’s women’s team from an international lightweight into the No. 9 team in the world, with the Matildas reaching the quarterfinals of the last two World Cups. The young Matildas also won the 2010 Asian Women’s Cup.
In his first stint as Australia’s coach, from 1994-97, Sermanni led the Matildas to their first World Cup appearance.
“I think I’ve got good experience in international football, and I think I’ve got a reasonable knowledge of the American game and their players,” said Sermanni, who was one of 10 candidates for FIFA’s 2011 Women’s Coach of the Year. “Over the past eight years now in Australia ... I’ve been able to change the squad and develop younger players for the international game.”
He shares Sundhage’s belief that the Americans need to alter their style of play to keep pace with the changing game. Sundhage tried to replace the physical, forward-based attack the U.S. had used for years with a more European, possession-oriented game where plays are created through the midfield. Sundhage and the Americans shared mixed success.
“This U.S. team has some very good footballers,” Sermanni said. “(But) there is an intention to develop a more sophisticated style of play. Philosophically, you want to play good, attractive, attacking football. That’s what I’ve always tried to do wherever I’ve gone. I tried to change that outlook in Australia, and one of the things that I want to do here is impress that style of play within the American team.”
But Sermanni’s biggest challenge might be managing the personalities within the team.
Sundhage was unfailingly positive and believed in building her players up with constructive criticism. While that approach definitely was needed when she first arrived, some thought Sundhage should have taken a harder line when players acted up. Solo, for example, caused a stir during the Olympics when she used Twitter to criticize Brandi Chastain, a member of the 1999 World Cup champion team who was working as an NBC analyst.
Affable and even-keeled, Sermanni is considered a player’s coach such as Sundhage; he made good on his deal with the Matildas to dye his silver hair red and shave his mustache if they qualified for the 2011 World Cup. But he’s not afraid to let everyone know who’s in charge either. He kicked Lisa De Vanna, Australia’s best player, out of camp six weeks before the World Cup for disciplinary issues. She was eventually allowed to return.
He won’t be afraid to bring new players into an established lineup either, a potentially thorny issue for the Americans in coming years. Wambach, Solo, captain Christie Rampone and the other veterans have been invaluable for the U.S., and they remain among the team’s most productive – and popular – players. But they are getting older, and the Americans need to at least start thinking about a succession plan.
There is a wealth of potential talent on the youth teams – the Under-20 squad just won the World Cup – but they’re going to need opportunities to play.
“You have to be careful you don’t miss a generation,” Sermanni said. “All the time you have to be looking to the strength of competition, to increasing the number of players that come through the international arena, and you’re also looking to try and bring young players in as soon as you can, to get them that experience and see if they’re up to playing at an international level.”
Sermanni’s 2011 World Cup team was Australia’s youngest, with 13 rookies and an average age of just under 22. The youngest player on the squad, then-16-year-old Caitlin Foord, wound up being named Best Young Player of the tournament.
“It’s a critical part of the process that can come back to bite you if you don’t keep that process of regeneration going,” he said.
That can wait, however. The next major tournament isn’t until the World Cup in 2015, giving Sermanni ample time to settle in and get to know his players. He will coach Australia in an East Asian Cup Qualification tournament next month, then observe the Americans in their last three exhibition matches.
He officially takes over Jan. 1.
“You don’t often get the opportunity to coach the No. 1 team in the world,” Sermanni said. “The thought of having the challenge of doing that excites me. Having the opportunity to do that is something that doesn’t come along – you’re lucky if it comes along.”