David J. Phillip/The Associated Press
David J. Phillip/The Associated Press
HOUSTON – The U.S. women’s soccer team’s head-coach-in-waiting has plenty of questions.
Tom Sermanni, the Scot who led Australia to three women’s World Cups, often asks outgoing interim head coach Jillian Ellis for her advice.
Sermanni is a crossword-puzzle enthusiast but admits he can’t finish one alone. Since recently joining the team in an observational role before fully assuming the head coaching duties in January, Sermanni said he doesn’t shy from asking Ellis to contribute to the puzzles.
“I’m not very good at it when I try to do it myself so she’s been a great help,” Sermanni said. “I’m told it’ll keep me from going senile just a wee bit longer.”
On Oct. 30, the 58-year-old Sermanni was announced as the permanent replacement for Pia Sundhage, who coached the national team for four years before leaving to return to her native Sweden. Sundhage led the U.S. to gold medals at the 2012 London Games and the 2008 Beijing Olympics, along with a second-place finish at the 2011 World Cup in Germany.
On Tuesday night, Sermanni donned a thick navy blue U.S. women’s soccer coat to stay as warm as possible in near-freezing temperatures at BBVA Compass Stadium. He quietly watched the team practice in front of thousands of screaming fans and marveled at the team’s popularity and success.
“Normally, you get a new coaching job when a team hasn’t been doing well,” Sermanni said. “But here, I’m inheriting a very successful team and a very successful program.”
Tonight, the Olympic champions will play the ninth game in a 10-city “Fan Tribute Tour” when they face China. Sermanni said he wouldn’t be on the sideline for the match but will instead watch as a casual observer from the stands.
After being around the team for less than a week, he already has received high praise from his players.
“You saw what he could do with the Australians,” veteran forward Abby Wambach said. “Before he got on board, it wasn’t even close. And you saw last time, it was 2-1. So I definitely think he can take us far.”
Wambach was referring to an international friendly match played Sept. 16 when the Americans beat Sermanni’s Australian national team 2-1. In that surprisingly closely contested match, Sermanni quickly was introduced to 21-year-old rising star forward Alex Morgan.
In her breakout 2012 season, Morgan leads the U.S. in goals with 28. Last week in Detroit, Morgan became the second player in U.S. women’s national team history with at least 20 goals and 20 assists in the same year.
As Morgan’s accolades continue to grow, Sermanni is becoming increasingly appreciative of her talents and the bright future of his team. He admits that, like many in the soccer realm, he never saw Morgan’s meteoric rise coming.
“Honestly, she wasn’t really, really on my radar until we played them in September, and she tore us apart,” Sermanni said. “She has really just blossomed tremendously.”
Morgan said she’s a fan of Sermanni’s coaching style.
“We’ve seen and heard nothing but positive things,” Morgan said. “I’m looking forward to what he can do with this team.”
With the ideal blend of proven veterans and rising young talent, Sermanni said he has high expectations of himself once he fully takes over on Jan. 1.
“If somebody can find me a coaching job that comes with no pressure, let me know about it, please,” Sermanni said. “I’ve put a load of pressure on myself to do well, keep this program successful and continue to be No. 1 in the world.”
For now, Sermanni is perfectly content with being the fly on the wall. He’s in the process of becoming a permanent resident of Los Angeles but doesn’t know if he’ll have time to continue one of his favorite hobbies once he takes the reins.
“I hope I’m better with the team than I am with the crossword puzzle,” Sermanni said. “But there’s just so many positive things about this team that I’m very optimistic that we can keep the success going.”