FOX Soccer Exclusive
Sermanni blends success, style
Pia Sundhage left a golden legacy and a few sweet melodies behind when she concluded her five-year spell with U.S. women's national team and returned to her native Sweden in December.
It did not take long for Tom Sermanni to grasp the magnitude of the work done by his colleague and his friend when he took charge of the team for the first time in January. The former Australia national team coach understood that this particular situation – a successful international manager walking into an established group filled with household names and world stars – required a considerate and deft touch during the early stages of his tenure.
“You don't want to change too much,” Sermanni said. “You're coming into a team that has been successful, a team that has been well coached and well managed and a team of great quality. You don't come in and make the changes. You gradually implement your own philosophy about how you want the game to be played and your own style in management and in coaching. You gradually get into the swing of that.”
Sermanni immediately confronted the rather awkward task of honing the way this highly successful team – World Cup finalists in 2011, Olympic winners in 2012 – played in order to keep its place at the pinnacle of the game. The increased focus on development in several countries over the past decade has deepened the field of potential World Cup contenders, increased the standards required to achieve consistent success and placed significant emphasis on cultivating technical ability alongside physical prowess.
The pervasive stereotypes about the blunt, direct and physical American approach still linger, but they do not apply as neatly as they once did. Sundhage adopted a more progressive deportment during her tenure and relied upon an emerging generation of cultured players – the likes of Tobin Heath and Megan Rapinoe in midfield plus Alex Morgan up front – to accentuate the usual reliance on pace, power and tempo.
Sermanni plans to carry those efforts forward and integrate a bit more patience on the ball into the repertoire over the next few years. He also acknowledges that a portion of his brief involves finding a way to make the technical ability of his players - “I think the U.S. gets a raw deal in that regard,” Sermanni said - more readily apparent over the next few years without suffering any consequences in terms of results.
“I suppose part of my job is to bring that out a little bit more and get it more appreciated by the soccer public and by other soccer countries,” Sermanni said. “We are working our way toward improving. There are some things we need to do a little bit better. We're always going to play the game at a fast tempo, but there are some times that we need to slow that tempo down a little bit, play just a little bit more controlled. We're working our way through at those kind of things.”
The tinkering has not affected results in any tangible way. Sermanni enters the upcoming pair of friendlies with Korea Republic (Saturday in Foxborough, Mass. and Thursday in Harrison, N.J.) with a typically gaudy 7-0-2 record – including victories over Germany (at the Algarve Cup in March) and Canada (in Toronto earlier this month) – since assuming control of the team.
Sermanni has blended the need to continue the lengthy tradition of success with his desire to introduce fresh faces into the squad. He has leaned on college and foreign-based players to supplement his usual options and has tweaked the lineup accordingly to maintain the necessary level of competitiveness test the depth of his player pool.
“Tom is really trying to let us play,” Morgan said. “He's looking at some new faces on the field. I think something that is consistent with him is the inconsistency of the lineup. He's always keeping you on your toes, never knowing who is going to be in the starting XI. Sometimes, you'll have a great week of training and you won't necessarily be starting. It's just really trying to see what fits together and what the best product is on the field at the time. That's what he's looking at and that's nice.”
Most of the fundamental pieces – the recovering Hope Solo in goal, Christine Rampone at the back, the raft of familiar faces in midfield and Morgan and Abby Wambach up top – remain the same for the moment, but this period between major tournaments offers a necessary and vital chance to experiment. The current group – talented though it may be – will not necessarily survive intact for another two years. At this stage, the primary focus involves trying to find players capable of filling those voids.
“I think it's been great,” U.S. midfielder Heather O'Reilly said. “Tom's given a lot of young players opportunities to come in, which is exciting. He has recognized that it is important to keep one eye on the present and one eye on the future. I think that's smart. 2013 has been a little bit of a more mellow year, but I think we've put together some really good games. Hopefully, there are more to come.”
The impending friendlies against Korea Republic – a team Sermanni compared to Japan due to its ability on the ball and its willingness to close down quickly – supply yet another chance to continue along that path. Those forward steps must continue to ensure Sermanni builds upon the progress made during Sundhage's tenure and creates his own mark on the side in the coming years.
More Stories From Kyle McCarthy