The U.S. women’s national team has a new head coach.
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As of Jan. 1, 2013, Tom Sermanni will lead America’s pre-eminent women’s sports team.
Sermanni, a 58-year-old Scot who had a modest professional career, currently coaches the Australian national women’s team, which he has brought to international respectability in his eight-year tenure. He previously spent several seasons coaching in the old WUSA women’s professional league in the U.S.
Sermanni will succeed Jill Ellis, who has overseen the team on an interim basis after Pia Sundhage left the job in September. He was one of more than 30 candidates seriously considered before a short-list of seven was drawn up. He was subsequently hired over a handful of favorites such as Steve Swanson, who just won the U.S. the under-20 World Cup, and back-to-back Women’s Professional Soccer Coach of the Year Paul Riley. Sermanni was allegedly also a candidate in 2007 when Sundhage was appointed.
Sundhage took the U.S. to three consecutive finals of major tournaments, winning the 2008 and 2012 Summer Olympics and only losing the 2011 Women’s World Cup final on penalties. In five years, she won 91 games and lost just six, for a .897 winning percentage, just .002 less than Tony DiCicco, the U.S.’s all-time winningest coach.
Sundhage’s achievements on the field were largely due to her immense accomplishments off it, namely the bridges she built in a divided squad. She inherited a team that had crashed out of the 2007 Women’s World Cup prematurely, getting trounced 4-0 by Brazil in the semifinal. Goalkeeper Hope Solo famously skewered then-head coach Greg Ryan in the press following the game for benching her in favor of Briana Scurry, proclaiming that she would have saved the shots that sunk the U.S.
So when Sundhage took over, her star goalkeeper was persona non grata within the squad. Under Sundhage, Solo’s relationship with the old guard was mended. And ever since, Sundhage had kept the peace in a locker room awash with big personalities with her laissez-faire attitude, keeping players loose by reminding them soccer is supposed to be fun and regaling them with songs. She slowly brought along young striker prodigies Alex Morgan and Sydney Leroux without upsetting the team’s long-standing hierarchy or chemistry. And whenever the super-vocal Solo called someone out in the press or the autobiography released after the Olympics, Sundhage ensured that her utterances never disturbed the team.
Coaching a national team is, after all, an exercise in personnel management. And therein lies the biggest challenge facing Sermanni. He will also need to figure out a plan for keeping the aging striker Abby Wambach healthy, another specialty of Sundhage’s. At 32, Wambach remains a force of nature, and can’t be slowed in her zeal to throw her already-battered body into battle.
And whereas Sundhage had the luxury of the WPS domestic league in three of the last four years, Sermanni might have to do without. The women’s team now operates in a vacuum. Plans for a new league are vague and precarious. Without fully professional clubs to play for, members of the team (who do draw a full-time salary from the federation) would lack match fitness. Their French, German, English, Swedish and Japanese counterparts, meanwhile, have increasingly competitive domestic leagues in which to stay in shape and hone their craft. Should plans for a new league fall through, the U.S. women would be forced to play overseas, if they wish to remain fully professional.
But the biggest issue facing Sermanni is one left unaddressed by Sundhage.
As demonstrated during the 2012 Olympics – wherein the U.S. went undefeated and claimed a third straight gold medal, with a generous helping of luck in the semifinal against Canada – the U.S. women can still bull their way past any team in the world. Collectively, they are more athletic than anybody else. And its pool of forwards is deeper than any three other countries combined. But the likes of Japan, France and Brazil showed off a polish to their game during the 2011 Women’s World Cup that has eluded the U.S. Those nations have taken the women’s game to a new level with high pressure and sharp and savvy passing. They’ve made the field smaller than the one on which the U.S. has historically thrived through sheer physicality.
Sundhage switched her team from a 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1 formation following the World Cup, in an attempt to field more technical and creative midfielders and improve ball circulation and pressure. But she dumped the scheme and went back to a 4-4-2 when Morgan’s pairing with Wambach became lethal to the point of being undeniable.
This issue remains unresolved. The women’s game is getting better – quicker and more technical. The U.S. will need to adapt or risk fading from contention.
Whether Sermanni was given a mandate to improve playing style the way the men’s coach Jurgen Klinsmann was, is unclear. But he will have a bigger hand in player development than Sundhage had, suggesting a more macro role.
Sundhage vacated enormous shoes. Sermanni might need to sport even bigger ones to make a success of his tenure.