The U.S. women’s national soccer team changes like the continents — very slowly, with sudden earthquakes.
We had one of those earthquakes last night, when coach Tom Sermanni was fired just a couple of hours after leading the USA to an uninspired 2-0 win over a China team that is a pale shadow of its glory days.
The overriding narrative so far, fed by a lot of anonymous comments, is “player revolt.” But what does that mean?
Let’s back up to the days of the beloved Pia Sundhage. After the 2007 World Cup debacle left wounds that haven’t healed to this day, Sundhage was supposed to refocus the team in a new tactical direction. No longer would the team bang the ball to Abby Wambach and hope for the best.
But any tactical changes Pia made were secondary to her expert management of the team. This team has some big personalities, and no matter what side you want to take on the 2007 saga, you can’t deny the friction that existed.
Pia came in strumming a guitar and smiling. But she could also be stern with players, who would sometimes respond by “proving her wrong” when she doubted them. She was willing to be the big bad boss, then hold up her hand and say she was wrong about someone — all the while smiling that the player had come back with such determination. Brilliant.
And yet, Pia was careful not to rock the boat. The player pool was stagnant. From 2010 to 2012, Sundhage put 34 players on the field for the U.S. women, including farewell performances for Kristine Lilly and Kate Markgraf. The U.S. men have used 36 players in three games this year — and it’s a World Cup year.
Someone might connect the dots and say veteran players were unhappy that Sermanni was taking away their playing time. It’s probably not that simple.
The one thing I can tell you from anonymous chatter is nothing shocking: The Algarve Cup disappointment (two straight losses and a seventh-place finish) didn’t sit well with everyone. Why the dismissal came after the China game and not the Algarve Cup is anyone’s guess. But no matter what straws the conspiracy theorists may grasp, it’s probably not some giant explosive incident the day of the China game. Much more plausible (though admittedly also speculative) — the China game was simply the time everyone gathered together again.
One anonymous leak is interesting, not so much for what it says but how and why it was made …
Sermanni offered "no direction, no vision, nothing," one source says. Players, USSF concerned about World Cup. #uswnt
— Steven Goff (@SoccerInsider) April 7, 2014
Why even bother to leak something so flimsy and vague? That’s hardly Watergate or even magicJack. Or widespread player dissatisfaction with Jurgen Klinsmann. (Note that Sermanni is gone but Klinsmann has since been signed to a four-year extension. Speaks volumes about the balance of power between players and coaches on each team, doesn’t it?)
Besides, what vision would anyone have for this year’s Algarve? Take the experienced players who aren’t hurt or pregnant, take a few less experienced players, then experiment a little? What else would you do?
And it’s not something we can really investigate to the fullest. We can’t really know if Sermanni had a vision or direction without being in team meetings to see how well he articulated such things.
Kate Markgraf has a viable hypothesis:
Sermani knows the game, but I wonder if cultural differences in how he delivered that knowledge didn't mesh. #Applicationanddelivery
— Kate Markgraf (@katemarkgraf) April 7, 2014
In any case, the leak does add fuel to the notion that players drove this change. It doesn’t tell us whether they had a point.
What we do know is that Sermanni had a difficult job. Bringing in new players and new ideas is difficult on a successful team, particularly one that is marketed as the women’s soccer version of the Harlem Globetrotters. See an impressive win, get a few autographs, spend a bunch of money, go home.
That cash cow is awfully difficult to kill. Hard-core fans and journalists would rather see a wide-open player pool and evaluate everyone in sight. But the old guard is the driving force for the casual fans’ money that subsidizes women’s soccer development efforts and the NWSL.
So we can’t deny that the old guard has tremendous power. What we don’t know is whether that power has been abused.
We’ll all line up this afternoon to fire questions at Sunil Gulati. But I doubt we’ll get the answers on what roles players played in Sermanni’s dismissal or why.
And it’s academic, anyway. The next question: Who has the management skills to prepare the team for its necessary evolution while also getting the results and the fan fervor that oils the big machine? For whatever reason, Sermanni failed to convince the team’s power brokers that he was that man.
U.S. fans can only hope that the power brokers grasp this question, including the “necessary evolution” part of it. And that if they’re disappointed in something right now, they’re also looking beyond the coach. Perhaps to the mirror.