Tom Sermanni and women’s soccer evolution

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 …

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:

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.

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4 Responses to Tom Sermanni and women’s soccer evolution

  1. Diane says:

    Power brokers only look in the mirror to stroke their own egos. No hope for that.

    Sick and tired of lip service and very different levels of tolerance. If Klinsmann coached the women’s team and got same results, would he still be here? Probably not. It’s not the coach, imo, it’s the lack of conviction in USSF to do what’s good for the game going forward. They can’t just say change is what they want, they have to support it.

  2. Rachel says:

    I think your theory about the timing of the decision sounds right. I also think it may have something to do with the fact that most the players came fresh from their respective NWSL team pre-season camps. Maybe a lot of the “power players” felt they were getting better, more effective training sessions at a club level? Maybe they felt the USWNT practice sessions were just not cutting it. Tom seems like such a classy guy but perhaps he was too laid-back and didn’t push the team hard enough?

  3. guest1 says:

    Thoughtful piece. My view: this was a culture clash. He was too laid back, too patient, almost too composed, in the view of some players, and, eventually, for Sunil. The guy took all of 2013 just to look at players and evaluate. He was just not urgent or hard driving enough. Other soccer cultures could perhaps deal with this. But not the American women’s national team culture. Also, all this talk from Tom about a rotating starting XI, even during the WC tournament, that really made certain players and Sunil nervous. It’s just too radical to handle. That is not how this team has ever functioned in any major tournament.

    The crazy thing — there HAS been a clear evolution in style of play. I’m not saying they were playing amazing attacking, possession soccer yet. But they were on that path. Nobody can doubt that this team was undergoing a different approach. And that’s what is upsetting to me: there was no trust that in the end, the team would get to a really great place. There was no faith that the changes would bear fruit in the end. And they performed well against Japan, even if it didn’t result in a win. That’s amazing, because he only started really coaching the team, tactically, in late 2013!!!! Only a few months of really implementing his style, and he’s canned. That to me says emotions and personalities were involved.

  4. Joshua (the name of my cat not me) says:

    “After the 2007 World Cup debacle left wounds that haven’t healed to this day,”

    Man, if that ain’t the truth. Just mention “2007″, in WoSo forum or comments board and you [actually I] get RANA. [I don't think it takes much imagination to figure out what RANA is an acronym for.]

    Tom Semanni could laugh all the way to the bank for the next two and a half years if the story in the LA Times is correct: “Sermanni’s contract, which pays him around $200,000 a year, runs through the end of 2016.” Not a bad deal after getting canned.

    Getting “dismissed” as USWNT head coach is no big deal, IMHO. Just time to move on. Tom getting “dismissed” is just one more episode in the long soap opera, errr, saga of the USWNT. Someone should write a book on the story of the USWNT since 1999. I’d buy it and read it.

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