The Sermanni Dilemma: Where Does The USWNT Go From Here?

Tom Sermanni Courtesy U.S. Soccer

EAST HARTFORD, Conn. – For those who have been around long enough to remember the reference, the U.S. women’s soccer team trip through Connecticut had the feel of the old-school Ice Capades last week. You know, when the Olympic figure skating stars came back and tried to make some money (because they were still amateurs previously) by touring the country showing off their routines and signing autographs for screaming fans?

No one really cared how well they did, no one kept score, the people just wanted to see the Olympic stars in action.

There were obviously no triple axels from Alex Morgan – at least not that I saw – and cool costume choices were limited to both teams’ kits (the Where’s Waldos? against a minor league hockey team someone in the press box commented), but although some of the best players in the world were on the field, you had the distinct feel that competition was secondary as the game ended in a 2-2 draw.

As you can probably surmise already, I was torn. For someone who loves tactics and competition, both of which made the World Cup and Olympics an instant hit, I wasn’t going to get much of it here, which was frustrating when the top two teams in the world (at least according to the FIFA rankings) were below me.

But it’s not like I was a victim of false advertising or something, I was attending the “Nike Fan Tribute Tour, presented by Panasonic” for crying out loud. Abby Wambach had a goal (her 148th) and was all smiles afterward, even though the U.S. was generally outplayed (and outshot) and was forced to settle for a 2-2 tie, the first time since 2004 the USWNT failed to win in consecutive home games.

Wambach, like me, seemed a bit torn, mentioning that “this wasn’t our best soccer”, but quick to praise the nearly 20,000 people who braved a fairly hideous weather evening to see her and the U.S. play.  Morgan voiced similar sentiments, and you got the feeling she was a bit tired – mostly mentally – although she did have two assists. She sounded like an entertainer nearing the end of a long tour, but knowing that the people here deserved the same show that the people who came a month ago did.

And the fans that dodged the raindrops in Hartford cannot be discounted when discussing the overall dynamic here. Having lived here most of my life, I can tell you that Connecticut is not a great sports market, and the fact that 18,000+ showed up on a rainy, chilly Tuesday night is a testament to the popularity and success of Morgan, Wambach, and the U.S. machine.

Also, let’s be honest, most of them could care less about tactics, or whether interim coach Jill Ellis is integrating new players into the fold, or even the final score. As a youth coach, the talk at our practice the following day didn’t involve rising German star Dzenifer Marozsan, how the U.S. can stop her, or even why the U.S. doesn’t seem to have any players like her ready to join the USWNT in the near future, but how nice Abby Wambach was after the game, and who got whose autograph.

Again, I’m not here to judge, I understand that part of this is a business, and that these crowds dramatically help the relevancy of the product. I remember the three World Cup send-off games – just last year – that drew less than 6,000 people each. And that four of six games in preparation for 2010 CONCACAF World Cup qualifying drew less than 5,000.

But it’s still frustrating to see 10 games that the U.S. could be using to transition to the next World Cup/Olympic cycle with the same lineups and very little experimentation.

(And, no, Sydney Leroux as emergency right back doesn’t count. Although her reaction afterward was typical Leroux: “I’ve never played right back before in my life. I figured I would just run around and slidetackle people and that’s about it. It was fun.” Gotta love Sydney.)

Without a real competitive game to play for nearly three years (the next “big” competition will be CONCACAF World Cup qualifying in 2014, but with Canada automatically in and the field expanded, the chances of the United States not making it through easily – unlike in 2010 – are approximately zero, so that will be a glorified series of exhibitions that will surely pad people’s stats more than show us how competitive the new-look squad will be), you can’t blame anyone for treating this Tour as they have, though.

One player I had my eye on against Germany was Becky Sauerbrunn, who got a rare chance to play 90 minutes, some of them at outside back. Sauerbrunn is at a crossroads in her career, having come close to being a national team starter (close enough to earn 32 caps), but has never quite gotten there. Now 27, the next cycle is pretty much her last chance to prove herself, this time under a new leader.

“With a new coach, everyone has a new opportunity to prove themselves,” Sauerbrunn said. “Everybody on this team wants to play, you wouldn’t be on this team otherwise. My goal absolutely is to be a regular starter for this team.”

It’s a doubly tough situation for someone like Sauerbrunn, who is not as well known as some of the stars, and would therefore love to have some kind of league to play in (she played in WPS for two years), and would likely be one of the top players in said top-flight league. But, of course, right now there is no said top-flight league.

“We don’t really know a whole lot of anything right now,” Sauerbrunn said. “I guess we’re just kind of hoping all the threads come together and we’ll see what happens. I guess that’s kind of the life of a sportsman. You never know when you’re going to have a job, or when you’re going to have to move on.”

To reiterate, Sauerbrunn is probably in the top dozen soccer players in the United States currently, and should be a fixture at least on the roster – if not in the lineup – going forward for the national team. She probably could go to Europe like some others have done, but it’s not like she’s going to get millions to do it. Kind of sad in a way, isn’t it, as a U.S. national team fan?

Such is the situation Tom Sermanni will take up when he finally steps in for Pia Sundhage at the end of this Tour in January.

Although Sermanni has a very good resume and is certainly qualified for the U.S. national team position, I am somewhat annoyed on two fronts, and they are related.

First, why is the head coach of the U.S. national team not a more desirable job?

Part of the answer to that question is the success the United States has had. Although they haven’t won a World Cup since 1999, the U.S. has owned the Olympics, and is still the top historical squad in the world. Pia Sundhage resigned with a gaudy record 91-6-10, hardly a sign of dramatic decline, and a tough act to follow.

Yet the record masks the real struggles that Sundhage had. She came in with the edict that her team was going to play more attractive soccer, be technically better than the one that was wiped off the field by Brazil in the 2007 World Cup semifinals.

And, less than a year later, the U.S. avenged that loss by winning a goal medal in China, although the first game of that tournament was an embarrassing loss to Norway, and it took two extra time games to finally prevail.

With a full three years to prepare, certainly her technical game would be ready to be shown off by Germany 2011, right? But they almost didn’t get there, of course. A loss to Mexico forced the U.S. into a two-legged qualifier with Italy that wasn’t at all pretty, although they survived.

Somewhere about that time, Sundhage – a very smart coach, and being able to be flexible is a big part of that – decided to switch back to the more direct style that seemed to suit Abby Wambach and the rest of the personnel she was dealt. Although Alex Morgan never replaced Amy Rodriguez until this year, and the defense has never really been as airtight as Sundhage would have liked, the U.S. willed its way to the World Cup final and won an Olympic gold medal against technically superior squads.

It was great, a triumph of willpower and mental conditioning, but Sundhage had to wonder how long that could last. Probably not three or four more years. And so, it was back to Sweden, where she can try the technical thing again back home.

You add in a generally aging squad, question marks over the next generation (of the 29 players in the current pool, only Kristie Mewis, Sydney Leroux, and Christine Nairn are 22 or younger – with none younger than 21 – and only Leroux has seen any kind of meaningful minutes with the full team), and an interesting group of locker room personalities (see: Solo, Hope), and coaching the U.S. women’s national team may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

And don’t even get me started on a new professional league. Or any professional league. Tom Sermanni, meet Dan Borislow. Dan, meet Coach Sermanni.

Sermanni obviously knew all this before he took the job. Still, he decided to leave the generally cushy Australian position he had held for a decade, where it looked like he was building (or had built) a program that could become something special, with young talent everywhere and a professional league that seems more stable than anything the U.S. has to offer.

He’s familiar with the U.S. system and surely has a long-term plan to make the most of it. Like me, he probably watched the U-20s a couple of months ago, who ironically, did what the full national team did at the Olympics. Against seemingly better technical competition (Germany), the U.S. found a way to win anyway, taking home the title. If Sermanni was watching the same things I was, he might have been impressed by outside back Crystal Dunn, goalkeeper Bryane Heaberlin, Kealia Ohai, Maya Hayes, Morgan Brian, and others. He obviously knows about Lindsay Horan and Morgan Andrews.

But can he integrate them somehow into a system that can keep the ball a little more than in the past few years against teams like Japan, Germany, and France? How long will it take? And what forces on the inside will fight what he wants to do? How long does he stick with it if results start to go against him?

It’s definitely a challenge, one that a now rival coach saw coming two years ago.

The second front has less to do with Sermanni and more to do with the fact that by October of 2012, there isn’t an American woman ready to lead the most important women’s team, well, really in all of women’s athletics in the United States.

How is it possible that four decades after Title IX that there are so few women candidates for this job? Shouldn’t that be construed as a knock on the system? Why aren’t all the players that have enjoyed such success coming back to be coaches?

There were a few female candidates, but the top one – Jill Ellis – took her name out of contention early. Penn St. coach Erica Walsh also showed no interest in the job. I’m a big fan of Carin Jennings-Gabarra, but without real national team experience (and nearly two decades at Navy, which would be tough to leave), this would be a tough undertaking.

It’s been 13 years since the 1999 World Cup, and for whatever reason, very few have gone into the coaching field. The most notable name is obviously Brandi Chastain at Santa Clara. Carla Overbeck would seem like she might have been the name most likely to become the next great U.S. coach, but – with family commitments among other reasons – she has been content to be an assistant at Duke for the last two decades. We all see Julie Foudy and Kate Markgraf on television.

And so here we are. There’s no easy answer, obviously, and it’s not just women’s soccer at the national team level that has this dilemma. Even our local club has started an initiative to find more female graduates to come back to coach the girls teams.

It’s also oversimplifying the problem, though, just to say, ‘There aren’t enough qualified female coaches out there’, and leave it at that. There has to be a, ‘Why?’ that follows. And then maybe by the next time around, after Sermanni has won his second consecutive World Cup in Japan in seven years, there will be an American woman – most likely a former player – that is ready to step in and continue the momentum of the top women’s soccer program in the world.

Oh, and in 2019, Alex Morgan will have led Seattle to its fifth straight WUSA/WPS/WPSL title in front of 25,000 strong, by the way.

For now, the next three years will feature plenty of Soccer Capades, but not much real action on an international scale, which will be very frustrating, but will give Sermanni a chance to fix what needs to be fixed. As unfathomable as that sounds, though, it isn’t as much time as you think. Sermanni basically has only a couple of chances to get it right.

The future of U.S. women’s soccer depends on it.

No pressure, Tom.

 

15 thoughts on “The Sermanni Dilemma: Where Does The USWNT Go From Here?

  1. Adam Chambers

    Ray,

    Great commentary. You touch on all topics that I seem to dwell on while watching and reflecting on the last Olympics, World Cup, and “Soccer Capades”.

    I have to say a women coach would be wonderful, but I am more concerned about fielding a technically and tactically proficient group of soccer players, not athletes, regardless if the coach is a women or a man.

    Therefore, when I am asked around the “water cooler”, am I happy with the USWNT glorious win at the Olympics? I have to say it was a ball to cheer and root for our talented, elegant and supremely hard-working players, but the win was the worst possible outcome. Then, of course I have to explain myself to the puzzled non-soccer playing American fans. That the Japanese and the French, though not the winners of the Olympics are really the ones who have came out on top. Yes, they lost that battle but will surely win the war, with their fluid style of play, technical and tactical prowess. I explain that no matter how “athletic” they are or aren’t, that these teams will eventually trump our brawny brand of “football” (yes I say football). I also explain that US Soccer understands this, and our YNT directors are changing the course of soccer at the youth level. To bring in, perhaps a less “Herculean” athlete, for a more “natural” soccer player that posses vision and skill (though I have yet to see it implemented).

    To that end, your commentary was helpful. I suppose, though I wish I didn’t feel this way, that we as Americans and fans of the “beautiful game” are in for a whole bunch of disappointment in the future.

    Reply
    1. necron99

      It was funny watching the Mobcast Club cup. 2 times Olympique Lyon French D1 champion, 2 times UEFA Women’s Champions League Champion and 85% of the French Women’s National Team, was down 1-0 into the 80th minute to INAC Kobe of the Japanese League with 50% of the Nadeshiko Japanese Women’s National Team. They were being out possessed and chasing the ball. What did Lyon do? They used their size, speed, and strength. Around the 60th minute they started playing rougher with hard tackles, and more shoulder pushing of the INAC players. They pushed from behind on headers. They were aided a bit by the ref who was just not calling that many fouls. They started shooting long balls over the top to outrun the slower INAC defense. And what happened? They scored the equalizer and took it to overtime. In overtime they won a PK and put it home to win the game. After the match their coach Patrice Lair said that they knew they would have to adapt and play more physical using their size and speed to beat the technically superior INAC team.

      There is more than one way to skin a cat. The point of playing the game is to win. Coming in 4th multiple times in a row is not a victory for the French NT. The fact that they have a league that pays 90% of their NT to play together on one team year round and develop chemistry is the win.

      Obviously the USWNT needs to become more technical with stronger short ball control and short passing because that one of the keys to the future of the women’s game. But to abandon our strengths in the name of playing pretty soccer, and trying to beat Barcelona by playing like Bracelona is a fools errand. Even the French can see that.

      Reply
  2. Jersey shore

    It is no surprise that the committee chose a foreigner to coach the USWNT. Gulati always will choose a non American just as he finally got his choice with the men’s side. My suggestion would be to get rid of Gulati and then hire any one of many American coaches who have trained our women for so many years and won . My one question though is why you mention the American U20 players as future stars after saying they were technically inferior to the Germans. Most of them are having mediocre years with their college teams,except for Hayes. Heaberlin can not even get on the field after leaking goals upon her return. Dunn is out of position in the middle, and Brian has not scored in 11games.

    Reply
    1. Ray Curren Post author

      I guess I’m hoping that the American technical staff led by Sermanni can help them. Otherwise, I see what you see. Surprised about Heaberlin, though. And some of it may be fatigue. But lots of work to do. There doesn’t seem to be any Maroszans in that group, surely.

      Reply
    2. Goaleemama

      A team that wins a world cup over a more technical team after soundly losing to them just days earlier surely deserves some notice. I also disagree that “most” of the U-20 players are having mediocre seasons. Here in the west, there is Chi Ubogagu who just scored a goal and an assist in a win against #2 UCLA, and U-20 captain Julie Johnston who is leading in goals scored and tied for 2nd in assists despite missing the first six weeks or so. Johnston has also been WCC and TDS player of the week and has been outstanding, week after week. The UCLA girls may not have impressive stats, but there are also older stars on the team who didn’t miss a third of the season.

      It seems like apples and oranges to compare Maroszan to any US player of the same age. Maroszan is a professional and plays a professional season with other professionals. The only US u-20 player who seems to have gone that route is Lindsey Horan, who has some time to go before she has the experience of Maroszan.

      Personally, I think there is great potential in the U-20 team, and am sure the new coach will be looking at them for the future. Lack of professional opportunity is the biggest concern, in my mind, at this point.

      Reply
  3. Joe Gschwind

    I’m still voting for Christie Rampone! At least someday. Her record with Sky Blue where she took a team that couldn’t keep a coach or win games through the playoffs and to the championship (while pregnant) and won it. She says she would not want to coach players she’s played with, but…
    old Joe Gsch

    Reply
  4. Planopitch

    Athleticism and desire have been the prime drivers of any US soccer success, but we need to be better technically and tactically. At this stage, advancement will more likely be found in an international coach. This is not a matter of gender, it’s a matter of where you learned the game.

    To me, the US will have arrived in soccer when a US born and bred coach in successful with a top flight team in Europe.

    Reply
  5. Jersey shore

    Just saw the All-ACC team selections and guess who is on the first team. That is right Dunn and Brian. I am guessing that Dorrance and Swanson pulled in a lot of favors for those selections. What I can not understand is why the rest of the UNC and UVA players would play for coaches that push their favorites when they do not deserve the awards. Surprisingly, Dunn was defender of the year. Caroline Miller scored 3 of her goals right down the middle against UNC. As for Brian (30 some shots , 0 goals) only 4assists in 11 games. Swanson is famous for pushing a player over his teams success. One just needs to look back 2years with Sinead Farrelly. Guess who is the only top coach in the ACC that has never been to the College Cup? Right again Steve Swanson.

    Reply
    1. Wow

      So was this comment to disagree with the names of the players listed in the article or because someone you wanted listed wasn’t? I thought you were a UVA fan?

      Anyhow, Brian does seem to have come on a bit late (like Friday night) and on some level these awards should be about what you’ve done not your pedigree. I’ll grant you that one does have to wonder at the political selections of first team (non USA Y/WNT members need not apply).

      Reply
  6. Quick As A Flash

    Well said.

    Tom is both deeply respected and liked by his Matilda players. The same will be true for his new team. It is a great choice.

    One of the great oddities of the previous regime is that players not good enough to start in the WPS were still starters for the USWNT. Keeping an aging team together was seen as the way to victory in 2011/12. This short-run strategy was highly successful (resulting in silver and gold) but has left us weakened. An opportunity to develop younger players (some WPS stars) with skills and speed by playing them was lost.

    Tom has been a key player in the development of the W-League in Australia. He is going to do the same in the US, pushing for the best domestic competition that we can develop. And if the financial situation is better in top leagues overseas he is going to encourage more players to try those alternatives.

    He is going to give opportunities to those who prove themselves in competition. He is also going to pick some young prospects and see how quickly he can develop these players. And don’t expect him to be “understanding” with players who put themselves ahead of team. He will want a team that is truly the UNITED states team.

    There will inevitably be stress as older players find they have to give way. Those who hope to continue playing, better get with the new program quickly.

    Reply
  7. Joshua

    “How is it possible that four decades after Title IX that there are so few women candidates for this job? Shouldn’t that be construed as a knock on the system? Why aren’t all the players that have enjoyed such success coming back to be coaches?”

    Title IX has nothing to do the hiring or development of elite level women coaches. Title IX is only for college level athletes at institutions receiving federal funding. Wikipedia for a while had text in it’s “Title IX” article stating that the majority of college and university athletic department administrators and coaches in charge of women’s teams and athletes were men and that the percentage of women administrators and coaches had actually seen a big decline in the last thirty years. That text appears to be gone now. I’d like to find more information on the subject as to whether that is true or not.

    I would say the USSF avoided the issue of the disparity in compensation between that for the USMNT head coach and that for the USWNT head coach from becoming “problematic” by hiring a man (and foreign national at that) to be the USWNT head coach. I seriously doubt Sermanni was hired in at the same salary Jurgen Klinsmann is getting. Forbes On-line has (or had) a small piece listing Klinsmann as the fourth highest paid national men’s soccer head coach in the world, and the twenty-eighth highest for ANY manager or head coach anywhere, meaning what he is getting is comparable or greater to the salaries and perks for most European Premier League Managers. Pia Sundhage appears to have had a salary that was less than 10% of Klinsmann’s as USWNT head coach.

    Reply
  8. Greg

    Germany has Maroszan, we have Christen Press, Sydney Leroux, Lindsey Horan, Mewis, Nairn, Hagen, Henderson and not too long ago some unknown named Alex Morgan. We don’t need to flip out every time another nation produces young talent, we have quite a bit of our own. We don’t need a Maroszan, we’ve got young, technical talent coming through the system.

    Reply
    1. Ray Curren Post author

      I think that’s the big question, can those names do the job in the next decade? I guess we’ll see. No defenders there, either.

      Reply
  9. Joshua

    “Oh, and in 2019, Alex Morgan will have led Seattle to its fifth straight WUSA/WPS/WPSL title in front of 25,000 strong, by the way.”

    I have to wonder how long Alex Morgan will stay on the USWNT when there are so many other more lucrative and financially rewarding options available with her newfound popularity with one million twitter followers and all. Women’s Soccer isn’t like Women’s Tennis where the Maria Sharapovas’, Caroline Wozniackis’, and Serena Williams’ will stay in the game because the prize money is so big. The financial rewards appear to be at best middling in womens’ soccer.

    Reply
  10. Jersey shore

    Wrong is wrong no matter who you cheer for or against. The point I was trying to make is that players are being chosen for the wrong reasons- mainly not performance based but rather who coaches want whether it is being backed by what is happening on the field. Other examples are Bledsoe in goal on the second team (she was not above the 5th ranked keeper in any of the statistics that the ACC keeps) Was she one of the best in 2010 and 2011? Yes, but not in 2012. Personally, I believe Calaprico was better than Brian thru the regular season, but her coach chose not to back her. Also, I believe there should all conference teams picked position by position. Hence pick the best left back, or left midfielder etc, with only eleven players per team, but one that could actually play a game. Not a group with 8 forwards and 2backs & a keeper. I know it probably will not happen but you don’t see 7 QBs on all conference football teams.

    Reply

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