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We Hardly Knew Ye, Tom Sermanni

(NOTE: I wrote this on AWK last November when Tom Sermanni was hired.)

Had he known his job was on the line, it’s likely Tom Sermanni might have had a different mindset heading into the Algarve Cup last month. But with 15 months until his next (and really first) meaningful game at the World Cup in Canada, he was still in the process of trying to find out what he had.

The Algarve Cup has always been an oddity in the women’s soccer world, a tournament played in front of virtually no fans in Portugal, but featuring most of the best teams in the world. Even if you witnessed it online, you were one of the few, it wasn’t even available through ussoccer.com, let alone a cable television network.

Like seemingly everything else historically in women’s soccer, the USWNT has ruled the Algarve, winning 8 of the last 11 coming into the 2014 edition, with two of the non-winning years the result of penalty kicks in the finals. However, although it’s the stiffest competition the United States will likely face until next year’s Algarve, it’s also perhaps the only time a relatively new coach like Sermanni can look at new players in pressure situations (see: actual real live World Cup contenders).

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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.

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U.S.-Brazil Quarterfinal Preview: The Sweeper Is Dead, Long Live The Sweeper

If you’re like me (honestly, hopefully you’re not) and you grew up playing soccer in the United States 20 years ago, you probably played most of the time with a sweeper.

The person behind the back line was essential to a good defense, they were often the team’s best athlete, covered for mistakes that the rest of the defense played, and told the rest of the team where to go.

It was just how you played. Through high school, our teams played in a 4-4-2 with a sweeper, and so did almost everyone else.

(I don’t have time for it here, but you’d be amazed how much of an English flavor there is in U.S. development. We had an English coach, and there were more than a few others around at a time where not many people other than at the highest levels were very versed on the intricacies of soccer.)

About this time (the mid 90s), the sweeper was slowly disappearing from games at the highest level. By the turn of the century, it was just about extinct. Coincidentally, it also happened to be the time when I started coaching soccer. As you might have guessed, my teams most definitely played a 4-4-2 with a sweeper.

But I also began to watch more and more soccer, at least what was available. It’s easy to forget that a decade ago, there wasn’t much soccer on the tube, some MLS, some internationals. As a coach, you start to look at the games a little differently.

Where was the sweeper?

There was no sweeper.

As I started coaching varsity high school and higher level youth games, some teams I played against didn’t have a sweeper, either. I noticed that most of the coaches that didn’t use a sweeper were pretty organized, and people that had played the game on a higher level than I had.

And so in 2003, I set out to learn as much about playing a flat back as I could. My teams have never played with a sweeper since.

(Ironically, for this discussion, this was also the time where I made the switch from coaching predominantly boys teams to predominantly girls teams.)

I’ve come to see how much better the flat back works, especially when trying to teach how to play team defense and how to read the game. Sadly (at least for me), I still play against teams with sweepers all the time, more so on the high school level where the coaches often aren’t experienced or – like me – just played with a sweeper when they were younger and don’t really watch much of the game.

One exception (the only one I had seen over the past few years) was the Nigerian women’s team, who actually did pretty well with the sweeper in 2007, although it often looked chaotic to say the least. You could see the sweeper running in circles last November when Nigeria was bludgeoned by Germany 8-0 in a friendly.

But when Nigeria opened the World Cup two weeks ago, much to my delight, the sweeper was gone, and I remarked “it was, by a pretty wide margin, the most organized display ever by an African side at the Women’s World Cup.”

Nigeria lost that game to France 1-0, but gave up only two goals in three games. If they weren’t in a group with France, Germany, and Canada, they may very well be still with us this weekend.

But just when the sweeper was about to be pronounced dead and Franz Beckenbauer was being found to speak at its funeral, the Brazil women’s team took the field against Australia. The lineup was announced as a 3-4-3, which got my attention, Kleiton Lima was really going to open things up with a formidable trio of Rosana, Cristiane, and – of course – Marta leading the line.

Something looked strange, and about 10 minutes in, Australia played a through ball wide, and Daiane came across from a deep position to win it.

“Boy, they’re playing deep,” I thought.

A few minutes later, it happened again, and the light bulb went off in Julie Foudy’s head at about the same time it did mine.

Daiane was playing as a sweeper and Erika and Aline were marking the two Australian forwards.

Cancel that call to Mr. Beckenbauer, please.

Foudy, like me, has been apoplectic about Brazil’s sweeper system. Just like I see in my games, their defense looks disjointed and completely vulnerable to switches of the field.

But the ultimate proof is in the pudding and the scorelines, and there is only one team that has yet to concede a goal, and that, folks, is Brazil.

Is Kleiton Lima a genius? Has he started a sweeper revolution? Or is it just that he has some of the best players in the world, and he could send them out there without any organization at all, and they still might win.

Unfortunately, my coaching career has also taught me that the teams that have the best players usually win, regardless of set up and anything else a coach can do in a short period of time.

So will the United States be unceremoniously dumped in the quarterfinals. By rival Brazil. Using a sweeper? Oh, the humanity. Everything I believe in rests on this game.

I fear the worst, but like Foudy, I think eventually the sweeper system is going to break down. It might as well be Sunday.

Here are 5 things to look for in Sunday morning’s epic clash between Brazil and the United States:

1) Lima’s tactics seem odd even with a sweeper

It is a 3-4-3, but the front three doesn’t seem to pressure all that much, allowing opponents to keep the ball in their half. When they have pressured, they’ve caused a couple of mistakes, but the only thing I can think is that Lima is afraid that his team isn’t fit enough to run for 90 minutes, particularly if it’s a hot day.
Also, I guess he figures his team is set up to counter well, so if they do get the ball they can come at opponents with their front three, with Maurine and Fabiana joining them.
The problem I’ve seen (and Brazil has scored only once in the first half, and that was a controversial goal against Norway) is that Brazil’s formation has turned into a 5-2-3 at times, which makes it very tough for them to get forward. To take advantage of this, the U.S. will need its central midfielders to play well and will need to get someone (Heather O’Reilly?) to run at Brazilian defenders in wide areas. But we’ll see.

2) There’s some history there

It seems everyone (me included) remembers the 2007 embarrassment more than any other, but the U.S. – minus Abby Wambach – came back and knocked off Brazil for the gold medal at the 2008 Olympics back in China on Carli Lloyd’s overtime goal. Jacqueline Purdy of ESPN (whom most of you at this site know) had this excellent piece on the rest of the history between the two teams, and why it’s likely the best rivalry in women’s soccer.

3) The 2008 team has some names you’ll recognize, but some differences, too

There were two major factors why the U.S. was able to prevail three years ago. One is in No. 4, but the other was the aforementioned fitness. If you remember, Brazil got very tired at the end of regulation and it only got worse in extra time.
The U.S. back four will feature only one of the four that played in 2008, Christie Rampone. The other three were Heather Mitts and Lori Chalupny (boy, did the U.S. miss her against Sweden. While the media has generally done a decent job, the fact that the Chalupny story hasn’t been more reported is very, very surprising) on the outside and Kate Markgraf joining Rampone in the middle. So things have changed in the back more than you’d think. The only difference in the midfield was Lindsay Tarpley starting at left mid, but Lauren Cheney did come on in the 71st minute at that spot, and played a part in the winning goal. Many people (me included) forget that.
With Wambach out, it was Angela Hucles who led the U.S. in scoring at the Olympics.
Statistically, Brazil outshot the U.S. 15-10, but had a 15-3 edge in corners, which is a bit scary, even if it was three years ago.

4) Hope Solo may be the biggest advantage the U.S. has

As you probably know by now, I’m not Solo’s biggest fan off the field, but on the field she’s the best goalkeeper in the world, and – if this World Cup is any indication – it’s not real close.
She can’t be faulted for either Swedish goal (although she did not come out on an early breakaway when she probably should have), and has looked confident for the most part, at least more confident than Andreia at the other end. It wouldn’t be shocking if a goalkeeper mistake was the difference.

5) So what lineup for Pia Sundhage?

Really, your guess is as good as mine. There are so many questions. Here are the definite starters: Wambach, Cheney, Rampone, Krieger, Lloyd, Solo.
That’s all, folks.
So there are five positions that we probably won’t know until Sunday morning, also scary.
O’Reilly will start if healthy at right mid, and if she’s not, I expect it to be Megan Rapinoe, I don’t think Sundhage would go to Kelly O’Hara to start.
In looking at lineups from the last few years, an interesting one was May of last year, when the U.S. crushed Germany 4-0 in Cleveland. The center back pairing that day was Amy LePeilbet and Rachel Buehler, with Ali Kreiger (Heather Mitts played the first half) and Stephanie Cox on the outside. Does Sundhage drop Buehler, put LePeilbet in the middle, with either Cox or Mitts (who we haven’t seen yet) on the left? Not out of realm of possibility.
I really think Lori Lindsey starts for Boxx in midfield, and I think that’s the right decision, although my dream is still a 4-3-3.
Which puts us at forward. I thought Amy Rodriguez had a good first half (and she nearly scored), but she was replaced for Alex Morgan. I really can’t see Morgan starting, but I’m not sure what Rodriguez’s confidence is right now. But if there’s someone that can move around and drag Brazil’s marking defenders all over the field, I’m sure it’s got to be Rodriguez.
So if it’s me (and you forced me to go 4-4-2):


Unfortunately, as I said, is just may come down to the fact that Brazil has better attacking players. But they did in 2008, too, and don’t underestimate how important the goalkeeper will be in this matchup. It may not be pretty, but I think the U.S. can get this done with superior aerial ability and a chance to wear down Brazil as the game goes on.

I hope I’m not out on a wing and a prayer.

Prediction: United States 2-1 (aet)

Elsewhere (times EDT):


England vs. France, Noon
This will probably come down to whether France can handle the pressure. Most of these players have played in the Champions League, but this is another level of pressure in front of the whole world (sadly, the whole world isn’t watching the women’s Champions League yet).
I think Bruno Bini tried some things against Germany, like starting Wendie Renard for instance, that just didn’t work. Marie-Laure Delie is for real, and I think she’ll prove that again, no matter how good England looked against Japan.
Prediction: France 3-1

Germany vs. Japan, 2:45 p.m.
Japan has very skilled players and I would like to pick them, but I think this is probably the worst team they could have drawn, and not just because they’re the hosts.
Germany will surely impose itself physically on this game, and I’m not sure the Japanese will have an answer. But give Japan too many set pieces near their goal, and the Germans will be asking for big trouble.
Prediction: Germany 2-0


Sweden vs. Australia, 7 a.m.
To best describe Australia, I have to go back to the Bad News Bears when the hated Yankees begrudgingly gave the Bears a little respect, “We still don’t think you’re all that good a baseball team, but you got guts. All of ya.”
Australia’s got guts, all of them, whomever Tom Sermanni throws out there. And it might be enough to get the Aussies to a surprise semifinal.
Prediction: 1-1 (Australia advances in penalties)

Women’s World Cup – Things We Learned : Day 8

I spent most of the Brazil-Norway match trying to figure out what formation Brazil was playing, what their movement was. For the most part, I was baffled.

Were there three true forwards? Was it a diamond formation in the midfield? Were they using a true sweeper, or did Daiane come up sometimes and just look like a sweeper when the other team had the ball?

I forgot, though, what a legendary high school basketball coach used to tell me after his team won (he’s actually better than he gives himself credit for, but the point is still valid).

“Talent is the divider. You can’t win without talent.”

And, in the end, as frustrating as it for analysts and armchair coaches like me, Brazil may win the World Cup because they have the best players. Occam’s Razor lives again.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two (or 10), and here are the 10 things we learned in Day 8 of Germany 2011.

1) There are some things that defy explanation

Gyoengyi Gaal is one of the top referees in the world. She is the first female ref to officiate men’s professional games in her home country of Hungary, she did a quarterfinal (and third place involving the U.S.) match in the 2007 World Cup and semifinal in Euro 2009. It stands to reason that she would be picked for a semifinal in this tournament, or even (gulp) the final.
Which makes the incident today in the Australia-Equatorial Guinea match even more bizarre. I’m sure you’ve seen it by now, and my immediate thoughts were trying to figure out what happened. But after a few seconds, it hits you, “What the heck was that?”
I’m not sure what Gaal was thinking. I’m not sure she knows what she was thinking. It was just one of those brainfreezes that everyone gets every once in a while. Unfortunately, it happened in front of the whole world.
At least in this U-20 game at last year’s World Cup, the ref had an inkling that the ball might be out of bounds.

2) Unfortunately for Gaal, it was a poorly officiated game, even taking out the handball

Again, this is not a personal attack against Gaal, and it should be pointed out that officials are graded all the way up, so she must be a very good referee to get as far as she did, but it wasn’t her day.
People complain that referees that hand out too many cards have lost control of the match, but sometimes – as it was today – that’s precisely what the game needs. Equatorial Guinea should have been a shown a couple of cards early, and then if they continue to foul repeatedly, you have to send people off. Otherwise, you get what you had today, a chippy hackfest which is ugly to watch. And this was ugly.

3) Genoveva Anonma wasn’t nearly as likable today

Which is kind of sad, because she did score twice and almost singlehandedly keep her team in the game. But she also was petulant with the opponents, the officials, and – on a couple of occasions, it appeared – her own teammates, as she didn’t think about passing too much.
Part of the frustration for Equatorial Guinea seemed like the formation. Marcello Frigerio changed to a 3-6-1, and it didn’t seem like his team got it.

4) Australia is dangerous, but very young

I found this interview with Leena Khamis, who was probably Women of the Match today, interesting. It’s not like the men’s game, where most of the stars will make plenty of money to retire on in the game.

You saw the best and the worst of Australia today, young players like Samantha Kerr and Emily van Egmond (whose finish n the winning goal was underrated), but you saw young Servet Uzunlar make two giant mistakes in the back, too.
If I’m the U.S., I’d probably want to play Australia rather than Norway because of that, but in the quarterfinals, I guess you take whatever comes your way.

5) Australia with Kate Gill might be a threat to go a long way

It’s easy to forget that Australia is without Kate Gill, the 2010 Asian Player of the Year. Gill, at 26, would figure to be in her prime for this tournament, too, but went down with a knee injury in the spring. We shall see, but that might be the difference for Australia against Norway on Wednesday.

6) Brazil has Marta and no one else does

As I said in the open, we can talk about tactics until we’re blue in the face, but Marta can do so much just by being Marta. You can make a pretty strong argument that there was a foul on the first goal, but she basically created two goals by herself, and that’s the difference in any match, in any round.
Marta is now tied with Michelle Akers for most goals ever (12) at the World Cup, and if she doesn’t break it against Equatorial Guinea, it’s likely because she was rested.
The great thing about soccer is that you can scheme all you want to stop her – and people will the rest of the tournament – but it probably won’t work.

7) Kleiton Lima may be a tactical genius, but probably not

His deep sweeper 3-4-3 looking formation has two wins and two clean sheets in the first two matches, and you can’t knock the numbers, but I’m concluding: a) he has some pretty darn good players to work with; and b) he just hasn’t faced an attack that will give him much trouble yet.
The thing that bothered me even more than the sweeper was the lack of pressure in the opponents’ half. Maybe Lima feels like his team isn’t in shape to chase, maybe he just wants to counter, but Cristiane pressured about three times, almost caused mistakes, and finally did on Brazil’s third goal. Maybe he wasn’t watching the rest of the tournament?
But he’s 2-0, and I’m not.

8 ) There were probably two fouls on the lead up to Marta’s first goal

I’d probably say Marta fouled Nora Holstad Berge, although I can see why it wasn’t given. The bigger issue for me was upfield, where Emilie Haavi just seemed to get dumped by Erika in the Brazil third, and Kari Seitz saw nothing wrong with it. Such is life.

9) Brazil is capable of levels that no other team can reach

That three minute span coming out of halftime that saw Brazil score twice? Ridiculous. If you get Marta clicking with Cristiane and Rosana, look out. Obviously, you don’t have to tell the United States that, they saw it in 2007.

10) Norway might have enough to give Australia problems

Athletically, you give Australia the advantage, but Norway did get some chances in the second half by getting the ball forward, and I already mentioned the youth in the Australian team, you wonder if they can hold it together against an onslaught of corner kicks and balls into the box. The first goal will be extremely important in that match.


Tom Sermanni = class act

How many coaches would have completely flipped out on the non-penalty kick call? But Sermanni didn’t, and his team – as is often the case – followed his demeanor, they stayed calm enough to get through it and eventually, they got their three points.