By CAITLIN MURRAY
On a sunny Sunday afternoon in Denver, U.S. Women’s National Team head coach Tom Sermanni led the team to a 2-0 victory over China. He didn’t know it, but that was his last game as USWNT coach. Shortly thereafter, U.S. Soccer President Sunil Gulati and CEO Dan Flynn fired him.
“After the game, I had a meeting with Sunil and Dan Flynn and they basically said they didn’t think things were working out in regard to the team, how it was progressing and how it was being managed, and they had to go into another direction,” Sermanni told SBI by phone Sunday night, hours after the announcement.
“They didn’t go into any specific reason, but they just felt things weren’t going well within the team. The progress wasn’t where they wanted it to be and things within the team environment weren’t working.”
The news stunned fans and media – Sermanni, hired only 16 months earlier with a contract through 2016, had a record of 18-2-4 and there were no hints anything was amiss. But Sermanni, he said, was just as stunned, too.
“It came as a surprise to me. I’ll be honest,” Sermanni said. “I didn’t perceive that there were issues – I didn’t feel that within the playing group. But maybe my perception let me down and things happened that I wasn’t aware of. I didn’t sense the players weren’t on board with the direction that we were trying to go in, but perhaps I was wrong.”
“I was surprised by the decision, I can’t deny that, but I’m not walking away angry with it. That happens in soccer. I was surprised with it because I did genuinely feel that we were moving in the right direction.”
Sermanni inherited the USWNT fresh off winning gold at the London Olympics and immediately put his stamp on the program. He capped 12 new players and fielded almost a new line-up per game as he shifted minutes from veterans to rookies.
“I don’t know if perhaps the fact that I changed things around, which is a bit alien particularly to the U.S. culture, may have been a factor in the decision,” he said.
But that’s the kind of coach U.S. Soccer hired in January 2013. As Sermanni put it: “In talking to the federation, part of their reason for hiring me was my ability to regenerate a team.”
Sermanni had been lauded for transforming the Australian women’s national team program during his eight-year tenure there. Before leaving for the U.S., he helped Australia reach their highest-ever FIFA ranking of 9th place, which they have since lost and now sit in 11th.
The Australian squad is going through their own coach woes. Players have reportedly “revolted” against Sermanni’s replacement, Hesterine de Reus, calling for her ouster, according to a report out of Australia this week.
Asked if Sermanni would go back to Australia or consider staying in the U.S. at the club level, Sermanni said he was open-minded.
“I’m not sure. Coaching is one of those professions where you never quite know what opportunity is around the corner – or if there are, in fact, any opportunities around the corner,” Sermanni said with a laugh. “I’ll just go back to L.A. tomorrow and get my thoughts together and see what happens from there.”
“Soccer’s a bit funny. Sometimes you’re in a situation where you’re actually looking at potential openings that might pop up. I haven’t really been looking at that. I’ve been totally focused on this job and this position.”
Sermanni said he had no idea who U.S. Soccer will replace him with or if a replacement is lined up yet, but said he hopes the “terrific staff” he had remains in place.
In his relatively short tenure with the Americans, Sermanni lost just two games. Both were during last month’s Algarve Cup and both set dubious milestones for the team.
First, the USWNT snapped a 43-game unbeaten streak in a 1-0 loss against Sweden, coached by Pia Sundhage, who Sermanni replaced when she left the U.S. for her homeland. Sundhage had started the unbeaten streak. Then, the USWNT allowed a record five goals in a 5-3 loss to Denmark, a team that is not considered a powerhouse in women’s soccer.
It was the only major blip for Sermanni when it came to results, but the timing of his dismissal suggests it could have played a role in U.S. Soccer’s decision. The USWNT placed seventh overall in the annual tournament, their worst ever.
“I don’t know if that came into the equation,” Sermanni said. “That could’ve been part of it. I think we were all frustrated with the results. But I think I analyze performances quite critically, regardless of results.”
“I honestly thought in the Algarve Cup that we had one of those tournaments where things didn’t go right on the field results-wise, but the performances, particularly against Japan and Sweden, were promising and showed we were actually going in the right direction.”
But the Algarve Cup was a small piece of his tenure. Speaking to SBI, he wondered whether players had an issue with his “very open” coaching style, which he said is about talking through things with the squad rather than giving them orders.
Whatever it was that led U.S. Soccer to cut his time short, Sermanni said he is disappointed, but harbors no hard feelings.
“I feel incredibly privileged to have been in this position and a little disappointed and sad that I’m not able to continue and finish the job,” he said. “I wouldn’t have taken the job on if I didn’t want to see it through to the conclusion.”