Tom Sermanni was shocked by his firing as USWNT coach. (AP)

Gulati: Sermanni’s firing based on ‘underlying issues,’ but questions remain

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Tom Sermanni is as surprised as anyone by his dismissal from U.S. women’s soccer head coaching duties.

He was, after all, 18-2-4 in his 15-month tenure at the helm of the world’s No. 1 team. But results weren’t the heart of the issue, according to U.S. Soccer president Sunil Gulati. A difference in philosophies on where the team is headed ultimately cost the Scotsman his job, which is what caught him most off-guard.

“I wasn’t aware of any major issues around the place, and perhaps that was my lack of insight,” Sermanni told NBC Sports. “I don’t know; it wasn’t something that I had on the radar. I thought the team was headed in the right direction and we were building up a strong squad.”

Gulati, however, said U.S. Soccer “needed to go in a different direction.” The news was delivered shortly after the U.S. women defeated China 2-0 on Sunday in the first of two friendlies this week. It comes a month after the Americans saw their 43-game unbeaten streak snapped, and endured their first three-game winless streak in 13 years after an ugly display at the Algarve Cup.

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Tom Sermanni had no idea he was even on the hot seat. (Getty Images)

But that tumultuous week in Portugal – which included a historic 5-3 loss to Denmark – wasn’t the problem, Gulati said Monday. There were “underlying issues” that were both stylistic and personality-driven.

Sermanni guided the team to an unbeaten 2013 record, but more importantly gave young players – and previously uncapped veterans – chances that they previously didn’t get. He was willing to make changes consistently and try new pairings and formations.

And ultimately, that could be what cost him his job.

“Change can cause discontent, generally, of course,” on an individual level, Gulati said.

He says that there was no player uprising nor one specific event that led to Sermanni’s firing, and reiterated praise for Sermanni’s upstanding character.

“This isn’t a group of players coming and seeking us out.”

The U.S. women excelled under former coach Pia Sundhage, whose greatest trait was managing a group of superstars and maintaining just enough collective chemistry to make them all gel. Gulati reiterated that Sermanni is a “class guy.”

Sundhage was a free spirit, and there was a perception that players, on the whole, admired her as more than a coach, but a friend. There was camaraderie and chemistry. Sermanni is laid back as well, but in his own way.

“Tom does have a unique style and Pia’s is very different,” Gulati said. “What I would say is the demand both of all of us for the women’s program, and in some way of the women’s team itself, fits very well with certain styles and not so well with, perhaps, other styles.

“But that’s also individual players. It’s rare that everyone in a particular team finds a style that they buy into, but it’s important that they collectively buy into the direction and how you are moving forward, and we had some concerns there.”

Somewhere along the line, though, the powers that be – Gulati, USSF CEO Dan Flynn, and at least some players – lost faith in Sermanni’s still-developing vision.

Sermanni’s implementation of new talent like 21-year-olds Crystal Dunn and Morgan Brian look like they will both pay immediate dividends at the 2015 World Cup and in several cycles to follow. One eye on winning now, one eye on development – that was the message when Sermanni was hired, and that was what, on the surface, he was doing.

“We wanted someone who could continue to guide the women’s national team at a high level and keep us at the right place internationally, which is right now at the top, and also to become involved in a broader scope on player development,” Gulati said on Oct. 31, 2012, when Sermanni was announced as the new U.S. coach.

Those comments came after a two-month search that involved over 30 qualified candidates.

Gulati on Monday didn’t deny that player development is always part of the job, regardless of who is coaching or when. The search for a new coach is already underway and could take several weeks or more. Just as she did when Sundhage left in 2012, Jill Ellis will serve as interim coach, starting Thursday when the U.S. plays China again in San Diego (11 p.m. ET, NBCSN & Live Extra).

Sermanni said he was previously unaware of any discontent among players, but he “would doubt if it was just solely Sunil” who made the decision to fire him.

“I stand to be corrected, but I’m an open communicator with players over the last 16 months or so, whether in individual meetings or casual meetings. I’ve certainly stated from Day 1 that if players did have any issues, whether they be soccer-related or other, that my door was always open.”

Players have been noticeably silent since the coaching change, with only goalkeeper Hope Solo tweeting a departing thank you to Sermanni as of Monday afternoon:

ESPN’s Julie Foudy reports that players were instructed not to use social media to address the firing.

Seven or eight players visited Sermanni after the news dropped, the Scotsman said, and a few others sent emails.

The United States women’s program continues to be a paradox. “Win now” will always be a priority, and that’s how it is for any of the world’s best teams, male or female. The team’s No. 1 priority is to win the 2015 World Cup. That’s been the goal since the U.S. women walked off the field on July 17, 2011, after losing to Japan in the World Cup final. The Olympics, which the Americans have championed three consecutive times, pale in comparison to the World Cup.

But this is a team in transition, marked by a core group of veterans and a promising batch of early-20-somethings who continued to get looks under Sermanni.

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Tom Sermanni talks to Jill Ellis, who will serve as interim USWNT coach. Could she take over permanently? (Getty Images)

When games kick off in Canada next summer, it will have been 16 years since the U.S. last won a World Cup.  Yet this team, by however funny a system, has been ranked No. 1 in the world for the last six years.

Without a doubt, the recent small stretch of results raised concern for how 2015 would play out.

But struggles will happen within any team – “there are bumps in the road,” Sermanni reasoned Monday after a short few hours to sleep on the news – and they happen to even the best. That 2011 U.S. team was the last of 16 to qualify for the World Cup after lethargic performances throughout 2010 gave way to a qualifying mishap (Sundhage kept her job then, by the way).

Germany goalkeeper Nadine Angerer, the reigning FIFA World Player of the Year and two-time World Cup winner, doesn’t make much of her American rivals’ recent struggles.

“The first eight teams in the world, they are so close, everybody can beat everybody — [it is] details that decide winning or losing,” Angerer said last week. “So the U.S. didn’t have a good tournament; in 2007 we finished in eighth place at the Algarve Cup and won the World Cup so it doesn’t matter.”

Sermanni is moving on graciously, returning to his home in Los Angeles to figure out what’s next. He calls himself a “philosophical person,” and says he’ll evaluate what he could have done better in his year and a half at the helm of the U.S.

“The reality of a head coaching career is that tomorrow you could be out of a job and there might never be another job that props up for you. This is the first time in 25 years that I’ve ever been let go from a job. It’s a new experience for me.”

What’s next for the U.S. women will be a highly-scrutinized 14-month build-up to the World Cup in Canada, under a yet-to-be-determined coach. Whether or not this decision pays off won’t be known until July 5, 2015 – the World Cup final in Vancouver. But the ramifications will resonate well beyond that, for better or worse.

17-year-old Donnarumma could leave AC Milan over contract dispute

ROME, ITALY - FEBRUARY 13:  AC Milan goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma gestures during the Serie A match between SS Lazio and AC Milan at Stadio Olimpico on February 13, 2017 in Rome, Italy.  (Photo by Paolo Bruno/Getty Images)
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AC Milan has developed a teenage sensation, but they might not be able to keep him.

Young goalkeeping sensation Gianluigi Donnarumma could find himself on the open market this summer after reports that his agent Mino Raiola has balked at AC Milan’s contract offer.

Donnarumma is just 17 years old and has been hailed as the successor to Gianluigi Buffon’s goalkeeping throne, earning the first-place job at one of Europe’s biggest clubs this season. However, according to Italian publication Calcio Mercato, Milan offered Donnarumma just $2.6 million a year, while Raiola is reportedly seeking twice that.

Milan’s caution is understandable given Donnarumma’s extremely youth at a position that usually sees players rise and fall at a later age, but the teenager has already become a sensation in Italy, and Railoa is looking to capitalize on his popularity.

However, it’s not just sensationalism that Raiola is hoping to pounce on. According to Squawka Statistics’ Performance Index, Donnarumma has performed as the second-best goalkeeper in Serie A this season behind Wojciech Szczesny. If AC Milan doesn’t wish to pay its young star, it’s likely that someone out there will – rather handsomely.

Premier League money could be enticing for both the player and his agent who has already made a fortune negotiating big-money deals for the likes of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Paul Pogba, Mario Balotelli, and plenty others. Manchester City could be after a young goalkeeper to challenge the struggling Claudio Bravo, while the Manchester United sticks could be left vacant if David De Gea ever makes his way to Spain as is annually rumored.

Either way, Donnarumma deserves to be paid, based both on his fantastic performances this season at the San Siro and the subsequent popularity he has gained as the successor to one of the games great goalkeepers.

Europa League: Spurs sent packing, Ajax advances, Gladbach comes back

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 23:  Harry Kane of Tottenham Hotspur reacts during the UEFA Europa  League Round of 32 second leg match between Tottenham Hotspur and KAA Gent at Wembley Stadium on February 23, 2017 in London, United Kingdom.  (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)
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Tottenham Hotspur was sent home in the Europa League Round of 32 after a 2-2 draw with Belgian side Gent at Wembley Stadium, leaving them down 3-2 on aggregate.

Christian Eriksen and Victor Wanyama scored for Spurs, but the road back was too long after Dele Alli was sent off in the 39th minute for a horrible challenge on Brecht Dejaegere that left the referee with no choice but to show the English international the first straight red card of his career.

With Spurs down to 10 men for the majority of the match, they were still able to press forward and pummel the Gent penalty area, but they wasted chances and were open on the counter, and that’s how they struck. With Spurs leading 2-1 and pressing for the third they needed to advance, Jeremy Prebert followed up his goal in the first leg with one in the second, punishing Spurs for throwing men forward to settle things in the 82nd minute.

Elsewhere, Ajax advanced thanks to a goal from Nick Viergever who bagged the only score of either leg in the 49th minute after Legia Warsaw goalkeeper Arkadiusz Malarz spilled an initial shot from Amin Younes. The Dutch side is through to the Round of 16 for the second time in the last three years.

Fiorentina held a 1-0 lead over Borussia Monchengladbach after the first leg, and they scored twice in the first half of the second leg, but the German side shattered that with a remarkable comeback. Finding themselves down 3-0, Gladbach scored four times in 16 minutes to put themselves into the Round of 16 on a 4-3 aggregate score. Lars Stindl was the man of the hour, as he scored a hat-trick, including one from the penalty spot to start the comeback. The incredible stunt was completed by an Andreas Christensen header in the 60th minute, and Gladbach held on from there to advance.

AS Roma eased into the Round of 16 thanks to their huge first-leg advantage, falling 1-0 to Villareal but still advancing 4-1 on aggregate.

Anderlecht clung on to a Round of 16 place in thrilling fashion despite falling 3-1 to Zenit St. Petersburg, moving on thanks to an away goal after a 3-3 aggregate draw. 24-year-old Swede Isaac Kiese Thelin scored in the 90th minute in Russia to give Anderlecht the away goal it needed.

Lyon obliterated Dutch side AZ Alkmaar 7-1 en route to a huge 11-2 aggregate victory. Nabil Fekir scored a hat-trick, while Maxwel Cornet, Sergi Darder, Houssem Aouar, Mouctar Diakhaby all bagged goals as well to put the French club through with ease.

Cypriot club Apoel Nicosia earned a come-from-behind berth in the Round of 16 despite being reduced to 10 men with a half-hour to go. After a 3-2 defeat in Spain, they scored two at home to beat Athletic Bilbao 2-0 and advance 4-3 on aggregate. Pieros Soteriou and Giannis Gianniotas scored before the hour mark, and while Soteriou was sent off for a second yellow in the 65th minute, Apoel held on for the slim win as Athletic needed two more to advance.

Celta Vigo completed a comeback over Ukranian giants Shakhtar Donetsk. Down 1-0 after the first leg in Spain, Celta hit the road and seemed on its way out until Iago Aspas hit from the penalty spot in injury time, forcing extra time where they scored again via Gustavo Cabral which saw them through.

The Round of 16 draw will be Friday at 7 a.m. ET, while the matches begin on March 9th.

RESULTS(team in bold advances)

Tottenham 2-2 KAA Gent
AS Roma 0-1 Villareal
Fiorentina 2-4 Borussia Monchengladbach
Ajax 1-0 Legia Warsaw
Zenit St. Petersburg 3-1 Anderlecht
Shakhtar Donetsk 0-2 Celta Vigo (AET)
Lyon 7-1 AZ Alkmaar
Osmanlispor 0-3 Olympiakos
Apoel Nicosia 
2-0 Athletic Bilbao
FC Copenhagen 0-0 Ludogorets
Racing Genk 1-0 Astra Giurgiu
Sparta Prague 1-1 FC Rostov
Besiktas 
2-1 Hapoel Be’er Sheva

How Twitter reacted to Leicester City firing Claudio Ranieri

SEVILLE, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 22:  Claudio Ranieri, manager of Leicester City reacts on the touchline during the UEFA Champions League Round of 16 first leg match between Sevilla FC and Leicester City at Estadio Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan on February 22, 2017 in Seville, Spain.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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Claudio Ranieri was fired by Leicester City on Thursday, just a point above the relegation zone a season removed from one of the most improbable title runs in sports history.

While there’s been noise of the possibility for weeks, the decision still uncorked plenty of emotions from people in England and around the world. Just as the title did less than a year ago, people had strong feelings about Leicester’s choice to remove its best-ever manager.

Some suggested that winning the Premier League is now a tainted award, with the last two managers to win (Mourinho, Ranieri) both fired during the following season. Others expressed rage towards Leicester City for treating a legend of the game so harshly so soon after his incredible accomplishment.

[ MORE: Firing Claudio Ranieri was the correct decision ]

Some still suggested that the decision was correct, and still does not take away from what last season brought the Premier League history books.

See the most notable takes on what remains a controversial move by the Foxes:

Claudio Ranieri dug his own grave at Leicester City

BOURNEMOUTH, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 13:  Christian Fuchs of Leicester City reacts during the Premier League match between AFC Bournemouth and Leicester City at the Vitality Stadium on December 13, 2016 in Bournemouth, England.  (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
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Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri admitted last week that he’s been too loyal to his title-winning players who aren’t performing up to standards this season. He followed that up by handing starting spots to out-of-form Christian Fuchs, Jamie Vardy, and Wes Morgan in the Champions League loss to Sevilla.

Now Ranieri has been sacked. It’s a sad story, but it’s easy to see why.

Should the eventual replacement truly hope to salvage Leicester City’s Premier League status, he must do what Ranieri failed to, and what he will be better equipped to do: put aside loyalties built from overachieving last season and and sit both Fuchs and Morgan, two critical players from last season’s incredible run who have sorely underperformed since. Just against Sevilla on Wednesday, Morgan gave away a blatant penalty with an ugly, petulant hack at Joaquin Correa’s legs, while Fuchs completely misjudged a cross en route to Pablo Sarabia’s opening goal.

Both have been equally as miserable in Premier League play. Morgan, the Leicester City captain, has looked every bit of his 33 years old, lumbering around the pitch unable to keep up with attackers slicing through the box. His successful tackle percentage is just 33%, and his pass accuracy is 69%, a shambolic combination for a defender. Fuchs, meanwhile, has been just as bad. Turning 31 himself in April, Fuchs was one of the worst players on the pitch in the 3-0 loss to Manchester United, and was yanked at halftime in the 2-0 loss to Swansea as he continued to struggle.

It’s surprising that Ranieri had kept faith in the two players after his comments on loyalty. One of the truest managers to his word in European soccer, the Italian said two weeks ago, “I could be [too loyal], could be. It is difficult when you achieve something so good, you want to give them one chance, two chances, three chances. Maybe now, it is too much. Of course I must change something because it is not possible to continue in this way.” He never backed up his words.

They say the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. Ranieri had started his two aging defenders time and time again hoping they will recapture last season’s lightning. That’s flat out not happening. Just prior to Ranieri’s comments on loyalty, I wrote about how the failing defense was most responsible for this season’s struggles. Since that moment, despite both the obvious shortcomings of which were written and the manager’s statement on failing loyalty, nothing has changed.

Now, after they struggled again midweek, the two must sit immediately to avoid the otherwise inevitable. The last time Christian Fuchs started the game on the bench was the last time Leicester City won in the league, when young Ben Chilwell started at left-back and the Foxes shut out West Ham. Wes Morgan hasn’t sat a single minute in Premier League play, but he was rested for an FA Cup win over Derby County plus the subsequent loss to Millwall.

No, the manager can’t step out on the field and perform. He must be judged by the players he puts on the pitch, his tactics on the field, and his man-management off the pitch. Ranieri will always have last season, but he never left the title run behind. With Fuchs and Morgan – and to an extend Vardy as well – failing to perform to the standards of a Premier League team, Ranieri failed to leave last season in context and base his decisions in the present on what stared him right in the face.

Obviously this won’t solve the problem up front, with the Foxes still goalless in league play since Islam Slimani‘s winner against West Ham an appalling 610 minutes ago. The midfield is being overrun, the attack can’t deliver a competent cross, and set pieces appear to be the only time Leicester looks dangerous. Still, if the Foxes are to give themselves a chance of survival, now it’s up to the new manager to do what is right.

Claudio Ranieri will always be remembered for what he was able to achieve rather than what he was not. There’s plenty that isn’t his fault: the full makeup of the squad, the sale of N'Golo Kante, the failure by the board to truly spend the newfound coffers wisely. The end to the Italian’s Leicester City story is a sad, harsh one, but he only has himself to blame.